This is NOT federalism, Mr. Prime Minister

While PM Modi pays lip service to ‘cooperative federalism’, he promotes centralisation of all power at the PMO and is flirting with the Constitution

This is NOT federalism, Mr. Prime Minister

Shaileshwar Yadav & Aditya B Purie

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently reiterated in the Rajya Sabha, while seemingly refuting Rahul Gandhi on the issue of federalism, “We have talked about cooperative and comparative federalism... we are promoting it…creation of the GST Council is a prime example of federalism in India.” PM Modi reiterated his government’s vision to promote federalism and said that while the nation could be divided into states for administrative purposes, it still remains one nation.

He has time and again spoken of cooperative federalism. During his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat also, he spoke eloquently on federalism and the importance of states in the federal structure. But ever since he assumed the office of the Prime Minister, one finds a widening gulf between his words and deeds.

Debates on Article 1 in the Constituent Assembly show that the general mood of the Constitutional fathers was to single out federalism as essential for the polity. Even Dr. Ambedkar, while presenting the draft Constitution, called it a federal constitution.

The federal structure, however, has come under increasing stress because of the assertive policies pursued by the Union Government. The policies, while superficially constitutional, are assaults on federalism and the spirit of democracy. This has led critics to allege that the PM is promoting combative and confrontational, not cooperative, federalism.

When the Union government announced a nation-wide lockdown in the wake of the pandemic, there was no consultation with the states. The lockdown led to the worst possible migrant crisis in the world, denied by the Union Government but which led to both confusion and confrontation with the states.

Subtle shifts in policy have also led to systematic erosion of federalism. The recent move of the Union government to change the Indian Administrative Services (Cadre) Rules, 1954 drew flak from various states, including West Bengal, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The proposal aims to give the Centre greater control over the deputation of IAS officers - the power to requisition and relieve officers for central deputation without the consent of the state governments concerned. Around 109 former civil servants, while opposing these changes, called the move to be ‘arbitrary, unreasonable and unconstitutional.’

However, this isn’t the first such attempt to undermine the autonomy of states - the current Union government has done it time and again. The union government had attempted to intervene in the Constitutional domain of the states by introducing the ‘Farm Laws’ (withdrawn now) under the umbrella of ‘One nation’ - a pet project of the PM to homogenise the country. One of these laws empowered the Union to disallow states to levy market fees or cess outside the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee.

Financially weakening the States: Demonetisation was again an unprecedented step taken without taking the states into confidence. It brought the economy to a grinding halt and dealt a blow to the revenue of the states. This was followed by the GST - which the PM ironically cites as a prime example of federalism. The GST left the states at the Union government’s mercy- recent reports indicate that around Rs. 2.06 trillion worth of GST compensation to the states remains due for the period AprilNovember 2021. The GST Council,which the PM cited as a shining example of federalism, is loaded against the states and the Union has frequently ignored or overruled their concern.

A recent report by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy shows that there has been excessive use of centrally sponsored schemes. It was found that the Union government uses the CSSs to dictate policy initiatives that generally lie within the legislative competence of state governments. The CSSs reduce the autonomy of state governments and exhausts funds of states, which are compelled to provide proportionate funding for schemes they themselves may not have played any role in framing.

Political vendetta and dissent: The Union government has also bared its fangs to muzzle dissent. Though law and order is a state subject, autonomy of the states has been compromised by the Union invoking the UAPA and sending in the National Investigation Agency into the states. The excessive and disproportionate use of agencies like CBI, ED, IT has led eight states, namely Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, and Mizoram, to withdraw their general consent to the CBI.

In S.R. Bommai vs Union of India, the Supreme Court observed that states are not mere appendages of the Union; they are supreme in their spheres. However, the Modi government has time and again tried usurping power of the state governments. In 2016, President’s Rule was imposed in Arunachal Pradesh on Republic Day. Later, the apex court intervened to restore the state government with Nabam Tuki as the CM.

Further, the Supreme Court in Government of NCT Delhi vs. Union of India decided that CM and not the Lieutenant Governor (LG) being the executive head of the government of NCT, the LG was bound to act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, the Centre brought the GNCTD Act to overturn SC’s judgment which has been challenged before the apex court and awaits adjudication.

Downgrading Jammu & Kashmir from statehood to Union Territory is another dubious decision taken without consulting or getting the consent of the state assembly. President’s Rule was imposed in J&K and the Assembly was suspended to facilitate the constitutional coup.

Far from Federalism: The PM rarely tires quoting from Mahatma Gandhi but his actions do not seem inspired by the Mahatma’s firm belief in decentralized governance. Mahatma Gandhi was in favour of the autonomy of villages and regions in India and would have been shock-ed at the overtly centralising tendency at work.

The urgency to centralise powers with the Union, more specifically at the PMO, is an affront to the Constitutional scheme. It is undermining the mandate of people who have voted for state governments. BJP’s gimmick of selling the idea of India as ‘One unit’ with homogenous identity and culture is an affront to the diverse characteristics of India. This dangerous idea has led to weakening the states and the regions.

The PM must realise that he is flirting with the Constitution and the people’s mandate. He needs to re-evaluate his priorities and policies and stop dismantling the federal structure while paying lip service to cooperative federalism. He is in fact taking down the federal structure, brick by brick.

(The writers are Candidates of Law at National Law University, Jabalpur)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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