A new era of centre-state relations, redefined federalism and greater democratic challenges are upon India. Led by the growing political clout of smaller, regional parties in India who today rule across at least a dozen of the 28 states in the country (alone or in a coalition) and have a powerful presence in several others, the nearly seven-decade-old federalism has acquired an altered, more compelling and spirited form.
In Nepal, meanwhile, the debate on the nature of federalism has entered a decisive stage. Much of the heated debate seems centered around the boundaries of the states--this is indeed significant since it will determine the demographic composition of different ethnic communities, and subsequently, who will be politically influential. However, while the concerned committee of the Constituent Assembly has conceptualized the division of powers between the centre and the states, perhaps not adequate attention has been paid to this issue either in political discussions or public discourse, notwithstanding the rhetoric about ‘autonomy’. In the future, the real clashes between the capital and provinces will be on this very issue, especially when regional parties (and those national level parties not in power at the centre) start ruling more and more federal provinces, thus asserting their influence.
What needs to be kept in mind in debating federalism is that its form and nature cannot be set in stone. Federalism is as much a function of political strength as it of the constitution and its nature continues to evolve as a democracy matures. An offshoot of this is that geographical boundaries of federal states are not necessarily absolute and permanent. They evolve with growing ethnic and regional aspirations as well as necessary political momentum. India is almost a textbook example of such federal progression.
The Indian experience shows that as democracy matures, federalism becomes institutionalized and smaller regional parties rise to state and national prominence. They are seen by the local population to be more connected to grassroots realities and more responsive than ‘national parties’. These regional outfits then begin to assert themselves, provincial powers are zealously guarded and any attempts by the centre to take unilateral steps that affect states are fiercely resisted.
Post-independence, the Indian constitution adopted what came to be known as a ‘quasi-federal structure’ wherein power (legislative and administrative) was divided between the centre and the states in a way that while the latter had specific powers, but the balance was tilted in favour of the centre to protect ‘national unity’. Power was divided in three lists--union, state and concurrent.
The federalism of today, however, is drastically different in practice and form, even as the crux remains the same. Till the 1980s, one single party--the Congress--ruled at both the centre and most of the states, even though the gradual chipping away of the Congress hegemony began in the 1960s and 1970s. For most part, the Congress had a free run; federalism remained a ‘theoretical concept’ and the party ‘high command’ in Delhi called the shots in most states; internal democracy was an alien concept and state leaders were not allowed to flourish. It was only in the 1980s that the real rise of regional powers began and thus started a gradual but significant and seminal change in centre-state dynamics.
With the shifting of power in states to regional outfits as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forming governments in several states, the Congress-dominated federalism gave way to a truly devolved form where state governments began standing up for their rights and challenging the centre on contentious issues. Not used to being questioned by rebellious state governments, the Congress, however, has been stumbling in dealing with this more nuanced, vibrant form of federalism; as have some regional parties with their new-found weight.
Currently, the Congress--which leads the United Progressive Alliance government at the centre, is facing a dual challenge of regionally and perhaps nationally strong state parties (most of them who head state governments) at a time when the central government itself is the most weak and vulnerable it has been in a long time.
Embroiled in a series of corruption allegations and scams, the Congress has been on the back foot as its electoral losses in state and local body elections have further compounded its troubles. These have weakened the Congress both politically and morally, rendering it more dependent on its allies, thus making it insecure and unsure.
Meanwhile, growing in electoral clout in their respective states and becoming essential to government formation at the centre, regional parties have become bold like never before, particularly in the face of a weakened centre. Taking a cue from this and also secure in the states it rules in, the BJP has also become a tough party to deal with in states it rules.
With an insecure and susceptible Congress at the helm and uncompromising, sometimes even belligerent, state governments, clashes between the two tiers have become frequent and aggressive. The Congress government’s proposal to establish a National Counter Terrorism Centre or NCTC (that states feel will encroach upon their territory) without holding prior consultations with state governments was met with stiff opposition from several chief ministers, thus forcing it to defer the decision for now. The government has now convened a meeting of state chief ministers on May 5 to consult them on the issue. The merits of a body like NCTC aside, states are well within their rights to demand they be kept in the loop on matters that concern them as well.
Similarly, Trinamool Congress’ opposition in West Bengal led to the scuttling of the Teesta deal with Bangladesh; dissent from various state governments forced the centre to retract from opening up foreign investment in retail; the pressure by Tamil parties was a key factor in India voting against Sri Lanka on a human rights issue in Geneva. And these are just some of several recent examples where regional parties and state governments have succeeded in pushing their way through.
Refresh to two decades back. Such a scenario would have been improbable, to say the least. With its hold over a majority of states, the Congress would have breezed through such decisions without having to adhere to federal ‘principles and ethics’ that demand state governments be taken into confidence.
Thus, while the constitutional federal definition and power division has not changed, federalism in practice has indeed been redefined. However, such an evolved federal structure calls for greater maturity at both ends. While the centre must learn to keep its political insecurities aside and give due credit to state governments, the latter should know they can’t use their growing political clout to hold the centre at ransom in the name of federalism--which, unfortunately, some regional parties have been resorting to.
It is precisely this balance that is so hard to achieve in an adrenaline induced political system and it is because the Indian constitution defines the centre-state power separation with unequivocal clarity that any major collision or irreparable damage has been averted.
India shows federalism is as much a function of political strength as it of the constitution and gets redefined with growing clout of state parties.
Meanwhile, another facet of evolving federalism is that the geography and political boundaries of federal states, while certainly a key issue, are by no means rigid or water tight. In India, several states that exist today were not how they were originally designed. To give a few examples, the seven north-eastern states were carved out of one Assam; greater Punjab was divided into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh; Chhattisgarh found its way out of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand out of Bihar; there are ongoing agitations for separate statehood including in Andhra Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal.
With rising ethnic/regional aspirations and political and administrative requirements, state boundaries are bound to be re-organized with time, thus making federalism an evolving process not just politically but also geographically. However, with new states (and more regional parties) being formed, the challenge of keeping the federal structure intact and balanced becomes even more difficult and nothing can help pass this test more than decidedly laid out power delegations.
Given this context, it is imperative that Nepal readies itself for this complex phase when it embarks on the federal path by having a constitution that unambiguously lays out a clear division of powers between the centre and states.
However, amidst raging and emotive debates on the basis of federalism and boundaries of states, Nepal should also remember that federalism in practice will not remain constant and is bound to evolve with a progressing democracy and emergence of powerful state/regional parties. Stakeholders should not lose sleep or even precious time over the exact nuances and details of the federal structure, because after all, with time, contours will be re-defined.