One nation, many governments: Why India must embrace federalism

As easy as it is to blame successive Union governments for being bullies, it is equally, if not more, important that state governments block and repel centralisation.
Chief Ministers MK Stalin, Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan
Chief Ministers MK Stalin, Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan

COVID-19 has shone light on one of India’s darkest corners that we stoutly refuse to examine – the lack of coordination between the governments in India. Nationally relevant policies, be they vaccine procurement, pricing and disbursal, oxygen manufacturing and inter-state supply, GST rates for COVID care resources, trans-state migrating labour, national lockdowns, elections in various states, religious gatherings of multi-state relevance, and more have cried out for planning and coordination across the governments in the country. The absence of it has cost lakhs, perhaps tens of lakhs of lives.

India has many governments; one of them is the Union. Notwithstanding that Parliament was repeatedly truncated or cancelled in the name of COVID-19 (while elections and religious events proceeded simultaneously), it is neither the purview nor expertise of the Parliament to coordinate inter-state relations and implementations. For instance, the formula for vaccine disbursal to states, the lag between requirements and fulfilments, its pricing, or assigning the cost of migrant labour transport, etc., are issues that only governments can claim, plan and coordinate, not legislators. That at least a dozen Chief Ministers, including those of Kerala, Jharkhand, Mizoram, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Punjab, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Delhi, have written to the Union, and some to each other on vaccinations alone, must make it apparent.

Indeed, there emerges even more compelling evidence from the recently concluded GST Council which, stunningly, was not called to order for over 6 months amidst the throes of a pandemic. The Council announced a lowering or waiving of GST rates for certain essential or medical items, decisions delayed till June of 2021, largely due to the breakdown of federal relations in India.

India was formed from and is formed of many governments, and this implies that cross-country governance requires ongoing inter-state planning and coordination. This feature is not unique to India. Most large democracies like the US, Canada, Australia, etc. have many governments – provincial ones and a Union. What Australia did, for instance, as soon as the pandemic struck, was to retire its existing Council of Australian Governments, an existing inter-government coordinating body in their federal structure, and create a National Cabinet. It is composed of all Chief Ministers, Premiers, the Prime Minister and even representatives from local bodies. An empowered executive, with select and expert committees and adjunct councils, it decides on federal financial, pandemic-related health, employment, even women’s and children’s safety and security, and with a legal framework as buttress.

For doubters asking if Australia or any of the others in a genuine federal partnership between their in-country governments are managing the pandemic better than India, the answer is crystal clear. In a Westminster-style democracy, India’s national and sub-national governments are elected for parties’ agendas and as on date, India and its states vest their executive powers in close to 40 distinct ruling parties. So the question before us is not if Australia or countries with federal partnerships within are doing better but if India will now manage COVID-19, and indeed the country in general, better if its various governments with distinct agendas plan and coordinate regularly.

Inter-State Council must be revived

While COVID-19 may spotlight the extent of rot of federalism in India, the unequal partnership between the Union and states has cost India through the annals of time. India did set up an Inter-State Council, thanks to the Sarkaria Commission in 1990, to recommend policy on matters of common interests across states and the Union. It met a dozen times until 2017. As per Article 263 of the Indian Constitution, the Inter-State Council is composed of the Prime Minister, who is the Chairperson, Chief Ministers of states and Union Territories and several Union Cabinet Ministers, and cannot be dissolved or re-constituted. In other words, it is extant but defunct, barely meeting once in three years since establishment and not at all during a pandemic that requires intimate partnerships and collaboration.

The problem, of course, goes back to the very establishment of the Union, denying states their sovereignty (unlike in the US) even as it leaned federal. Subsequent purposeful Constitutional amendments, like expanding Concurrent lists, or the GST, have vigorously engendered centralisation. However, the real root of federal rot lies more with states and less with the Union.

Successive, blighted state governments have failed to check Union overreach, which has imposed grave costs on public good. A few states have responded in an enlightened fashion. Tamil Nadu refused to ratify the GST, across both the DMK and the AIADMK, until J Jayalalitha passed. Many states passed resolutions against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and most recently, Mamata Banerjee displayed spirited resistance against her Chief Secretary’s transfer. As easy as it is to blame successive Union governments for being bullies, it is equally, if not more important, that state governments block and repel centralisation.

The keys are often in the very structure of the institutions that states have allowed without due diligence. The GST Council has been established with only the Union Finance Minister as Chair, and ability to call for meetings. By any measure, the GST is a multilateral matter, with separate stakeholders, the Union being one. There is no reason why Chairpersonship is not rotated or powers (like calling meetings) are not vested in many or all. In fact, Mumbai city with its mammoth pre-GST Octroi has no say in the Council, and neither does any other local government.

The previous West Bengal Finance Minister, Amit Mitra, chided the Union Finance Minister for failing to convene the GST Council during the pandemic; subsequent reduction in GST rates for life-saving drugs and equipment could have perhaps avoided deaths if they had been considered 6 months prior. The Tamil Nadu Finance Minister, Palanivel Thiagarajan, also recently pointed out that the GST Council has fundamental structural issues of “One State, One Vote”. Manufacturing states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, whose people are heavily compromised, have been egregious in their historical silence, hence enabling an anti-federal structure.

Ditto with the Finance Commission. For a Constitutional body that divides monies between states and the Union, and across states, the Union is but one stakeholder. However, the Union assumes all powers in appointment of the Commission and issuing of its Terms of Reference (ToR), an inherent bias for a federal body. This is exactly what the Inter-State Council is meant to do; ensure that a ToR is negotiated and balanced.

For India to leapfrog into a developed country, an oft-bandied political rhetoric, the country must first be willing to shed its unitary insecurities, govern via a federal body politic, and defer to local and state governments. As things stand, the Union has too much power on inputs and too little stake in outcomes. The Inter-State Council must be resuscitated, reinvigorated and chartered to represent a federal India. Matters, not only financial but water management, labour, energy, human trafficking and much more, are cross-state matters, which require ongoing conference between states. Intergovernmental cooperation and coordination, yes, but also as much autonomy and agency, given the differences in the social and economic environments across states.

‘One Nation, Many Governments’ is the reality of India, and the Union is but one among the many. India must strive for a boring Union and vibrant states and that indeed will be the hallmark of success, replete with subsidiarity, decentralisation and federalism.

Tara Krishnaswamy is the co-founder of Shakti – Political Power to Women, a non-partisan grassroots group campaigning for more women MLAs and MPs. She is co-founder of Citizens for Bengaluru, a citizens’ movement for a sustainable Bengaluru.

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