What comes first: Centre or State?
When Congress failed miserably in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly elections, Sonia Gandhi gave the excuse that it was because there were too many leaders in the field meaning that there were too many conflicts of interest for the party to come on top. It isn’t that there were too many leaders. The real reason is that there were too many castes, each vying with the others, the Party itself having no powerful vision to keep them all together.
The hard fact is that, as the saying goes, where there is no vision the people perish, as do parties. The Congress has only Sonia Gandhi. The same party also had a Gandhi in the twenties and thirties of the 20th century – but he was Mahatma. He could keep all the other leaders at bay – including a Subhas Chandra Bose, among others. Even Indira Gandhi had her competitors but she could hold her head high. She had to face an Atulya Ghosh in West Bengal, a Sanjiva Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, a Nijalingappa in Karnataka, and an SK Patil in Bombay, not to speak of a K Kamraj in Tamil Nadu. But she had a vision.
The 1971 Parliamentary elections turned into a referendum on her leadership. Her battle cry was garibi hatao (banish poverty). The country was mesmerised. Her party captured 352 seats or 70 more than the undivided Congress had managed to win four years earlier. Several Opposition leaders were practically wiped-off. That tells its own story.
Clash between leaders within a party is not unusual. In the late 19th century, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak fought it out. It is not that Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were always in agreement. But Patel had the grace to give in to Nehru in the larger interest of the nation. For Patel, the party was above his personal ambition. Neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today has an acknowledged and unchallengeable leader. That is bad for each party but the danger lies in the fact that it is more harmful to the country. And it is giving way to fissiparous tendencies that can spell disaster to the nation.
When the Centre comes to be ignored and foreign leaders like, for example, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, goes to Chennai to meet Jayalalithaa and to Kolkata to hold talks with Mamata Banerjee one must listen to the ringing of alarm bells. Hillary Clinton was marginalising the Centre and if this continues, then the unity of the country must be considered to be in grave jeopardy. Hillary Clinton should have been firmly told that she can hold talks only with the Government of India and not with State satraps. One reason why corruption has grown is because coalition partners at the Centre have come to feel that they can—like the DMK – do as they want to. The 2G Scam was nothing short of blackmail. Here again, the blame lies on subaltern parties and blind caste-oriented groups that cannot see beyond their noses. To Karunanidhi, his mind and heart does not figure beyond Tamil Nadu, nor does Mamata Banerjee’s go beyond West Bengal. For Mayawati India is Dalit and there the matter ends. It is said that Leaders are not made but are born. That is telling half the truth. In many ways it is ‘Time’ that proclaims the man, as when Winston Spencer Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Britain’s Prime Minister Churchill was an confirmed and vicious India-hater, but so far as his own country was concerned he proved his mettle. And much the same can be said of General Charles de Gaulle in France.
One may argue that India is under no imminent danger and that is what makes our subaltern State leaders fight among themselves. That is a poor argument. Are our leaders so thoughtless that they don’t realise that fighting among themselves for the acquisition of power ends the essential unity of the country? What is worse is our state leaders thumbing their nose at the Centre, and going their way. The Indian Constitution is neither ‘federal’ nor purely ‘unitary’. It is a happy mixture of both. Wisdom suggests that in the larger interests of the country, the states must willingly – and graciously accept the fact that the country – and not the states – comes first. Sadly this is not appreciated by some of our State leaders who for selfish reasons of their own are not willing to let the Centre pass the National Counter Terrorism Bill on the questionable grounds that establishing law and order is a State subject. Unfortunately terrorism is not confined to a State: it is a cross-country phenomenon and should be taken as such and that is where the Centre comes in. Presently the Centre is weak – in fact, very weak but taking advantage of that on certain vital issues would not be in the interests of the nation.
As one commentator recently noted, the view that the states should be more powerful rests on the assumption that the Centre is undemocratic and virtue resides in State governments. But does making the Centre weaker help the nation as a whole? Take the case of Naxalism. According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the creation of a Division within the Ministry of Home Affairs is absolutely inadequate to respond to the Naxalite problem. What it wants is the creation of a separate Ministry to handle Naxal problems. Such a Ministry should look into, among other things, ways of developing Naxal-affected states in line with the Ministry of Development of North-Eastern Region. Naxalism is spread across states; these should be coordination in working out plans to fight it and this can be done only by a Central Ministry with, naturally, the cooperation of all states involved. If each State goes its own way to fight Naxalism it can only end in confusion worse confounded. This is a point that the Mamatas, Jayalalithaas and Patnaiks, to name a few Chief Ministers may do well to remember. Taking advantage of a weak Centre may sound clever but we do not need any longer to have Nizams of Hyderabad or Nawabs of Bhopal or Arcot to break-up the country. When will our politicians ever learn from history?
Once the Centre is weakened, one can be assured that the Hillary Clintons of the world will come over to woe our state satraps and history will be repeated. This is a warning to all political parties: Do not help weaken the Centre. It is not in the nation’s interest and in the end it will not be in the interests of the states either. Could it be that the time has come to give a second look at our Constitution? There is much to be said in favour of a strong unitary government at the Centre.