India is an inherently Federal Polity
India is an inherently Federal Polity
Dr JK Bajaj
Modern India has found it difficult to make a choice between a unitary and federal polity. There has been a persistent perception among the national leaders that one of the reasons for India’s failure to effectively repel external aggression over nearly a millennium of recent history was the lack of a strong central state holding undisputed sway over the whole of the country. On the other hand, there also has been the realisation that it is nearly impossible to govern all aspects of polity in every part of India through a single centralised state.
The Constitution of India tried to find an uneasy balance between these two contrasting perceptions. The Constitution created a federal polity with a highly empowered Centre. While it granted the states authority over a number of subjects, yet this authority was highly circumscribed. The Centre was given almost unfettered discretion to monitor, instruct, bye-pass or even take over the provincial governments. The Centre was also given authority over the major sources of revenue, and financially, the states were made largely dependent upon subventions from the Centre.
But, the most potent instrument of centralised authority over all of India that the Constitution retained from the British times was that of the centralised higher bureaucracy operated through the all-India services, which were provided extensive constitutional protections and guarantees. This was the instrument that the British had evolved for governing India. Both political and administrative governance of India during the British times was carried out through a handful of officers of the Indian Civil Service, who acted as the eyes and ears of the Viceroy and reported directly to him. This is what made the British system extremely centralised, notwithstanding the many provisions for local and provincial governance that were introduced through various phases of “constitutional reform”. This also made the British system of governance completely sterile. The governing principle of the system was that nothing should happen anywhere in India without the knowledge and consent of the Viceroy; and this usually meant that nothing much was allowed to happen, all initiative at the local and provincial level was heavily curbed.
The all-India services continue to retain their essential character as instruments of the central government, ultimately answerable only to the central authority. This was powerfully brought out by the recent incident of the Union Home Secretary advising senior and key officers from the states to avoid being mere “stenographers” for their Chief Ministers. This was a rare and extraordinary public assertion of the highly centralised nature of the Indian higher administrative system. It does not often become necessary for a high bureaucrat at the Centre to remind his fellow officers that they are ultimately answerable to the Centre and have not only the authority but also the duty to ignore the advice of the political executive at the state level if it contradicts the wishes and purposes of the Centre. But this is the reality of the Indian structure of governance and administration.
In practice, these centralising tendencies have been often modulated by the political processes and compulsions. Though independent India retained the structures of governance and administration bequeathed by the British, yet the functioning of Indian democracy over time did give rise to the resurgence of diverse interests, groups and formations at the local and provincial levels. These had been kept in check during the British times; the essence of British system of administration was to control the varied groupings and formations of the people of India and deprive them of any role in the public polity. Even now we often tend to look at the rise of such groups and formations with suspicion, partly because the most effective of these groupings are based on castes and caste-combinations. We often see in their rise and assertion, the unravelling of the idea of a modern unitary India constituted of individuals with a unitary identity as Indians. And thus the question of federalism versus centralisation of Indian polity keeps reasserting itself.
The flourishing of Indian democratic polity has itself begun to provide some way out of this dilemma. Over the last decade or so, we have seen the rise of vibrant state governments representing essentially provincial interests and formations. And these governments, far from taking India backward or jeopardising Indian unity, have proved to be at the vanguard of Indian national resurgence. The governments run by provincial parties in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Tamil Nadu have shown extraordinary commitment to not only economic development of their respective states, but also to maintenance of law and order and to ensuring a certain level of social equity. The governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh indeed belong to a national party, but are constituted essentially around provincial interests and groups. And these also have shown great vigour in ensuring economic and social development of their states; Gujarat and Chhattisgarh have in addition have been proactively fighting terrorism on their soils. The recent transfer of governance from a national to a provincial party in West Bengal is also being seen as the harbinger of a new resurgence there.
It is generally granted that all the major initiatives and innovations in governance and development nowadays are coming from these state governments that are dominated by provincial formations and motivated by provincial interests. It is largely because of the ascendance of these provincial forces that the Central government seems to be stuck in a kind of policy drift and is unable to implement any of its initiatives. The crass assertion of central control over the officers of the all-India services made by the Home Secretary that we have mentioned above in fact seems to have arisen from not a sense of power but that of helplessness that the central government is facing in the face of strong and resurgent state governments.
For the Indian polity to move forward from this point, the main national parties, the Congress and the BJP, shall have to evolve a clear position on the limits of the central power and that of the states, and their appropriate domains. Both these parties have a strong anti-federal streak. The Congress, though Mahatma Gandhi did try to remake it into a federal body built from the lowest level upwards, has always functioned as an organisation run from the top. In its days of unchallenged ascendancy in Indian democratic polity, the Congress tended to treat the states with near contempt. The BJP follows an even more centralising ideology, though in practice it has had to comprise with regional and provincial groups and interests, in order to effectively challenge the hegemony of the Congress. In the changed political landscape of the country, both parties are forced to the bow to the resurgent provincial formations, but both lack the ideological and structural framework to do it with grace.
As the Indian polity continues to evolve. The balance of power is likely to continue shifting towards the states and from there towards the lower levels, making the polity truly federal over time. This, however, may be only for the good of the nation. As the example of the resurgent states has shown, as the levels of polity below the Centre begin to acquire power, it opens up new and previously unimagined sources of initiative. New ideas, innovations and commitments to nation-building begin to emerge. As more and more levels of polity, which have been passive and dormant till now, begin to assert and act, the overall level of public and economic activity would becomes more intense and nation-building would thus become a much more widely shared task.
The challenge before the nation today is to evolve ideas and structures that can accommodate this spread of power and flourishing of the provincial and local initiatives within the overarching idea of a strong India. The ideas and structures shall in any case evolve. But, the process shall become smoother and less disruptive if the political thinkers and also political parties begin working on it systematically and with an open mind.
While considering the issue of centre-state relations within the emerging balance of political and economic power, it may be of help to remember that the idea of sharing power at various levels and between various formations comes naturally to India. India has always thought of society as not a conglomeration of unrelated individuals, but as an organic formation composed of myriad groupings of people that emerge spontaneously around a locality, a profession, a kinship community or a religious faith. In the classical Indian polity, all these groupings of people are taken to be inherently legitimate. They have well-defined and irreducible roles to perform in the public polity. In fact, it is the activities of these groups in their respective domains and their mutual interactions that constitute public polity in the Indian sense.
And the role of the centralising state, that of the king and the Chakravartin, in such a polity is not to arrogate to itself the diverse functions and authority of the various groups but to ensure their harmonious and uninterrupted functioning. The king guards against the disruption of natural balance and order in the functioning of the society, and this natural balance and order is what is called dharma in the context of the society and the polity. And, it is of course the business of the king to protect dharma.
There is an intriguing passage in the very first chapter of the Balakanda of Valmikiya Ramayana, where Narada describing the state of things when Rama comes to rule, mentions that in the Ramrajya the number of kingly dynasties shall multiply a hundred fold, rajavanshan shatagunan sthapishyati raghava. The ideal king of Indian polity does not concentrate all power and sovereignty in himself, but lets the authority be distributed widely through the society, in his reign there flourish innumerable sharers of power and sovereignty of the nation. The greatest crime that the Indian classical literature attributes to the evil kings like Ravana and Jarasandha is that they do not honour and respect the authority of their fellow kings, that they try and arrogate all authority and wealth to themselves.
This classical view of polity has been largely internalised by the people of India, and they do not easily let others dictate what is good for them. The British were scandalised and disturbed by the fact that the Indian kings seemed to be in awe of their people, rather than the other way around. The British remoulded Indian polity according to their own ideas and priorities, they suppressed the natural initiative of the people, the localities and the regions. They deprived them of all authority in their own public affairs, and concentrated all power and authority in a few officers who reported directly to the Viceroy. It is only natural that as India has begins to emerge from that dark period, people at different levels have begun to reassert their authority and initiative. The power is now moving towards the states, soon it shall move lower towards the districts and the localities. It is for us to manage this transition effectively and put it to use for building a great and powerful Indian nation.
(The writer is Director, Centre for Policy Studies)