Imagine you have been transported back in time. The date is October 31st, 1984. The news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards is spreading like wildfire. There are news reports of Congress party leaders leading mobs through Delhi exhorting them to kill as many Sikhs as they can. Sections of the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army have revolted and are in open mutiny. A young and inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi is sworn in as Prime Minister of a country in the throes of a deadly insurgency in Punjab. Only months back, Operation Bluestar, an assault on Sikh extremists holed up in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, had caused immense damage to the shrine causing outrage amongst Sikhs across India and the world. Relations between Hindus & Sikhs are under severe stress in the prevailing atmosphere.
At this point, would you be faulted for thinking – ‘Will India hold together?’.
Most of us are old enough to remember events from those troubled times. Those of us born in the decades of the sixties and seventies having always known an India that was stable, even after accounting for external exigencies like the wars of 1965 and 1971, were left stunned at how shaky the foundations of the Republic seemed. Only the war of 1962 with China came close to, or perhaps surpassed, the events of 1984 in instilling a sense of a clear & present danger to the Republic.
The Republic, of course, did not unravel. It in fact consolidated it’s strengths. The Sikh insurgency in Punjab was met head-on and eventually defeated. Post 1991, the economic reforms started by the Congress Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, enabled the country to embark on two decades of sustained economic growth. With one of the fastest growth rates of GDP in the world, India was second only to China in terms of being the fastest growing economy in the world. The uncertainty of 1984 had been replaced by a brimming sense of confidence knowing that it was India’s manifest destiny to become a leading economic power and claim it’s rightful place amongst the leading global powers. This sense of confidence has it’s foundations in the following underlying and unstated principles of nationhood:
a) That India needs a strong Central government in order to influence the implementation favorable domestic policies across the union of states that maximize the productive capacity of the people of the country.
b) That India needs a foreign policy that has one abiding characteristic – of pursuing national interest. This means that India will adopt it’s approach to dealing with world powers based on the situation seen to maximize India’s national interests.
c) That India needs it’s citizens to uphold the interests of the nation first & foremost, and subsume their other identities of caste, religion, language, and region, to this overall national identity.
d) That outsiders need to perceive India as one unit, rather than an amalgamation of disparate parts, each with competing ideas and interests with whom these outsiders must deal with separately.
Why do we need these principles that seem to demand the necessity of a strong Center in a federal Republic? Is not India essentially a union of states? Why should the states need to be bound by these principles that would bind them to the direction given by the Center? It was the belief of the founding fathers of the Indian Republic, viz. Nehru, Patel, and Ambedkar, that a diverse country like India, having no experience of pan-Indian political union before, needed a strong Center to strengthen a sense of citizenship amongst the people vis-a-vis the country, as opposed to their other myriad sense of identities involving language, religion, caste, and region. The recent experience of being a British colonial subject strongly influenced the inclination to a unifying strong Center, as opposed to relatively independent states with their competing agendas. The recent memories of negotiations with the British & the Muslim League on the issue of Partition also served as a potent reminder of the need to forge national unity at the expense of greater federalism.
Despite the above, the country displayed it’s fissiparous tendencies in the form of the demand for linguistic division of states. Kashmir and the North-Eastern states like Mizoram posed challenges to the idea of India very early in it’s infancy, due to religious and ethnic differences that were stronger than the ties that bound them to India. Ethnic and linguistic divisions between North & South India are real with people of the two regions finding it difficult to easily adapt to each other’s language and customs, despite having a common bond through religion. The imposition of Hindi on the Southern states led to language riots causing the imposition to be reversed. The South, having escaped the worst excesses of Muslim invasions compared to the North, has a different sense of history, and is thus more assured in it’s cultural past and traditions. Compare that to the North where Hindu memories of past humiliations by the Muslim invasions and rule have resulted in an anti-minority stance and the prevalence of extremist Hindu organizations bent upon exorcising past humiliations at the hands of Muslim invaders. In the underdeveloped inner states like Chhattisgrah, Jharkhand, and Orrisa, a raging Maoist insurgency threatens the overthrow of the democratic system of governance with the very authority of the government and it’s instruments of control being challenged. And yes, various Sikh extremist outfits still dream of reviving the insurgency in Punjab.
And yet, the idea of India has not only survived, but endured and even managed to thrive. Until now.
Until now, the crux of power enjoyed by the Central Government is because of two facts that positively reinforce this power:
1) A strong position in the numbers tally in the central legislature, such that no alliance partner in the ruling coalition can exert undue influence over government policy.
2) Direct rule of some significant state governments, earned by winning the regional state level elections.
Both these facts are now under contest. The Government is ever more dependent on allies to enable the coalition of parties to maintain a comfortable majority, undermining the first. And as the recent state level elections have demonstrated, the two national parties no longer control the most important states that matter at a national level, thereby undermining the second.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has virtually no presence, with the majority of seats being contested between the two main regional rivals – the Samajwadi Party & the Bahujan Samaj Party. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee leads the Trinamool Congress, bete noire of the Communist CPI(M). Banerjee is a tempestuous ally who has a record of opposing many of the Central Congress-led UPA government’s reform initiatives. She has even managed to scuttle a path-breaking visit by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Bangladesh, by refusing agree to one of the key concessions being offered. The center’s initiative of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) has been opposed by virtually every Chief Minister of the important non-Congress states. Regional heavyweights like Narendra Modi of the BJP in Gujarat, and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, alongwith Jayalalitha of AIDMK in Tamil Nadu, and Mamata Banerjee in Bengal have opposed the NCTC on the grounds that it impinges on the rights of the States. Tamil Nadu’s opposing regional party, the DMK, an ally of the Congress in the UPA coalition, has forced the government to back a UN condemnation of Sri Lanka for atrocities against Tamil civilians, a move many consider inimical to India’s national interests, in the sense that regional competitors like Pakistan & China are waiting in the wings to support Sri Lanka, while India loses leverage with a crucial South Asian country.
Most importantly, India has had virtually no major reform initiative in the past three years of this UPA government. Policy making is paralyzed, with multiple corruption scandals plaguing the government such that no new initiatives are being pushed through for fear of being accused of more wrong-doings. With the resulting loss of prestige, India’s Central government is now even more at the mercy to the demands of the regional allies who block reform measures in favor of crass populist tactics. With three years having gone by, and two excruciating years still remaining, India has basically lost five full years of economic growth.
In the midst of all this, the US Secretary of State made a visit to India, and made it a point to visit Mamata Banerjee in Calcutta, to push for greater US involvement in the growth of West Bengal. Banerjee reveled in the special attention accorded to her, never mind if any growth oriented development actually takes place. But the crucial point here is that the United States found it necessary to engage separately with a Chief Minister of an Indian State, as opposed to dealing with India as a whole. The impotence of the Central government cannot be overstated any more than by this stark demonstration of the shift of the relative balance of power from the Center to the States.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? We have no clear answers to that. In India’s case, there is no historical precedent for a weak central government ceding some of it’s powers to relatively stronger states. It hasn’t been tried before, and one cannot say that it necessarily is a bad idea. Two notes of caution need to be stated however:
The first one is pertaining to the European Union which is the closest experiment that matches the Union of India in terms of scale, population, and diversity. Without political union, however, the EU seems to be jerking from crisis to crisis as stronger constituent nations like Germany impose tough measures for fiscal responsibility on indebted nations like Greece. The Greek contagion seems to be spreading to countries like Italy and Spain now in the firing line as their indebtedness comes into the spotlight of the merciless credit markets. Is it so hard to imagine similar tensions between Indian states over issues like share of revenues, bailout of profligate states for budget shortfalls, influx of immigrants from other states, and water & power sharing?
The second note of caution is about the very identity of the people of a particular state clashing with the overall national interests. Like in the case of Tamil Nadu. Having been forced to back the UN condemnation of the Sri Lankan government’s policies towards the minority Tamil population, the Central government now faces the conundrum of losing the little leverage it had with Sri Lanka which plays the Pakistan & China card against India very well. Sri Lanka is a sovereign state which, regardless of how it treats it’s Tamil minorities, can present a major geopolitical headache to India, if it chooses for example to host the Chinese or Pakistani navies in it’s ports. This does not mean India roll over and play dead vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, but being bullied by your coalition ally in matters of geopolitical importance does not bode well for the future.
In terms of history, India has never been worse off in terms of the impotence of the Central government vis-a-vis the States. We may well consider the fate that awaited India had Gandhi and Nehru not been steadfast in their refusal to bend in front of the blackmail of the Muslim League egged on by a sympathetic British government. Prior to Partition, the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 envisaged India divided into ‘groups’ of Provinces, basically formed on the basis of what was the percentage of the Muslim population. Three broad groups were formed:
A) NWFP, Punjab, and Sindh,
B) Madras, Bombay, United Provinces, Bihar, Central Province, Orissa
C) Bengal and Assam
As must be obvious to the reader, groups A and C were having Muslim majorities. The Cabinet Mission Plan envisaged that a Province in any Group could not leave it before the lapse of ten years, meaning that any of the provinces in Groups A and C had no choice but to be part of the Muslim majority groups. After ten years, a province could decide to leave a group only after a change in the terms of the constitution. Practically speaking, a province once part of a Muslim majority group, could give up all thoughts of ever leaving, once the Muslim League took control. The minorities in these provinces would remain minorities permanently. Apart from defense, foreign policy, and communications, all residuary powers would lie with the states. Furthermore, the plan included a clause that allowed the provinces to opt-out of the Indian union after ten years, with the center having no control.
In extended negotiations, the British tried to influence Gandhi & Nehru to accept the Muslim League’s demands of accepting the Cabinet Mission Plan, failing which the League had virtually threatened civil war as a matter of continuing the Calcutta killings committed on ‘Direct Action Day’. Rather than accept such blackmail and an emasculated center left at the mercy of the Muslim provinces, the Congress leadership opted for partition with East and West Pakistan being separated from India. The leader of the Muslim League, Jinnah, got his Pakistan, but witnessed in horror the birth of India which, once consolidated with the princely states and the Hindu majority parts of British India, came to dominate South Asia as a colossus.
The weakening of Central power in India vis-a-vis the States is in some ways a small step towards the anarchy and impotence dreamed of by Jinnah. It may be that these predictions are unduly dire, and that the devolution of power towards the States is not necessarily a bad thing. But in reality, can any one of us truly feel relaxed with the present state of affairs, where India is squandering it’s precious years of growth, while competitors like China steam ahead with an almost fanatical obsession? Is it merely hyperbole to say that leaders like Mamata Banerjee are actually leading to the eventual realization of Jinnah’s revenge against India?