Uncooperative federalism

Ever since the 2014 election campaign, Narendra Modi has been hammering away at “cooperative federalism” as the distinguishing feature of his style of governance. Apart from the little-remembered Deve Gowda, Modi is the first prime minister to have served 13 years as a chief minister, making him something of an expert on how states’ rights under the Constitution have been whittled away, leaving them subservient to the whims and finances of the Centre. His promise has been to rectify the balance and bring the states back into their own.

The man, however, is what he is―authoritarian, centralising and single-minded in building around himself a personality cult. That includes, of course, showing off a Rs10 lakh suit embroidered all over with his name, then having it flogged at an auction for a meretricious Rs4 crore. More subtly, however, are his preferred methods of governance that are revealing themselves for concentrating real power in his hands.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

This is best illustrated by what the Modi government has done with the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendations on financial devolution to the states. The commission recommended that the share of the states in the net divisible Central tax pool be enhanced from 32 per cent to a whopping 42 per cent. Modi and Jaitley have accepted the recommendation and are now tom-tomming their commitment to an exponential augmentation of the untied funds placed in state coffers. What is hidden from the public’s eye is that the Centre’s resources are not limited to Central taxes; they comprise also revenue from several other lucrative sources such as dividends declared by public sector companies and various types of cesses and levies. The totality of these, along with the proceeds of Central taxes, comprises the total net divisible pool of the nation’s resources. The budget has actually reduced the total transfer of Central resources to the states, albeit by 1 per cent, from 63 per cent to 62 per cent. Hence, while the states’ untied share of the national pool has risen, the total availability of their resources remains virtually stagnant. Notwithstanding the freezing of total available resources to the states, the Centre, in the name of “cooperative federalism”, has passed on to the states the responsibility for more than 100 Centrally-sponsored schemes for social and human development and the direct assault on extreme poverty without adding a khota paisa to the states’ kitty.

The same kind of game is at play in most of the ordinances issued in January to claim that Modi’s is a government that works. While largesse is bestowed on the states by, for example, giving them the entire proceeds of the auction of natural resources, firm control is being asserted over sectors that the Constitution has reserved to states’ jurisdiction, such as coal and other minerals. Clause after clause of the coal mining bill and the mines and minerals bill place the states under the disciplinary control of the Centre. This is not “cooperative federalism”. It is uncooperative federalism!

Worst of all, notwithstanding the historic amendments brought into the Constitution at Rajiv Gandhi’s instance for meaningful local self-government, the Modi schema simply puts Panchayat Raj out of sight. Where what true federalism needs is “a strong Centre, strong states and strong local governments”, as Sonia Gandhi pithily put it over a decade and a half ago, Modi undermines the Constitutional responsibilities of the Centre by sidelining local self-government. Two lakh fifty thousand panchayats and municipalities, and the 32 lakh representatives elected to them, were altogether left out of the president’s address, consigned to oblivion in the 2015-16 budget, and never mentioned in Modi’s all-too-frequent speeches, as if the Union has no duty to protect and promote Panchayat Raj in Modi’s modified version of “cooperative federalism”. This is a travesty of constitutional propriety that needs to be exposed and condemned as a betrayal of his constitutional duty. Gandhiji would not have approved of Modi.

Aiyar, a former Union minister, is an MP and social commentator.