One of Narendra Modi’s most striking achievements when he first came to power at the Centre in 2014 was just how easily he seemed to make the transition from Gandhinagar to New Delhi: Mr Modi was, after all, only the second Indian prime minister (HD Deve Gowda was the first) to directly ascend to the prime minister’s post as an incumbent chief minister. Which is why when Mr Modi spoke passionately of ‘co-operative federalism’ as his governance mantra, there was a sense that he genuinely wanted to redraw the skewed balance of power between Centre and States. Eight years later, that federal compact promise lies in tatters, trapped in vindictive politics, mutual recrimination and the hubris of absolute power.
Last week, the prime minister was in Tamil Nadu, one of the few states in the country to have resisted the BJP juggernaut under Modi’s leadership. In fact, every visit of the prime minister to Tamil Nadu is marked by a well-orchestrated #GoBackModi campaign on social media. Which is why it isn’t surprising that in the presence of the prime minister in Chennai last week, TN chief minister MK Stalin did not pull back his punches when warning the Centre not to impose Hindi on the state. Tamil language is central to the Dravida identity and by asserting its primacy, the DMK leader was only drawing a lakshman rekha to a long running feud between Delhi and Chennai.
The linguistic battle has a chequered history, reflecting the rich diversity of the country. The southern states in particular have sought to resist the imposition of Hindi in any form. That this ‘war’ over languages has now been re-ignited is indicative of newly emerging political faultlines. The BJP under the domineering leadership of Mr Modi is, after all, still perceived as a majority party of the Hindi heartland wielding disproportionate power over decision-making. The BJP may attempt to slowly shake off its ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ narrative but it cant remove just yet the long standing belief across communities south of the Vindhyas that its primary affiliation is to a typical north Indian political ethos. That southern states like Tamil Nadu have emerged as economic powerhouses also ignites a renewed self-confidence in distinctive regional identities which cant be subsumed under an over-arching, homogenous ‘Hindu Rashtra’ ideology as the sangh parivar would prefer.
But this is no longer just a familiar north versus south divide either: a centre versus states battle is raging on a range of issues from revenue sharing formulas to administrative controls to even a row over an all India NEET medical exam. When finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently announced a series of tax cuts on fuel and exhorted states to also reduce their taxes, several state governments refused to bite the bullet. The idea of the Centre ‘dictating’ tax structures through public ‘advisories’ appears increasingly unpalatable to state governments who are already miffed by a nationwide centralized Goods and Services Tax (GST) reducing their financial autonomy and taking away their constitutional rights over revenue collection. While the GST was a major step forward to remodel a cumbersome tax structure, it hasn’t truly lived upto the federal spirit of give and take: states routinely complain about revenue shortfalls and an unequal power structure in which they remain heavily dependent on central government largesse.
This centre versus state divide is accentuated by another ever sharpening cleavage: BJP versus non-BJP ruled states. When for example on the election road, the prime minister appeals to voters to support ‘double engine’ governments, he is effectively creating a stark hierarchy between BJP and opposition ruled states. Election rhetoric can be rationalised but when at an official prime ministerial meeting with chief ministers on Covid control, the opposition ruled states are singled out for failing to bring down fuel taxes, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ feeling gets heightened. There seems also to be a clash of egos: when vaccine certificates carry the prime minister’s face, when every government scheme is identified with the persona of the prime minister, powerful chief ministers are bound to be put off.
The growing sense of unease has led to numerous friction points, from allegations of misuse of central agencies to clashes over bureaucratic transfers and appointments. Bengal is the classic example where a brazenly partisan governor is in the midst of an almost daily tug of war with the chief minister to the point where the constitutional separation of powers are scarcely being respected. It was in Bengal too where the chief secretary was peremptorily ‘recalled’ by the Centre after a controversy broke out over a cyclone review meeting with the prime minister that the top Bengal official did not attend. In Delhi too, Arvind Kejriwal’s government has been kept on a leash, his government often denied a say while making policy choices or key appointments.
The trust deficit is widened because central enforcement agencies are hyper-active in opposition ruled states but dormant where the BJP is in power. Almost every opposition chief minister and their aides are under the Enforcement Directorate’s watch – Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren appears to be the latest in the line of fire – only aggravating the sense of suspicion and hostility. Is it really the case that only opposition leaders are crooked and the ruling BJP governments are populated with saints? Rather than provide any kind of reassurance, the Centre has been dismissive of the opposition’s charge of political vendetta.
While an imperious Centre helmed by a Supreme Leader cult may feel emboldened to call the shots by a succession of election victories , the institutional damage an asymmetry of power between Centre and States could do is enormous. A robust multi-party democracy like India cannot be diminished to a single party, single leader elected autocracy where crucial decision-making is devoid of consultative processes. Ironically, one of the ostensible reasons prime minister Modi shut down the Planning Commission soon after taking office was because from his experience as a long serving Gujarat chief minister he didn’t want Delhi-based ‘non-elected’ bureaucrats to dictate terms to ‘elected’ leaders. Today, the Modi governance model is encouraging the same centralizing tendencies that he once railed against as chief minister. The wheel is coming full circle.
Post-script: Taking a cue perhaps from a combative Mamta Banerjee, the Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao chose to avoid meeting the prime minister in Hyderabad last week by flying out to Bengaluru just ahead of a visit where Mr Modi accused the TRS chief of promoting ‘family raj’ . In April, when the prime minister was conferred the first Lata Mangeshkar award in Mumbai, one-time ally, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray stayed away. This rupture in relations is worrying: ‘co-operative federalism’ is now tangled in viciously competitive and self-destructive politics.