The last time the tiny, scenic Lakshadweep islands made the national headlines, 24 x7 private news television didn’t even exist in the country. In 1989, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s new year visit to the islands had created a flutter over whether public monies were being spent on a ‘private’ family holiday. This time, Lakshadweep is a major national story for far more telling reasons: a spate of unilaterally declared new regulations by the Centre’s administrator have sparked off fears amongst the local population of a ‘saffron agenda’ being imposed on a distant part of the country.
That the administrator, Praful Khoda Patel happens to be a former minister of state for home in Gujarat and a close confidante of prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah has added a distinct political twist. Mr Patel has already been in the news for the wrong reasons: his name has cropped up in the suicide investigations of Mohan Delkar, the long-serving MP of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, where again Mr Patel is the union territory administrator (the Delkar suicide case has got almost no media coverage in sharp contrast to the non stop attention paid to the Sushant Singh Rajput case and nor have any central agencies air-dashed to Mumbai to investigate).
Moreover, located uniquely at the cusp of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, the Lakshadweep islands are of strategic importance. With a near hundred per cent Muslim population, anxieties of attempted cultural ‘colonisation’ are also being voiced. Then, whether it be new land rules, opening up the islands to alcohol consumption or restricting beef sale, there is a creeping ‘nationalist’ Hindutva versus a regional Muslim majority conflict that threatens the idyllic serenity of a land with a negligible crime rate and a population of just around 65,000. Why would anyone want to alienate and unsettle a tranquil petite edge of the country unless there is an obsessively centralising mindset that seeks to impose its political and ideological writ on every part of a diverse land?
This isn’t then a battle just between Delhi and distant Kavaratti: at the heart of the controversy lies a deeper crisis between a dominant Centre and restive state governments across the country. There is scarcely a week that passes without a potential centre-state conflict threatening to erupt in some corner. Then, whether it is opposition state finance ministers objecting to resource distribution under the Goods and Services Tax, the contentious farm laws being pushed through parliament without any oversight or consultation, the unseemly public spat over oxygen supplies, or the buck passing on vaccine policy implementation, there is a marked strain in relations between the Modi government at the Centre and state chief ministers that threatens to derail the ‘co-operative federalism’ goal that the prime minister claimed to embrace when he first came to power seven years ago. Such is the trust deficit and suspicion of central agencies that more than half a dozen states have already withdrawn the ‘general consent’ for CBI operations within their territory.
The most fraught and visible example of the underlying tension spilling over into a potential constitutional crisis has been witnessed in West Bengal. Ever since Mamata Banerjee’s sweeping victory in the assembly elections last month, the battle-lines have been drawn between a defiant and ascendant state leadership and a wounded and embittered Centre. It is almost as if the ruling arrangement in Delhi has not forgiven Banerjee for giving them a bloody nose in the polls with the toxic edge of a bruising election campaign being carried forward into daily administrative duties. The latest example is the unprecedented face-off between the Centre and the Mamata government over the sudden union home ministry order transferring the Bengal chief secretary to the national capital, an order which an enraged chief minister has refused to comply with.
This is no time for a political blame game. At a time when Delhi and Kolkata should be working together to resolve the twin Covid and cyclone challenges, competing egos and contrasting political objectives have resulted in a near-breakdown of the constitutional arrangement between Centre and state. The overnight transfer of Bengal’s top bureaucrat to Delhi appears a prima facie vindictive act by the Modi government over allegations that the chief minister and her top officials kept the prime minister waiting for 30 minutes during his visit to the state to review the cyclone damage. Even if the chief minister could have shown greater grace in attending the review meeting, the primary responsibility for a genuine reach out lies with the prime minister’s office. Mamata Banerjee deserves the respect due to a three time elected chief minister: she cannot be equated with a governor guilty of playing the worst form of partisan politics or an opposition leader in Bengal whose only role appears to be to harangue the chief minister. If Banerjee wanted a one on one meeting with the prime minister, it could have easily been arranged. Moreover, why should government officials be made hapless victims of the games played by their political bosses. Unfortunately, sharply opposing narcissisms leave little space for negotiation and consensus building in good faith.
Ironically, Mr Modi himself has been a three time chief minister before he became prime minister. One of his perennial grouses as Gujarat chief minister at the time was that the Centre was constantly targeting him. In fact, in 2013, he pointedly skipped a National Integration Council meeting called by then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh to discuss the communal violence bill. Modi was by then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and his supporters alleged that the meeting was called only to sabotage his political rise. Nor was this an isolated instance: on one occasion as chief minister, Modi openly tangled with the Planning Commission, accusing it of disregarding the country’s federal structure in its dealings with states.
Now, of course, Modi has dispensed with even the Planning Commission, one of the few institutions meant to resolve Centre-state skirmishes in a rule based manner. Instead, the prime minister now directly summons and communicates with district magistrates from across the country on Covid management via video conference while meetings with the chief ministers, if the normally soft-spoken Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren is to be believed, are only meant for the prime minister’s ‘Man Ki baat’ and not to listen to chief ministerial woes. Is this really the federal structure the prime minister once craved for or simply a reflection of a domineering presidential style ‘Big Boss’ national leadership that cant tolerate dissent or any alternate power structure? Post-script: Since Lakshadweep’s concerns were a trigger point for this column, lets conclude with the islands. The administrator, Mr Patel, says that he wants to lift the alcohol restrictions to unleash Lakshadweep’s tourism potential. Good idea with one caveat. Would the former Gujarat minister propose a similar rule for his home state and its prohibition laws?