In the year 1929, Muhammad Ali Jinnah presented his famous “fourteen points” for the first time. These points became the bedrock of Pakistan movement and ultimately resulted in the partition of Bharat in 1947. The first among these “fourteen points” was :-
The form of the future constitution should be federal, with the residuary powers vested in the provinces.
Recently, similar demands have increased from the leaders and supporters of DMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. Propaganda outlet The News Minute recently carried an article by DMK supporter Tara Krishnaswamy titled “One nation, many governments: Why India must embrace federalism” which termed the central government as “bully” and advocated embracing the federalism. Before dissecting the article, let us take step back and see the constitutional status of Bharat and debates related to it.
Why a Union and not a Federation?
Article 1 of the Constitution of Bharat declares that ” India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States“. During the debate on the article in the Constituent Assembly, two types of members were more in favour of using the word “Federation” in the article. One were the Muslim Leaguers who had miraculously developed patriotic feelings for Bharat overnight and chosen to remain in Bharat and secondly, the socialist/communist leaders, many of whom wanted to partition Bharat into small ethno-linguistic republics.
Dr Ambedkar opposed the word “Federal” on many counts. The first reason he gave was the tendency of separatism in Bharat’s far flung areas in case of a loose center. In his own words:-
The tendency to disintegrate in our body politic has been rampant since the dawn of history and if this tendency is to be curbed the word `federal’ should be omitted from this Article.
While moving the motion regarding Draft Constitution, Dr. Ambedkar explained this point in greater detail. He said :-
“what is important is that the use of the word Union is deliberate. I do not know why the word ‘Union’ was used in the Canadian Constitution. But I can tell you why the Drafting Committee has used it. The Drafting Committee wanted to make it clear that though India was to be a federation, the Federation was not the result of an agreement by the States to join in a Federation and that the Federation not being the result of an agreement no State has the right to secede from it. The Federation is a Union because it is indestructible. Though the country and the people may be divided into different States for convenience of administration the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source.”
Article by The News Minute
The article in question makes many incorrect claims while also making many impractical and unconstitutional recommendations to transform the country into a truly federal system. The dangers of a federation have been stated above and we shall see later in this piece how demand for “federalism” has often been thinly veiled separatism. But let us first examine the article’s points one by one.
Point 1 : There was no coordination between Union and States in CoVID
The article alleges that central government’s actions and lack of coordination led to loss of “lakhs, perhaps tens of lakhs of lives.” At the outset, one must see how the state governments were behaving with each other before blaming the centre. Take the example of Delhi. The CM of Union Territory of Delhi declared that Delhi hospitals will treat only Delhi residents, and there was talk of doing vaccinations themselves if the centre relaxed its guidelines(they failed to attract even a single bid). Indeed, reports emerged today Delhi overstated its oxygen requirement by four times and deprived other states of the oxygen using Court orders for the same.
How could such a situation have been managed without a firm center which literally moved on war footing to secure oxygen supplies from all and any available sources all over the country and the world? Curiously, the author blames national lockdowns on the one hand and then elections and religious gatherings in the same sentence. The fact is that national lockdowns had been abandoned during the first wave itself and state governments have been implementing lockdowns for months now. Similarly, the timing of elections is not decided by the government, but by an independent Election Commission, which cannot be made a subject to “federalism principle”.
Point 2 : Comparison with other countries
The article compares Bharat’s federalism to Australia, a country whose population is much less than the Union Territory of Delhi. In any case, the Constitution of Bharat is not the same as the Constitution of Australia. Australia also has the unique advantage of being a very large island with low population density. Thus, any response has to be tailored to local conditions, which cannot in any way be compared to Bharat except in outcomes.
The situation could be only compared with the USA after adjusting for population. It is a large country like Bharat, where reasonably reliable statistics are available. USA is also a federation, where it is alleged that the federation negatively impacted the country’s response to the pandemic and it is one of the worst affected countries despite being one of the advanced and resource rich. Another federal country, Germany also fared poorly, in large parts due to federalism.
Point 3 : Bodies for federal coordination do not meet often
The article makes a compelling case for more frequent meetings of GST council and Inter States Council. Perhaps, it can be extended to other such bodies like NITI Ayog governing council where Centre and States cooperate. This is an acceptable contention except for one thing.
The Prime Minister did meet the CMs multiple times to explicitly talk about the situation arising due to the Chinese virus. Perhaps the author did not want her readers to know that Mr. Modi is perhaps one of the most federalist PMs to ever sit on the chair. In the first quarter of this year alone, he met the CMs on 11th of January, 17th of March, 8th of April and 23rd of April on issues related to corona-virus pandemic. Clearly, the charge against the Prime Minister and the government is without facts. It might be that Mr. Modi could not fulfil the aspirations of Ms. Tara Krishnaswamy, but that is not the only responsibility he has in these troubling times.
Point 4 : States are being denied their sovereignty
Ms. Krishnaswamy actually see the problem as “denying states their sovereignty (unlike in the US) even as it leaned federal.” However, the constitutional reality is that states were never sovereign in Bharat. In US, sovereign states actually did come to form a federation but in Bharat, all the state boundaries were decided by central government. In fact, whereas she sees red in a unitary state, the constitution has prescriptions to make it a unitary state in case of emergencies. Clearly, the federal-unitary binary should not be juxtaposed with a good-bad value judgement.
The author encourages the states to rise up and defy the central government. Perhaps, she is unaware of the constitutional relationship between states and Union, which gives more power to the latter. She is happy at the “resolutions against the Citizenship Amendment Act” and how “Mamata Banerjee displayed spirited resistance against her Chief Secretary’s transfer“, perhaps not knowing that these are blatantly unconstitutional/illegal moves.
Curiously for someone who claims to be a federalist, she is apparently against the “one state-one vote” rule in the GST council. She also claims that “Manufacturing states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, whose people are heavily compromised, have been egregious in their historical silence, hence enabling an anti-federal structure.” Unfortunately, I can’t make the head or tail of this statement. Perhaps she wants to say that some states are “good”, others are “bad” and we should listen only to the “good” states.
Point 5 : Finance commission should take terms from States
Her last point that the Terms of Reference (ToR) of Finance Commission should be prepared after there is negotiation between Union and the states. However, that would be in disregard of the constitutional scheme.
Article 280 of the constitution gives President the power to appoint a Finance Commission for determination of the “distribution between the Union and the States of the net proceeds of taxes”, “principles which should govern the grants in aid” and “any other matter… in the interests of sound finance”. Clearly, there is no mention of state governments here. It would be illegal if the central government acted according to the advice of the author.
Separatism in the garb of Federalism
Bharat has seen many a cases where separatism has assumed the garb of federalism. The idea of federation has drawn its most vocal support from DMK in Tamil Nadu, which has demanded it since 1950s when it had the dreams of establishing a separate Dravida Nadu. After 1963, it gave up that demand openly but continues to demand federalism, while many of its cadres still entertain the dream of a seperate Dravida Nadu. Indeed, Ramaswamy Naicker literally begged Dr. Ambedkar and Jinnah for support in his pet project of getting Dravida Nadu and Jinnah did initially support him. However, the idea had little appeal in Tamil Nadu and absolutely none outside it, forcing Naicker and his supporters to eat crow.
The Anandpur Sahib Resolution passed by the Akali Dal in 1973 also talked about federation, and was ultimately picked up by Khalistani separatists. That tangle took many tragedies and quarter of a century to solve.
The demand for federalism should be seen in its historical context. Historically, it has been demanded mostly by the separatists, Islamists and communists. There are many problems in Bharat’s politics, but lack of federalism is hardly one of those. One should keep an eye out for the persons who demand it and perceive their designs before they can do any harm to the country and its system.
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