Centre in focus

Centre in focus

As cynicism would have it, whenever there is a government at the Centre ideologically opposed to the one at the state, there is a lurking fear of the state getting a short shrift.

For quite a long time when West Bengal was ruled by the Left and the Centre by the Congress, the Left blamed the Central government of partisanship, of a ‘step-motherly’ attitude as a result of which, the state languished.

The infamous ‘freight-equalisation policy’ that nullified the locational advantage of the eastern region as being one of most industrially developed regions of the country, was cited as an example of a Central policy that was adversarial to the interests of eastern states including West Bengal.

The bottomline of such a relationship was what arose out of political pettiness.

If a particular state government was found ‘inimical’ or not in the league of Central alliance of supporting states, it was sure to face a barrage of impediments in roping in funds for the states, often on flimsy technical grounds.

To gain access to higher resultant shares, the states have long been demanding  inclusion of cesses, levies, royalties from coal mines, spectrum fees etc, in the divisible pool but the Finance Commission paid no heed to them.

PM-elect Narendra Modi has already assured that when it comes to development of the nation, all the states would be taken on board.

That means no distinction would be made between BJP-ruled states and the ones that have withstood the Modi onslaught successfully.

Two years ago as CM of Gujarat, Modi accused the Centre of adopting a policy of “coercive federalism” and thus pushing states to a subordinate position by monopolising all powers of financial allocations, reducing even the constitutional rights of states.

He accused the UPA government of harbouring an “individualistic, vindictive policy to single out and target certain states only”.

How does this “coercive federalism” work? It is the one-size-fits-all approach.

The Planning Commission that identifies schemes and plans for which states are entitled to funds rests the task of identification with it.

It is not only that the formulation of plans and schemes are out of sync with the demands on the ground but what is worse, these schemes come with uniform cost norms for all states regardless of variations in the per unit cost of an activity in different states.

Interests of states

It is instructive to recall that India has not been able to live up to its promises and deliver the land boundary and Teesta water-sharing agreements with Bangladesh.

For the doctrine of development to have any traction, in case of clash of perceptions and interests, like Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab seeking to be taken on board while discussing water issues with Pakistan or West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee throwing a spanner in the implementation of the Teesta accord expressing apprehension that the water-sharing treaty was unfavourable to West Bengal, while it was nationally very important to have a freight corridor through Bangladesh and for India’s ‘Look East’ policy to have any substance, or FDI in retail being opposed by a number of states on the grounds that the move would hurt the interest of farmers and retailers in their states, or the Tamil Nadu Assembly unanimously passing a resolution seeking imposition of economic sanctions on Sri Lanka, areas of concern must be addressed upon careful examination of gains and losses, mindful of both the regional and the national perspective.

Theoretically, following the rout of the anti-Sri Lanka parties in Tamil Nadu, Modi might relish the fact that his government would not have to capitulate to the ruling AIADMK in formulating a national policy for Sri Lanka.

But while the freedom not to remain beholden to regional parties in areas of foreign policy might be a breather, it might as well lead to heavy-handedness.

Thus, if Modi is willing to take the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh in states like Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Mizoram where it is a key political issue – especially in Assam where governments are made and unmade on the issue of illegal settlers from Bangladesh – to its logical conclusion, he would have to tread very carefully because of its grave federal implications and historical baggage.

And if Modi seeks to set great store by the victory of SS Ahluwalia in Darjeeling of West Bengal, interpreted as an ‘unambiguous’ vote in favour of statehood with reference to Telengana, he must exercise caution to avoid a bitter Centre-state conflict.

The comprehensive mandate that Modi got reaffirms the preference for a strong Centre to a weak one. But we need a strong centre with robust federal principles.

None can be more keenly aware of this than Modi.

Therefore, one understands that Modi, who is going to don the prime ministerial mantle after slogging it out as a chief minister for 13 years, would be sensitive to interests of states, even if that requires him to deal with some of the intractable ego-trippers as chief ministers, a promise he made during his run-up to the polls.

Whether Modi can replicate his Gujarat Model – whatever that means – in all other states of India through democratic centralism or autocratic federalism is a moot question.

But without an effective Centre-state partnership, terrorism, left-wing extremism, sharing of financial resources would become sore points in Modi’s agenda of national development.

Be they fiscal issues, or national security issues like National Counter-Terrorism Centre, friction over foreign policy or control over natural resources, the possibility of Modi’s charmed idea of India is doomed to failure if he prefers a confrontational and not a consensual mode, buoyed by the strength of the mandate.