Arrogant words undo federal spirit

Chief minister HD Kumaraswamy did well to calm the nerves which were strained by the unfortunate spat between union minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Karnataka tourism minister Sa Ra Mahesh during the former’s tour of the flood-hit Kodagu district last week. Rather than allow the unseemly situation to escalate into personal and political clashes or an issue between the central government and the state, the chief minister wisely tried to take the sting out of it and to bring down the passions. By apologising for any inconvenience the union minister may have faced in the state and by calling upon both to forgive each other, Kumaraswamy ensured that there was no further acrimony. He also spoke to Sitharaman and conveyed his feelings over the matter to her. That was the right way of handling a situation which could have created more bad blood with tit-for-tats from both sides. 

While the sentiments may have been assuaged, some concerns persist. These are over some wrong notions entertained even by senior ministers about their role and positions and the attitudes and postures they strike in public. Sitharaman rebuked the state minister for reminding her of her scheduled programme and said it was unbelievable that she, a union minister, had to follow the minister of a state. What it meant was that she was abiding by the state minister’s programme, despite being a central minister. That shows an overbearing attitude and is a breach of the federal spirit. The implication is that central ministers are superior in status to state ministers. The minister should understand that India is a union of states. India exists because the states do and have pooled their sovereignty into the Indian union. The Centre derives its authority from that fact. Central leaders will do well to imbibe this idea of federalism. 

Sitharaman’s remark that she was "listening to you despite being a central minister" was a sign of arrogance and condescension. The image of a central minister admonishing and haranguing a state minister in public was not pleasing. It is for the first time that such a stand-off may have taken place. That again shows the deterioration of the level of public discourse in the country. There should be better decorum and respect for others in the interactions between public personalities. They should not be reduced to the angry words, gestures and expressions which are the daily fare in TV channel debates. The unhappy incident at Kodagu is best forgotten, as Kumaraswamy said, but it has some useful lessons if it is looked at without prejudice and rancour. 

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