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It’s time to rejuvenate inter-state council

The current crisis between the Union and state governments, including the ones ruled by the BJP, is largely because of centralised policymaking
Last Updated : 24 October 2022, 00:51 IST
Last Updated : 24 October 2022, 00:51 IST

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its 2014 election manifesto promised the creation of a “Regional Council of States” and most importantly, the revival of “the moribund fora like ‘National Development Council’ and that ‘Inter-State Council (ISC)’ will be made into active bodies”.

The nation-wide difference of opinion on the Agnipath scheme and the subsequent developments has pushed the state governments to raise their views and opinions on the same. Given this backdrop, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rekindle the Inter-State Council by meeting at least twice in a year. The emphasis on Cooperative Federalism is also found in BJP’s 2019 election manifesto where it mentioned that “we will continue to pursue this course by ensuring greater involvement of the states in all aspects of policy making and governance, thereby strengthening federalism”. In this context, it is interesting to see the ground realities and suggest a
way forward to activate and rejuvenate the ISC.

Article 263 of the Constitution promulgates provisions with respect to the ISC and its establishment by the President of India. The ISC has the duties of “inquiring into and advising upon disputes between the states, discussing subject matters having common interest among states, or the Union and states, and recommending upon any subject for better co-ordination policy and action”.

Accordingly, ISC came into existence on May 28, 1990 through a Presidential Order on the basis of the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission. One of the mandates is that “the Committee shall meet at least thrice every year”. Since then, meetings of the ISC have been very inconsistent and have fallen short of the mandate, the year 1997 being the only exception wherein two meetings were held; since 1990 only 11 meetings have been held against the mandate of 96 as per the order.

Out of 11, nine meetings were held by and large to discuss the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission and consensus-building on the same. During the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) tenure of 2004-14, two meetings were held and during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime from 2014-2022, so far one meeting was conducted, with the latest in 2016. The highest number of meetings were held during the NDA regime-I (1998-2004) led by the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wherein the ISC met four times and used successfully the ISC platform to arrive at the consensus on the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission. The formation of “The National Commission to review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC)” under the Chairmanship of Justice M N Venkatachalaiah in 2001 is one of the outcomes of the ISC meetings during this period.

The resurrection of the ISC in recent times is inevitable in the context of a growing divide between the states and the Union government, more specifically the fiscal gap as a result of the experiments of demonetisation and the GST. In the legislative domain, the farm laws and the subsequent repeal, NEET examination, Agnipath scheme and the deepening tussle between the Governors and the state governments demand a relook at the ISC and its functioning. The usurpation of the legislative, administrative and financial powers by the current ruling dispensation stands in contradiction to the stated objectives in the 2014 and 2019 election manifestos respectively. Contextualising this, retired Supreme Court Judge A P Shah (2020) has observed that, “In India today, every institution, mechanism or tool that is designed to hold the executive accountable, is being systematically destroyed”. We, as a society, are facing a challenge with the majoritarian government to preserve and protect the pluralistic and liberal democracy from the forces of centralisation and homogenisation.

The policies made and formulated through debates and discussions have an in-built and much-needed social legitimacy as compared to government stability, which is acquired through monopoly of power and authority. The rise of authoritarian regimes and their implications for democratic decline are global phenomena and India is not an exception. From the foregoing analysis, it is clear that only the NDA regime-I, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, showed interest in strengthening the bond between the Union and state governments through a consensual governance. Other regimes, irrespective of the party and ideology, are yet to show the commitment and practice of the principles of federalism.

Amend Article 263

The current crisis between the Union and state governments, including the ones ruled by the BJP, is largely because of centralised policymaking. The monopoly of decision-making in the hands of the higher echelons of the ruling dispensation’s leadership is creating troubles within and between the states and the Union and states. In these turbulent times, the rekindling ISC provides ample scope to balance the strain and stress in the Union-state relationship. The reconstitution of the ISC in May 2022 and the Standing Committee of the ISC is a welcome step; however, much needs to be done in activating the ISC as a truly participatory platform in terms of policy making. Justice M M Punchhi Commission on Centre-State relations in its report in 2010 on “Co-ordination between States, Centre-State Relations and Inter-State Council” observed that “Co-operative federalism is easily endorsed but difficult to practise without adequate means of consultation at all levels of government”.

With particular reference to ISC, it has been recommended that “it is imperative to put the Inter-State Council as a specialised forum to deal with intergovernmental relations according to federal principles and Constitutional good practices”. The strained relationship between the Union and state governments in a democracy hinders the growth of the nation. It is high time that the Union government, having reconstituted the ISC, walks the talk in consulting all state governments in policy making and to uphold constitutional federalism. The beginning point for this is to bring in suitable amendments to Article 263 so as to enable ISC to deal with matters of inter-state and Union-state governments and its differences towards the fulfilment of the BJP’s election promise made in 2014 and 2019.

(The writer is a PhD Fellow in Political Science, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)

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Published 23 October 2022, 17:18 IST

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