Federalism and the Indian Union / Federal front : Beyond convenience and bluster / The curious case of the federal front

[ Daily News and Analysis, 25 Jun 2013 ; Express Tribune (Karachi), 26 Jun 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 27 June 2013 ; Kashmir Images, 27 June 2013 ] 

Nitish Kumar’s parting of ways with the BJP surely is a fillip for an incipient formation whose name has been doing the rounds in political circles. With the West Bengal Chief Minister’s call for a ‘federal front’ being met with some enthusiasm in Bihar and Orissa, we face a moment that we have known before. Between the Janata Dal (United), the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, they represent about 10% of the Lok Sabha seats – not a small factor by any means. The third front is a curious organism in the political scene of the Indian Union. It is a phoenix-like organism that intermittently threatens to rise from the ashes. More often than not, its rise is arrested, not by external factors but in the dishonesty of the initial threat itself.  It is often the butt of jokes from the two so-called ‘national’ parties. But like the materialist Carvaka school of yesteryears that was vilified by the Brahminical orthodoxy for centuries, a consistent ridiculing represents a consistent perception of threat. It is the rise of this front in its various avatars, representing, in part, an aspiration to true federalism that has rendered all but ineffective that most undemocratic ‘national’ tool – Article 356. That elected state governments could be dismissed without a floor test by the centre may seem like a ridiculous idea today but it was not too long ago that the Old Congress and Indira Congress used this tool as a habitual short-cut to unseat opposition ruled state governments. There is much muck behind the copious tears of those who lament the receding relevance of the ‘national’ in politics. Others call it ‘parochial regionalism’ – a curious name for political forces that on average represent more people than most nations seated at the United Nations.The rise of these forces, especially during the heady days of the NT Rama Rao’s conclave, the National Front (Rashtriya Morcha) and the United Front, have left an indelible impact on how politics is done in the Indian Union.

But that was yesterday. Does anything remain today of such a federalist third force beyond convenience and bluster? This is especially odd given that the present parliament represents one of the lowest points for the ‘national’ if one were to combine the seats/votes of the Indira Congress and the BJP. It is not improbable that this number might reduce further in the next parliamentary elections. These 2 parties are thought to represent motherships to which others seek to anchor themselves. In reality, the appendages are nearly as big as the mothership if not bigger.

However, neither governance nor corruption distinguishes the 2 ‘nationals’ from the others. Opposing dynastic politics at Delhi, once the great rallying call for others, has lost steam due to the mini-satrapies that have developed in Chennai, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Lucknow and elsewhere.

Whatever becomes of Mamata’s call for a ‘federal front’, the thrust wont die soon. Which is why the ‘federal front’ concept needs a positive agenda to outgrow its definition in oppositional terms – anti-Congress, anti-BJP. The Anandpur Sahib resolution as adopted in 1978 by the All India Akali Conference is an extremely important document – especially those portions that have implications beyond Punjab and the Sikhs. Made in the backdrop of a Union still reeling from the Emergency (a phenomenon that could not have happened without centralization of power), the Anandpur Sahib resolution made a plea for progressive decentralization and an emphasis on federal principles. Major political forces of the time, including the Dravidian parties, CPI(M) and the Janata Party behemoth endorsed the decentralizing thrust. Ashok Mitra, the now disenchanted former CPI(M) finance minister, tried to organize opposition consensus around fiscal federalism. Now is the time to put on the table the question of fiscal autonomy – that revenues from a state should go directly to the same state without any Delhi middleman. That fiscal issue still remains at the core of the Indian Union’s false federalism and the centre has used its ill-begotten revenue wealth to divide and rule by handing out sops to pliant ‘regional’ forces. A federal front has to distinguish itself not by claiming it can manage the Union better within the present framework. It has to demand powers to be transferred from the Central and concurrent list to the state list. It has to claim back various revenue collection and disbursement powers. It has to revive the spirit of the Sarkaria commission and take it further. It has to have the imagination to offer the tantalizing possibility of a reconceptualized India – a more democratic federal Union. It has to become true its name – that is a political front that takes federalism seriously.

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, India, Polity, Power

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