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Cooperative Federalism Losing Steam

By Suraj Kumar Thube

03 June, 2016

Granville Austin, one of India's leading constitutional experts, had coined the term 'cooperative federalism' which corroborated with his large path for political progress. This for him formed the basis of three important strands namely, the propagation of democracy, unity and integrity of the nation and bringing social reform. The 'seamless web' was going to function well only if there was an amicable relationship between the Centre and the states. Like last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi espoused the virtues of cooperative federalism recently by assuring the states of an equal, robust partnership in the quest for economic growth. Unfortunately, an overweening centre has either sidelined states altogether or has offered a token presence in this 'new' era of Indian politics.

Having had captured almost all the electorally significant states in the recent past, the BJP looked buoyant about its dream of a Congress mukt India. So much so that the central government tried its level best to pull down a democratically elected government in Uttarakhand, which followed after a similar faux pas in Arunachal Pradesh. This public embarrassment caused by the president's rule being quashed by the court should lead to a self introspection regarding the real meaning of the new found virtue. This, coupled with the ham handed manner in which the centre tackled the military ambush in the North East by intruding into Myanmar and a covert truce reached with the NSCN-IM sans taking the state governments on board were events that were anything but signifying cooperation. Baring these cases, one would argue that the centre-state relations have been more than cordial, especially in the economic sense where the latter are being given more share in the taxes ( 42%). However, this significant rise has come after a significant reduction in the centrally sponsored schemes and the role it played in the overall development in states. The revenue collected will hopefully transform into basic infrastructure and all that constitutes for easing conditions of doing business in India for foreign players. The centralising tendency of the present government needs to recognise that since the opening up of the economy, the economic model has shifted considerably in favour of the states. They have managed to directly come in contact with foreign companies, taking forward the logic of a waning intergovernmental cooperation among the centre and states and an increasing horizontal cooperation among states. That the state as a political unit where all significant economic change happens is a well established fact. What needs to be seen is what kind of a role the centre plays in acting as an engaging regulator and facilitator in the changing economic model. Competitive federalism is the dominant paradigm across the states where cooperation on this demand model is strengthening instead of the path - dependency model between the Centre and the state. A 'scaling up' framework which will try generalising the state scenario looks the most workable way in maintaining an active relationship between the two. At the same time, problems increase when one takes into account the centre's idea of shifting its own obligations to the states under the name of 'devolution of powers'.

Swach Bharat Abhiyan started off as a centre driven scheme only to gradually see it being conveniently pushed to the sub national level for achieving its collective targets. This can be also be seen in the recent case of the Centre mulling over a draft plan that talks about doing away with the Central Wetlands regulation authority only to burden the states with its implementation according to its own procedures. Forming state wetlands authority is going to be a tedious job as the expected levels of accountability and transparency will drastically suffer. This seems to be slightly different in form but almost similar in content if we compare it with the whittling down of the number of members from the Wildlife conservation board two years ago. There it was a case of lowering participation from different corners of India but it laid the foundations for things to come in future. The idea that one set of work can be merrily handed down to the state level is a classic case of shying away from one's own responsibility and not of empowering the states in any way. To make matters worse, the role of the state is systematically reduced where it has been needed the most. This can also been in certain sort of disquiet developing around the recommendations suggested by a new committee on formulating a new education policy. Education being a state subject should have ideally meant a prominent role to be played by the states in providing suggestions. This hasn't happened as the Centre itself looks unclear regarding the application of the preliminary recommendations and a time bound delivery of the same.

The Nehruvian idea of being in a cooperative relationship even with states ruled by their own party seems to be a thing of the past. The centre today has maximum governance problems to deal with in states ruled by its own party, classic examples being Haryana and Gujarat which have witnessed massive breakdown of law and order by protests seeking reservations for certain communities. Also, the open confrontation with its principal ally in Maharashtra over an allegation of a new corruption scam and a tenuous coalition with the assertive Akalis are all cases which beg answers from a centre's new found admiration for 'cooperative federalism'. The traditional notion of the centre-states relations reaching a deadlock only when there are two different political parties at work needs more deliberation. Otherwise, this kind of federalism will only integrate a set of vacuous, vicarious ideas giving a sense of a hollow euphoria and not the addressing of peculiar political developments taking place across the country.

Suraj Kumar Thube is currently pursuing his MA in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is interested in Indian politics and Indian political thought. He spends most of his time reading books, playing football and listening to Hindustani classical music.



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