Challenge before Nation
By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
Union-State relationship is entering a new phase. Take the recent case in Tamil Nadu. The ruling AIADMK took strong objection to the income tax raids conducted in the offices and houses of its Chief Secretary terming it as an “act of intimidation unleashed to test the courage of the State Government”. CPM leader Prakash Karat too reacted saying the Centre should not have kept the Chief Minister in the dark on the raids. He thinks the Centre had acted against the spirit of federalism and views this as an attack on a non-BJP government.
Then there is the case of West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee burst out that the federal structure had been disrupted and democracy twisted by the Centre deploying Armed Forces at toll plazas in the State. Her deep anguish manifested in her strong indictment of what is said to be a routine exercise is evidence of strong feelings of State governments to remain and be respected as autonomous entities.
Her reaction shocked the entire country when she remarked in a press conference: “It seems that the Central government is trying to create a civil war like situation in the country”. She described it as “unprecedented” and a “very serious situation worse than the Emergency”, and a clear violation of the rules and understanding between the Centre and State.
One of the life convicts in Rajiv Gandhi murder case, Perarivalan, has filed a review petition challenging the Supreme Court’s verdict that held that the concurrence of the Centre was imperative in commuting sentences of prisoners. The Tamil Nadu Government had already filed a petition challenging the verdict of the Supreme Court. It is argued that the court’s decision would go against the federal structure of the country and would interfere in the rights of the State government.
The State government also opposed the Goods and Services Act (GST) on the ground that it would adversely affect the fiscal autonomy of the State and would cause huge and permanent loss of revenue. The proposed GST Council, it is said, would impinge on the legislative sovereignty of State legislatures and Parliament. The State government suggested creation of a constitutionally mandated independent compensation mechanism and objected to the veto power given to the Central government in the proposal.
The Government of Delhi, ever since the AAP came to power is struggling to assert its superiority over the Lieutenant-Governor as its main task. A suit was even filed in the Supreme Court by Kejriwal government seeking clarity on the ratio of power between its Cabinet and the NDA government in the administration of the national capital, which was dismissed.
These are some of the recent cases that are evidence of the relationship between the Centre and States entering a new phase where party politics and rivalry for power is not the only element in the conflict. Such cases were always present, but presently they have become more prominent and more frequent than the use of Article 356 to dismiss State governments that hitherto dominated discussions on Union-State relations.
In the age of globalisation, forces of both centralisation and decentralisation are simultaneously active in different ways. The shift in the economic policy from socialistic pattern to business liberalism has elevated State governments and entrepreneurs to a new level in economic matters where they need to have autonomy. They are getting more and more involved in development projects and have direct business pacts with other countries.
Some State governments also have a genuine interest in decision-making in some international issues involving State interests. West Bengal wants to have its way in water treaties with Bangladesh; and Tamil Nadu cannot watch silently Centre’s handling of Sri Lankan Tamil problem. At the same time, certain decisions and regulations need to be taken at the national level for effectiveness as well as to keep national interests over and above sub-national ambitions.
In India, before the formation of the federation, States were not sovereign independent entities as in the US. These were formed by conscious decision and consciously reorganized. The Indian Union is indestructible, but not the constituent States which can be split and joined as required.
The Indian Constitution provides three lists of legislative powers – Union, State and Concurrent – leaving residuary powers in the domain of the Centre. In the concurrent field, Union law prevails over State laws wherever they are different. The maxim of shared rule at the Centre and self-rule in the States is not just applicable, but most suitable for fostering unity in manifold diversity.
However, each one of the instances mentioned in the beginning represents existence of contrary views on the limits of the Centre and the States. Income tax raids are conducted by tax authorities and not by any government. To give advance notice about intended raids is indeed a laughable suggestion. To impute presence of Centre-State conflict in the matter is perhaps intended to divert attention, attribute extraneous motives in the duty of income tax authorities, and belittle the purpose of the raids. Far from raising a constitutional question of Central intrusion in State administration, it can create fears of more exposures that may embarrass the State government.
West Bengal Chief Minister has tried to enlarge the issue of routine deployment of armed forces as if it is a “coup” to ouster the State government. An image of a champion of State rights is being created, around which leadership for an alliance of State/regional parties could be hopefully built. It is reported that she gave 30 official letters to the PM during her visit to the capital in July last on the problem of “undermining of federalism”.
The Defence Minister has denied the charge and clarified that it was an annual exercise conducted throughout the country for getting data about the availability of load carriers in the Army for use in contingency situations and done after informing the concerned States.
Perarivalan’s review petition contains a long pending issue that needs to be settled as a question of crime and punishment and not as Union-State powers. The Supreme Court had held that the State government had no suo moto power to release the convicts without the concurrence of the Central government.
The GST is the only case mentioned here involving Union-State relations in protecting financial interests of the States in the regime of liberalism. It requires a solution satisfying the States and taking forward economic reforms.
There is definitely a decline in the number of cases of Central takeover of State government which were the main contentious issue in past decades. The days of wholesale dismissal of State governments have gone. But there are several lingering problems and potential issues that may crop up in view of the existence of some strong regional parties having abilities to tilt the scales in times of close contests for power at the Centre. This gives political significance even to non-political issues.
Global political, economic conditions are such that national decisions are to be taken in conformity with global decisions without wasting time, energy, and resources in petty party politics with the sole aim of assuming postures that do not matter to the people. Building unitary spirit in the federal set up is the challenge before the nation. — INFA