It feels good when the States of the Indian Union muster up sufficient strength to show the Government of the Union the raised middle finger. For so long having been the victims of the arrogance of the Union and its gross insensitivity to federal ways of working, the States have realised that power equations have changed and they now deserve to be treated with greater respect. First the FDI in retail, then the LokPal/ Lok Ayukta Bill, and now the NCTC- the States have shown that they will not wag their tails each time they are asked to do so. The ways in which policies are framed and grand plans laid out, the protocol now will have to be very, very different.
But first, entrenched attitudes have to change. Much discussion on our federalism still revolves around whether our Constitution is quasi federal, or federal with a unitary bias or unitary with federal features. Couched in legal, juridical terms this pointless debate assumes that political reality will follow the original intent of the Constitution makers in giving the Union a dominating role. The reality, however, is in conflict with this design. The Indian polity is by now irreversibly federal and coalitionary and the imposition of a unitary culture in governance can now never succeed. The existence of superior and exceptional powers with the Union to subdue or supersede the States does not mean that these powers have to be used. What is important is to accept the federal nature of the polity and align administrative structures and processes to this reality. And this is what a Congress led Government refuses to do. So used is it to a High Command style of functioning of unquestioned supremacy in decision making that each time it gets a rebuff it simply goes into a sulk and shelves important policy reform hoping to reimpose its will when it can regain the kind of brute majority it was accustomed to in the past.
Many people in the Union Government continue to see federalism as a problem. The States are at best seen as ‘implementers’ of superior decisions taken by the Union rather than as valued partners. The very fact that both in popular and official discourse people refer to the Union as the ‘Centre’ and ‘Central Government’ - terms which do not exist in the Constitution is a reflection of this attitude. A Union is a union of partners, whereas as a Centre is the inner core of a unitary whole. Appreciating this difference is crucial.
Many also continue to conflate the ‘national’ with ‘central’ and ’regional’ with the States, quite forgetting that without the states coming together there is no Union. Take the proposed NCTC for example. In its favour it is argued that terrorism is a ‘national’ problem which does not respect State boundaries and therefore has to be dealt with by the ‘Central’ Government. This is a deeply flawed argument. Most problems or issues are universal and impact simultaneously at international, national, regional and local levels-be it Climate Change, or terrorism, or poverty, or infrastructure, or security. The problems themselves are never completely ‘international’ or ‘national’ or ‘local’, they simply impact differently at different levels. So countering terrorism has to be not just at the global or national levels but at all levels and each level requires a custom made strategy. Otherwise, it could well be argued that as terrorism does not respect national boundaries, decisions on countering it should be taken by the US Government -being the leader of the global fight against terror!
The second argument is that of the need for better national level co ordination. But coordination does not require a centralised command and control architecture, it requires a networking one. . Information and intelligence is best gathered in a decentralised manner with the active participation of local level agencies, made to conform to agreed standards, pooled into a commonly owned resource and made accessible and useful to all stakeholders. This is possible only in an organisational framework which is confederal and which is jointly owned by the Union and the States, not one in which the Union alone exercises centralised bureaucratic control .
People forget that the more federal the processes, the more democratic and the more collegial, more the possibilities of strategies and actions being better coordinated. This also enables a better pooling of skills, ideas and human resources in the task of policy making. It was this consideration which made the Constitution makers provide for a unique mechanism in the shape of the Inter State Council under Article 263 of the Constitution for the Union and the States partnering each other in identifying issues of common concern, investigating them and arriving at policy recommendations. The Council is chaired by the Prime Minister and has all the Chief Ministers and selected Ministers of the Union as members. While the Constitutional provision had existed from the very beginning the Council was constituted only in 1990 when the Sarkaria Commission highlighted its potential usefulness and a non Congress Government seized the opportunity to set it up.
The unique value of the ISC lies in the fact that it brings the Governments of the Union and the States on a neutral platform as equals and not as superiors and subordinates. In its composition it is perfectly balanced with neither the States nor the Union in a position to dominate. While its recommendations are meant to be advisory, given that they come from the highest levels of Government, they are not capable of being easily shelved or ignored.
Experience shows that the best way of evolving consensus on conflictual issues is by having all the parties define the problem together. If there is consensus on defining a problem comprehensively having everyone to agree to the solution becomes very simple. Had an attempt been made by using the agency of the ISC to collectively define the problem and then investigate it together through the independent Secretariat of the ISC there would never have been the kind of opposition the Union now faces from its constituent units.
Congress led Governments have not yet accepted the inevitability of increased power of the States and the need for a more consensual, inclusive way doing things. They forget that federalism is one of our greatest strengths and deepening it only strengthens the union, not weaken it. Government is surely not the place to sing ‘Ekla chalo re’.