The beginning of June in India saw the beginning of a unique experiment: for the first time in its history, a broad-based 13-party coalition of disparate elements took over the reigns of power. A very prominent group in this comprised the ´Federal Front´, a conglomeration of regional parties that between themselves had garnered a substantial chunk of votes in the April-May general elections. Faced with a choice at the national level between the Congress Party, now widely perceived as moribund and corrupt, and a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that seeks to impose a monocultural identity on the country, the voters had chosen instead to allow regional issues and alternatives to come to the fore.
Mercifully, there was no assassination to render the polls an emotional exercise, as in 1984 and 1991 when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were violently removed from the scene. Despite the trouble in Kashmir, “unity and stability” did not develop as issues in this election as had happened in the previous ones. Ironically, it was P.V. Narasimha Rao´s stable government of the last five years which made that electoral plank obsolete. With nearly half a century of freedom and democratic rule under its belt, the public was confident enough to ignore exhortations on the need for a strong centre. This was an election which focused on local issues of immediate concern.
Jettisoning the BJP government which could not muster support in the House, a United Front coalition government supported by the Congress (“from the outside”) now finds itself in the hot seat. Among its constituents are the Tamil Manila Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) from Tamil Nadu, the Asom Gana Parishad from Assam, the Telugu Desam Party from Andhra Pradesh, the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Party from the largest state at the country´s centre, and the Samajwadi Party, whose strength is in Uttar Pradesh.
Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar believes that this development does not bode well for the Indian Union. He and others like him believe that things will begin to fall apart and the centre will not hold. On the other hand, another former Prime Minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, believes that this is an opportunity for India to establish a truly federal polity. The relationship between New Delhi and the states has always been an uneasy one, and this has been specially true in states ruled by a party other than the one in power at the Centre. Even when chief ministers were of the same party as the Prime Minister, their wings were clipped the moment they were seen as developing into rival power centres. If it was not Article 356 of the Constitution that was arbitrarily used to dismiss unfriendly state governments, then New Delhi often succeeded in ruffling feathers by drawing the purse strings too tight.
Existing constitutional provisions concentrate fiscal powers in the Central Government, with New Delhi holding the right to disburse national wealth among the states. The report of the Sarkaria Commission, instituted to look into centre-state relations, had recommended that the states be given a bigger share in fiscal powers. Both the BJP and the United Front have made promises to implement the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission and amend Article 356 to prevent its abuse.
If this is done, the states will find themselves firmly in control of their future. No longer will they have to depend on the Centre for largesse and require clearance from New Delhi for every international project. They can formulate and implement schemes according to the felt needs on the ground. And this power can be further decentralised to reach the local bodies and the village Panchayats.
With power, comes responsibility, and the state leadership will have to learn to say no to populist schemes whose sole purpose is to cultivate vote banks. In the past, some chief ministers have been profligate, secure in the knowledge that the Centre will foot the bills. With their hold on New Delhi, the powerful state satraps will be tempted to use the Centre´s coffers once more. For example, Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam might be tempted to pass on the costs of the two-rupees-per-kg rice scheme in Andhra Pradesh and of the bill on prohibi¬tion to the Centre. Similarly, Laloo Prasad Yadav might have to be persuaded not to lay the cost of the abysmal financial mismanagement in Bihar at New Delhi´s door.
In fact, even as a new federal structure takes hold, the regional leadership should be encouraged to look towards raising more resources in the states, and ensuring more fiscal responsibility. While no state government would individually be able to effect unpopular measures, perhaps it is possible to take such decisions jointly at the Centre. These must include the doing away of subsidies in crucial loss-making sectors such as electricity and irrigation, and the implementation of some form of tax on the agricultural income of rich farmers.
Politically, the devolution of power would also mean greater autonomy within the states for disgruntled regions like Jharkhand and Vidarbha. The Janata Dal, the major constituent of the front, has promised to look into demands for autonomy for such regions and set up a commission to examine the possibility of having smaller states. Even the BJP, seeing the way the wind blows, had made a similar promise. This could, in the longer run, mean a resolution to violent agitations such as ´Gorkhaland´, ´Bodoland´ or ´Uttarakhand´. If true federalism does take root and the regional aspirations of the people are legitimately fulfilled, it could also mean no more festering wounds like Punjab and Kashmir.
The new leaders in New Delhi come from the mofussil, so to speak, and have been given a tremendous opportunity by the people of India, by indicating where their hopes lie. It is up to them to rise to the occasion.
The contrast in the leaderships of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the United front is so striking that they represent two different images of Indian society. While the 12-member BJP Cabinet headed by Mr Vajpayee had six members based in Delhi or Bombay, the 14-member steering committee of the United Front has members who have been operating in Guwahati, Patna, Lucknow, Gwalior, Hyderabad, Madras and Bangalore.
– From “Not a Motley Crowd” by Surendra Mohan in The Hindu of 1 June, 1996