In my college days, when I read Indian constitution it was said that India was a “union” of states, and this “union” was “indestructible”. What it meant was that unlike the United States, which is “indestructible union of indestructible states”, in India the “states” can be enlarged or broken to create new states as long as they remained parts of the indestructible Indian Union. Thus, India Constitution-makers did not want a “federal” India; it was “quasi-federal” in the sense that there were clear division of powers between the central and state governments (under the Union List and State List of powers respectively) but the overall weight was in favour of the Union, which had the final say on matters (concurrent list) where both the central and state governments can intervene. Besides, it was made clear that the central government had the power to dismiss the state governments or bring a state under its direct rule under special circumstances, particularly when a state government deliberately disobeyed central directives.
Any doubts over the above feature of the Indian constitution were dispelled in 1962 by the Supreme Court of India in the case State of West Bengal V. Union of India. The case here involved, and here I am going by the information provided by the
website legalservicesindia.com, the exercise of sovereign powers by the Indian states. The legislative competence of the Parliament to enact a law for compulsory acquisition by the Union of land and other properties vested in or owned by the state and the sovereign authority of states as distinct entities was also examined. The apex court held that the Indian Constitution did not propound a principle of absolute federalism. Though the authority was decentralised this was mainly due to the arduous task of governing the large territory. The court outlined the characteristics, which highlight the fact that the Indian Constitution is not a “traditional federal Constitution”.
Going by that judgment of the apex court, first, there is no separate Constitution for each State as is required in a federal state. The Constitution is the supreme document, which governs all the states. Secondly, the Constitution is liable to be altered by the Union Parliament alone and the units of the country i.e. the States have no power to alter it. Thirdly, the distribution of powers is to facilitate local governance by the states and national policies to be decided by the Centre. Lastly, as against a federal Constitution, which contains internal checks and balances, the Indian Constitution renders supreme power upon the courts to invalidate any action violative of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court further held that both the legislative and executive power of the States is subject to the respective supreme powers of the Union. Legal sovereignty of the Indian nation is vested in the people of India. The political sovereignty is distributed between the Union and the States with greater weight age in favour of the Union. Another reason which militates against the theory of the supremacy of States is that there is no dual citizenship in India. Thus, the learned judges concluded that the structure of the Indian Union as provided by the Constitution one is centralised, with the States occupying a secondary position vis-à-vis the Centre; hence the Centre possessed the requisite powers to acquire properties belonging to States.
57 years after the Apex Court gave its landmark judgment, the same West Bengal government under Mamata Banerjee’s chief ministership is behaving in a manner that conveys an impression that the text of the Indian Constitution is loaded heavily in favour of the States rather than the Centre. Just imagine the systematic manner in which it creates roadblocks for the central ministers to hold rallies in West Bengal. Her government allows a city Police Commissioner to avoid the Central Bureau of Investigation for a meeting to discuss a corruption case that the central agency has been assigned to investigate by none other than the Supreme Court. Her government defies central schemes to be implemented in the state.
But then, she is not alone. Her political allies, ranging from the Congress party under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi to the jailed Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal to arguably the richest politician of the country Mayawati and her Bahaujan Samaj Party to the Chandrababu Naidu -led government in Andhra Pradesh, all are great votaries of the new concept of “states are supreme’’.
Interestingly, had it been the times of Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party 25-30 years ago, Mamata’s government would have been dismissed a long ago. O course, Rahul is not Indira Gandhi, his grandmother and the composition of Parliament today is not the same as it was during her time. Abusing the power to dismiss the democratically elected state governments by the central government under the Congress party crossed the limits so badly that the Supreme Court has intervened in the meantime and made such dismissals a little bit more difficult by envisaging the approval of the imposition of President’s rule in a given state by the two Houses of Parliament within two months. But now the situation is such is that it is highly unlikely that any government at the centre will have the majority in Rajya Sabha in foreseeable future. And that being the case, it is almost impossible to impose President’s rule, something the likes of Mamata and Chandrababu know very well. And that explains their open challenge to and defiance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What all this implies is that the nature of federalism is changing. So much so that Mamata has been able to block the central government from concluding treaties with foreign governments( as has been the cases with exchange of enclaves and water-sharing of the joint rivers with Bangladesh) . And if this trend is further strengthened, every state government will literally blackmail the central government on more issues than one can imagine. This trend becomes really dangerous if that state happens to be under the influence of secessionist elements. In fact, if Indian constitution was made “quasi-federal” by its drafters, it was precisely to fight the centrifugal tendencies of a vast landmass that India is, marked by great divergences.
Of course, there are contradictions within Mamata’s so-called alliance with the “like-minded parties”. It so happens that non-BJP leaders of all the southern states support Mamata’s fight against the central government. In the process they do not realise that their northern allies , such as Samajwadi party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rastriya Janata Dal are openly demanding that nation’s resources should be allocated on the basis of population, be it through castes or creeds. That means that irrespective of what it does, states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar must have the bigger portions of the national cake. Their only obsession is reservations of everything on the basis of populations.
But then the fact remains that contributions of the southern and western states, the states that have always promoted population-control measures, to the national resources are infinitely more than those in the north. For instance, it is reported that Tamil Nadu gets back 30 rupees for every 100 it sends to New Delhi; the northern state of Bihar, by contrast, receives 219. Chandrababu Naidu, incidentally, has openly accused the central government of “diverting” the south’s money to the north. Even see the case of Mamata’s West Bengal. If the demographic logic for the distribution of the sources will be taken into the account, then the average Bengali, who earns Rs 80,000 every year will demand eternal sacrifices on the part of an average Tamilian who earns Rs 1,36,000. And states like Maharashtra, the richest in the country, and Gujarat, will also have to become poorer to take care of those in UP, Bihar and Bengal.
Such are the perverse implications of Mamata’s federalism! Little does she realise that she is creating federal anarchy that has ominous implications for the nation’s unity and integrity.
By Prakash Nanda