This week the Narendra Modi Government completes one year of its second term. Undoubtedly, the last year has been one of several challenges but the Coronavirus pandemic has in some ways come to the rescue of a government that has struggled with a weak economy, the stalemate in Jammu and Kashmir, and the social disharmony created by the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). One area though, that has seen continued stress that has steadily escalated is Centre-state relations.
The nullifying of Article 370 in J&K without the approval of an elected Assembly was itself seen by some states as a signal of an assertive Centre. The decision on CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) was pretty much a unilateral declaration amid strong protests from the states.
From 2014 onwards, when the Planning Commission was abolished and replaced by Niti Aayog, when the Centre gave itself veto power on the GST council, when central-sponsored schemes (which were supposed to shrink following greater devolution of finances to states) actually started to expand, the states have been deeply suspicious of the motives of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
The Prime Minister’s highly centralized style of functioning has in no small measure contributed to the erosion of trust between New Delhi and the States. As a bureaucrat joked, ‘there is no devolution of power at the Centre itself, why speak about states’, referring to the total dominance of the PMO in policy- and decision-making.
It is thus no surprise that in Modi 2.0, the relationship with the states, which was already strained since 2014, has continued to go downhill. The BJP's reverses in Assembly polls has seen more opposition parties forming the governments thus exacerbating the trust deficit. Between 2018 and now there are such governments in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Recent flashpoints include the Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020. States are almost unanimous that they must have the freedom to decide on how they want to distribute electricity and see the Bill as a clear attempt to usurp their rights. The Centre putting conditions when states sought to raise their borrowing limits to meet with the COVID-19 crisis has also not gone down well with them.
Arrears in GST and other central grants have been a pain point for many states, and as the pandemic spread there were letters written by Chief Ministers to the Prime Minister desperately seeking their dues. Chief Ministers even in BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-ruled states (such as Tamil Nadu) have frequently blamed the Centre for their empty coffers. On television debates on regional news channels, state level BJP leaders have been pushed on the defensive in justifying the delays.
There is also the feeling that ideologically the BJP feels that a stronger Centre adds weight to its nationalist plank. That states must be diminished for the Centre to appear strong seems to be the corollary. The BJP government’s ‘One Nation’ mantra has, ironically, led to more discord between the Centre and the states as several regional parties and leaders see in this an attempt to erode the powers of the state governments and political parties too.
COVID-19 was a good opportunity for the Centre to repair relations with the states and rebuild trust. Instead, it seemed keener to use the crisis to emphasise its dominance. From the circular that said states could not procure COVID-19 testing kits except through the Centre (withdrawn hastily) to the frequent guidelines issued by the Union home ministry, often without adequate consultations with the states, the Modi Government seemed determined to show the states who the boss was.
When states kept pointing out their loss of revenue due to closure of liquor shops, the home ministry guidelines ensured that liquor shops remained closed for an extended period. The Kerala government, which initially published its own guidelines that were more lax than that of the Centre, was quickly told to back down. Not surprisingly after a point of time states began to pursue their own strategies. Initially, the bureaucrats in Delhi insisted on even deciding which the red, orange and green zones were, and it was only when states protested was this delegated to the state governments.
The recent re-starting of air services without fully getting the states on board revealed another attempt by the Centre to impose its will. With many states, including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, refusing to play ball, thousands of passengers were made to face the prospect of last minute cancellations and prolonged quarantines. In fact, BJP-ruled Karnataka was among the first to publish a circular mandating quarantine for passengers arriving at its airports leading to speculation as to whether Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa was asserting himself to the BJP leadership.
As many have pointed out, the oft repeated phrase of co-operative federalism, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi espouses, has been replaced by a muscular coercive federalism. It isn't going well at all. States need to feel empowered and must view the Centre as a benevolent father figure who revels in the success of his children. Increasingly, and with some justification, they are viewing New Delhi as a scheming uncle out to usurp their rights.Sumanth Raman is a Chennai-based television anchor and political analyst. Views are personal.