This day, exactly 10 years ago, Narendra Modi, as Gujarat Chief Minister, moved a resolution at the BJP’s national executive in Lucknow. Titled “UPA — a Grave Threat to our Federalism”, it accused the Congress-led Centre of usurping law-making powers of the states, misusing investigative agencies, exploiting statutory and constitutional bodies to undercut states and getting Governors to work as political agents.
“Non-Congress ruled states are making their voice of disapproval heard from all over the country,” said the resolution. “But their cry is only falling on deaf ears.”
Cut to today, the shoe’s on the other foot.
Over the last one month, especially after the May 2 election results, several state governments are echoing the spirit of that resolution, accusing the Modi government of hardening Centre-state battlelines on a sweeping range of issues: political upmanship to health, Bengal to Lakshadweep, CBI to vaccines. And, in the process, forging a unity and a pushback that, they say, will play out in Parliament when it meets.
Prominent in the cross-hairs is West Bengal.
Four days after Mamata Banerjee returned to power, Central teams landed days after the verdict to probe post-poll political violence (May 6); CISF security cover was given to all 77 new BJP MLAs (May 10); CBI arrested two ministers and two other Trinamool leaders in the Narada case (May 17); Banerjee said CMs were not allowed to speak at a meeting PM had with DMs (May 20).
The standoff culminated in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee staying away from a cyclone relief meeting (May 28) chaired by the Prime Minister and the Centre recalling the then West Bengal Chief Secretary who was issued a show-cause notice (June 1) under the Disaster Management Act.
West Bengal is not alone. Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren went on record (May 6) to say the Prime Minister did not listen to him during a Covid phone call. The Tamil Nadu government boycotted a virtual meeting (May 17) convened by Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal with state Education secretaries for directly interacting with officials rather than ministers.
Now, Lakshadweep is in turmoil over a raft of moves made by Administrator Praful Patel (May 15) that have event provoked opposition from the local BJP unit. Congress-ruled states are upset over the exclusion of their Finance Ministers from a Group of Ministers formed (June 1) to examine the issue of exempting Covid-19 essentials from GST.
Ever since it was opened on May 1, vaccine supply is aperennial flashpoint with Opposition states, day after day, urging the Centre to procure. Even the popular cancellation of the Class XII CBSE exams came at a meeting of the PM days after several states had asked for a truncated version of the test.
Ironically, for the BJP, its long years in the Opposition made it sensitive to Centre-State relations. More so, when the rampant misuse of Article 356 in the Indira Gandhi years was checked only after the S R Bommai ruling in 1994 and the imperatives of the coalition era.
The BJP’s election manifesto for the 1984 Lok Sabha elections – the first general election it fought – said how states were reduced to glorified municipalities and that the BJP would restore the federal balance. To that effect, it made eight promises that included appointing Governors in consultation with state governments. Its 2019 manifesto promised to implement cooperative federalism.
So the deepening tussle between the Centre and Opposition-run states has unnerved some within the BJP too. Said a former BJP Chief Minister: “It is unfortunate that where there are Opposition Chief Ministers, the Centre’s relationship is so fraught. The Centre and the Prime Minister should come forward.
Referring to the controversy over the former West Bengal Chief Secretary, former Karnataka Chief Minister M Veerappa Moily, who headed the second Administrative Reforms Commission, said it seems the government had no “institutional memory” as there are laid down procedures and rules regarding transfer of officials.
Such moves are uniting the Opposition. For instance, the Chief Ministers of Kerala and Odisha, Pinarayi Vijayan and Naveen Patnaik, have written to their counterparts flagging problems in the vaccine policy.
“The Centre should not punish Opposition states,” said DMK leader T R Baalu. Echoing this is his colleague Rajya Sabha MP T K S Elangovan: “They (BJP) don’t want states, they want a unitary India. There should be a strong fight for the rights of the states.”
Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said that these issues will be raised in Parliament. A strident critic of Mamata Banerjee and her government, Chowdhury said the tug of war over a bureaucrat sends the “wrong message” that the “Government is impatient with opposition so impatient with democracy…it does not believe in reconciliation.”
Trinamool Congress leader Sukhendu Shekhar Roy said it is time for the Opposition to unite “against the arbitrariness of the Centre and the challenges that are thrown by the ruling party to turn this system into a unitary one.”
For Assam Chief Minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, this is a specious debate pushed by those who want to undermine Modi come what may. “I have seen CMs after CMs sitting in Sonia Gandhi’s waiting room for two to three hours,” he said at Idea Exchange at The Indian Express. “Today, the Centre-state relationship is redefined in a way that a CM like Mamata Banerjee can dare to challenge the Central government.” He said the Centre will continue development activity in any state irrespective of the political affiliation of the party in power.
Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap frames the current standoff as a misreading of the Constitution. “We all play politics and are not willing to admit that there are no inalienable rights of states. Article 256 and 257 provide for what you call Centre issuing directives to the states and if those directives are not obeyed then Article 365 says that a situation may be said to have been created where the government of the state is not being carried on in accordance with the Constitution. If it is viewed in the light of the letters of the Constitution, a very different picture emerges. The Union has given certain rights to the States as a concession and they can be withdrawn at any time,” he said.
In other words, the Centre-state equation isn’t as Constitutionally firewalled as it should be, making it more vulnerable at a time of fierce political contests.