An update on the federalist debate in India

In recent days, numerous leaders in India’s South have spoken in one voice against the 15th Finance Commission — arguing that it is unfair to South Indian states. The bone of contention is a directive in the terms of reference given to the Finance Commission, which states that the distribution of revenues amongst states should be based on the 2011 census, as opposed to the 1971 census. During this period, South Indian states have fared well in controlling their population, while Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh – all northern states – have been unsuccessful. South Indian states have put forth the argument that they have been penalized for controlling their population, while states which have not fared particularly well have been rewarded.

Some leaders have also objected to the commission dubbing important welfare schemes as ‘populist’ without understanding the economic and social dynamics of different states.

Non-Economic Issues

It would be pertinent to point out that problems began when the Chief Minister (similar to an American Governor) of Karnataka announced that his state would be setting up a Committee to examine the possibility of a separate flag for the state. This move was dubbed as divisive. Commenting on the state’s decision for a separate flag, the Karnataka Chief Minister had argued in a Facebook post:

We have been using a red and yellow flag since decades. Yet, Karnataka, as our poet Laureate Kuvempu said, is the daughter of Bharata, the Indian nation (Jaya Bharatha Jananiya Tanujathe). The nervousness of anchors in Delhi studios about our assertion of identity is therefore misplaced.

Attempts to impose Hindi on Southern India, in recent months, have also met with stiff resistance from Southern Indian states.

Is it purely a North-South Divide?

The media accusation of South Indian states, especially Karnataka, seeking to create a wedge is far fetched.

For instance, the Finance Minister of Kerala (another state in South India), Thomas Isaac, recently argued:

Most of the north Indian States are relatively backward and, therefore, in any federal system of distribution, they should be given a special consideration. There is no debate on that. But there has to be a sense of proportion, too.

Even other South Indian leaders have not denied that the Centre, New Delhi, has an obligation to take care of states which are not well off.

Other Chief Ministers, too, have spoken up against centralization

While all eyes are on South Indian states, other states have criticized New Delhi for trying to tamper with India’s Federal character. Prime Minister Modi lashed out on more than one occasion against the previous administration when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, accusing it of discriminating against his state; he also came down heavily on institutions like the Planning Commission and the National Development Council (NDC) (interestingly, Karnataka’s current Chief Minister has also criticized the NDC, dubbing it as a ‘talk shop’). Modi had also praised the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the late J Jayalalitha, for taking on the central government by walking out when she was given only 10 minutes to speak at a National Development Council meeting.

Even while opposing the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) proposed by the erstwhile Congress government, a number of Chief Ministers, including Mamata Banerjee (then an ally of the Congress-led UPA), Naveen Patnaik (Chief Minister of Odisha), and Jayalalitha had joined hands. All these leaders had stated that the NCTC was not in sync with the federal character of the country.

To look at the demands of these states from any one lens is naïve. The fact is that states from Eastern India (Odisha, West Bengal), the North East, and even Punjab have had differences with the centre over numerous issues.

New Delhi, whether led by a Congress Government or the BJP, has not been particularly deft or responsive to some of the genuine concerns of states.

While Modi has spoken about ‘Cooperative Federalism’ on more than one occasion, so far it has been a mere slogan and nothing else. The PM’s attitude towards states has been driven to a large extent by the party in power in that particular state – something he accused the previous UPA government of doing.

Failure of Regional Leaders

At the same time, regional leaders have failed to create any one forum where they can discuss common challenges they face. The only time they join hands or speak up in one voice is when elections are around the corner.

How regional parties worked together in the 1960’s and 1970’s

Here it would be pertinent to point out that, when the Congress Party’s power was at its peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were more robust and effective linkages between various regional parties. For instance, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Punjab) and other regional parties, including the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (Tamil Nadu), jointly raised the demand for greater rights for states. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was part of the Janata Government in the late 1970’s, and during the Emergency had developed strong links with regional leaders.

Interestingly, when Karunanidhi, as Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, sought a separate flag in 1970, a former chief minister of Punjab, Justice Gurnam Singh (who shared a good rapport with Karunanidhi), supported his demand saying: ‘A separate flag does not mean disrespect or insult to the national flag.’

Anandpur Sahib Resolution

The Anandpur Sahib Resolution, a document framed by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), sought more powers for state governments and was dubbed rather simplistically and unfairly as ‘secessionist’ by many. The Resolution did unequivocally speak about aspirations of the Sikh community and the linguistic and religious rights of minorities, but there was a strong thrust on strengthening India’s federal structure and the need for greater coordination and understanding between regional parties.

The Resolution (link), moved by the late S. Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Akali stalwart, then-President of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), and in the All India Akali Conference of 1978, categorically stated:

The concept of the total revolution given by Lok Naik Sh. Jaya Parkash Narain also based upon the progressive decentralization of powers. The climax of the process of centralization of powers of the states through repeated amendments of the Constitution during the Congress regime came before the countrymen in the form of the Emergency, when all fundamental rights of all citizens were usurped. It was then that the programme of decentralization of powers ever advocated by Shiromani Akali Dal was openly accepted and adopted by other political parties including Janata Party, C.P.I. (M), A.D.M.K. etc.

Changing dynamics of national politics and failure of certain regional parties

In the last 20 years, some regional parties like the SAD have focused more on power-sharing in coalition governments and getting representation in central cabinets, as opposed to genuine economic rights of their respective states. When out of power, some regional leaders up the ante, but there is no real substance, and it is driven purely by political considerations. While there has been an increasing demand for state governments having more of a voice in foreign policy, the current Akali leadership, for instance, has not really spoken out in favor of resumption of engagement between India and Pakistan (even though Punjab has lost out in the economic sphere as a result of bilateral tensions). Tensions between both countries have had an impact even on Sikh pilgrimages to Pakistan. Last year, Jathas (groups of Sikh pilgrims), were forced to return back from Attari on more than three occasions, in spite of possessing all valid documents.

On the other hand, Mehbooba Mufti, President of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, an ally of the BJP, has spoken for resumption of dialogue between both countries on more than one occasion.

Punjab’s regional political parties have also been mute spectators on issues pertaining to Punjabi/Sikh Diaspora settled in Canada, USA, and UK. This was clearly evident during Justin Trudeau’s visit. The ‘Khalistan issue’ was made the main issue, while issues pertaining to the diaspora in Canada, along with possible opportunities to strengthen economic and educational linkages between Punjab and Canada were totally ignored. This was a mistake on the part of the Central Government and an abject failure on the part of the state government, as well as the SAD (an ally of the BJP). It was a clear reiteration of the fact that Punjab’s political parties lacked the ability to influence the agenda. Other regional parties like AIADMK, DMK (Tamil Nadu), and TMC (West Bengal) have asserted themselves on foreign policy issues, especially in the context of the neighbourhood.


There is thus a space for a platform/forum where there are meaningful exchanges between leaders from various states. This should meet frequently, and not just when elections are around the corner. The leadership of such a forum can be by rotation. While it remains to be seen whether the Federal Front, which Mamata Banerjee has proposed, comes into being and lasts beyond 2019, the narrative relating to centre-state ties has found resonance in different parts of India.

In recent days, Dharamvira Gandhi, a Member of Parliament from Punjab and suspended from AAP, has taken a significant initiative and set up a forum by the name of ‘Punjab manch’, which seeks not just to raise issues pertaining to Punjab, but also work towards greater decentralization, so that states have a greater voice in key policy issues.

Commenting on the manch, Dr. Gandhi stated:

Punjab manch aims to build a country where diversities of all hues, enjoy opportunities to flower as part of a larger bouquet, fully realising the idea of ‘unity in diversity.

While the forum is likely to take the shape of a political party, and will fight the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, it will play an important role in giving a voice to Punjab’s aspirations and hopefully join hands with other forces in the country which have similar aims and objectives.

One only hopes that the debate pertaining to federalism does not go into hibernation post the elections in 2019. In the past, that has been the case.

Please keep it civil

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