The health of Indian democracy is well-nigh stitched to the health of the democratisation of the Indian State. And, the democratisation, in turn, is stitched to the expansion of the federalisation processes of the Indian State. With striking prescience, the Indian Constitution makers agreed upon a sui generis federal architecture of power-sharing and instituted a federal framework for the electoral response to the overarching centralised representative democracy. State elections, as a form of response, are nevertheless assertions for accommodation and legitimation of the principles of federalism as enshrined in the Constitution. State elections affirm the Indian multilevel federalism.
Idea of Regionalism
Federalism, in essence, is the sharing of policy and governance power between different governments as units, mainly the Centre and the states, to enable shared-rule and self-rule of the units. This political framework facilitates togetherness and happiness by accommodating the regional, ethnic, religious, linguistic, national, and economic diversity in achieving harmony. The urge for federalism, both as a normative and a descriptive category, was felt during British rule, basically to sustain imperialism over the vast expanse of India’s size and diversity. The Government of India Act (1935) laid down the idea of dual polity and devolution, but in practice, owing to a better communication system, the British governance established a powerful centralised authority system. And the Indians, experiencing from the British government, contemplated that free India must have federalism but with a great deal of unitary control.
At the time of independence, with the British centralised governance in hindsight, India confronted several challenges, such as communal frenzy leading to Partition, the transfer of power, post-Partition administrative tasks, particularly settling the refugees, a burgeoning food crisis and socio-economic development. An overarching presence of a centralised Congress party in the Constituent Assembly opted for centralised planning, coupled with a tight federation to tackle these challenges. India, unlike many model-federations in the world, became ‘quasi-federal’ instead.
The federal process, since Independence, is roller-coastering around the demands of states’ autonomy and the actual participatory, legislative and policy pitches to the dynamics of everyday political life. Till the mid-1960s, Nehru had institutionalised the core principles of federalism, that is of ‘consultation, accommodation and consensus’, with the chief ministers by writing letters to them on a monthly basis and also by ‘cooptation’ of regional leaders into the national power structures. For Nehru it was easy to coordinate the Centre-state relations, as a large number of states were ruled by the Congress. However, the dismissal of the Communist government in Kerala (1959), on some tenuous ground, by the Centre was the first major setback to the federal principles. The fourth general elections (1967) reduced the Congress party to a simple majority at the national level and by then almost one-half of the states were ruled by non-Congress-opposition parties or coalitions. Centre-state relations moved on from the practice of ‘accommodation’ to the practice of ‘cohabitation’—strong Congress-Centre cohabiting with the opposition at the state level. During the Emergency period (1975-7), India’s federal polity for all practical purposes became unitary, and the federal relations shifted from cohabitation to that of confrontation and resistance. The Emergency deeply scarred India’s aspirations of emerging as a reckoning federal-democracy. However, in the late 1980s, with the rise and assertion of regional parties at the national level, such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Bihar and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, the tendency to move towards the principle of accommodation and making alliances was quite visible. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee—the then president of BJP—had to remark that his party needed to strategically slide to the middle of the political spectrum in order to recruit and forge alliances with potential coalition partners.
Regional parties, typically in the form of state-based parties, operated as agencies and mechanisms to negotiate and organise power, both at the central and state levels, and emerged on India’s democratic infrastructure as ‘multi-state’ parties largely based on regional-ethnic style. Few parties, for instance the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, represented the features of an ‘electoralist party’, focusing on the distinct social constituencies along with its ethnic tropes. Coalition politics, since the 1990s, gave way to regional parties and therefore multi-party coalitions, and marked the deepening of the federalisation and democratisation processes, not only on the ideological vision but on the spatial trajectory too. The political process, from the 1990s onwards, marked the internalisation of federal norms and the state leaders of state-based parties carved out a new federal space of mutual power negotiations between the nation and the region. BJP, in the bargaining process, adroitly manipulated the peripheral federal cleavages and supported the carving out of new states from the belligerent regions of the existing states. The puzzle that India’s federal system is gets further complicated when regional parties, championing special and exclusive interests, coalesce with national parties and simultaneously with the other regional parties, and their leaders, striking a posture as a national leader, try to contextualise the regional party within the category of nation-state.
The state elections are in full sway. It is affirming the idea of ‘festival of democracy’ and also equally affirming the idea of federalism. The five-state election cycle (Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur), but particularly UP, is likely to point the political direction for the national elections due in 2024. Both the national and regional parties are in the fray, but despite the strong regional sentiments to what Christophe Jaffrelot, the political scientist, calls “ethnonationalist mobilisation”, the political mobilisation is purely top-down where national political elites have stirred the caste-communal rabble to nab the votes of alienated individuals and groups. To understand state elections within the context of federalism, it is imperative to note the electoral narratives forged around the principal cleavages and also the alliance-building strategies within and outside of the regional parties.
The strong and autonomous state governments, to the possible extent that federalism permits, can offset the antinomies that Indian federalism is in the habit of reproducing, such as the misuse of extraordinary powers of Parliament. The recent farm laws and the invocation of the Disaster Management Act during the pandemic, for instance, explain how federalism can be infringed or transgressed. State governments need to understand the ‘political interlocking’ of power relations embedded in the so-called cooperative federalism. In federalism it is important to share the federal powers—precisely for shared-rule and self-rule—but it is all the more important to use those powers for achieving constitutional goals and morality and also for holding out together the beautiful Indian diversity.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Indian Diversity")
(Views expressed are personal)
Tanvir Aeijaz teaches public policy at DU and is Director (hony) at the Centre for Multilevel Federalism, New Delhi