Reluctant federalists

Almost every party, not just the Congress, is guilty of violating the federal spirit

The long-standing maxim of fashion — sooner or later, everything comes back in style — could not have been more appropriate for any other issue of Indian politics than Centre-state relations. The issue around which the politics of the 1970s and '80s revolved is once again making big news. A number of the UPA 2 proposals, including the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill 2011, Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill 2011, National Commission for Human Resources for Health (NCHRH) Bill 2011, Border Security Force (Amendment) Bill 2011, the setting up of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and the issue of Central Sales Tax (CST) compensation, have all hit the same wall. They have received flak on the grounds that the Centre, and the Congress in particular, is trying to destabilise the federal structure by undermining the powers and position of state governments.

With the federal issue cropping up so frequently, questions will be asked as to whether the supposed inauguration of a new era of cooperative federalism under federal coalitions was a mirage. Given the Congress's historical reluctance to embrace federalism and the past experience with Congress-led governments at the Centre, the threat of the Centre trying to usurp the powers of the states appears real.

The Inter-State Council (ISC), set up in 1990 following the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission, is eminently qualified to make a contribution in today's scenario. Unfortunately, it has been lying dormant for many years, with its last meeting held in 2006. Not surprisingly, the ISC has been convened more frequently when non-Congress governments controlled the Centre. The full ISC did not meet even once during P.V. Narasimha Rao's tenure and it met only twice during the UPA 1 regime. The UPA 2, despite so many federal tensions, has not bothered to use this mechanism until now. The ISC's poor status is further reflected in the fact that it does not even have a full-time secretary. While this may reveal the Congress's priorities, does it make the party the only reluctant federalist as it is often made out to be? Not really. Going by past experience, there is probably only a difference of degree between different parties on the federal dimension.

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