Saturday, January 28, 2023
HomeOpinionSaving India needs saving Indian federalism

Saving India needs saving Indian federalism

A lot of India’s problems today stem from over-centralisation.

Text Size:

It has been less than four decades since the end of insurgency in Punjab. It is arguably the only insurgency India ended with a semblance of finality. You would think a government at the Centre would handle its relations with a post-conflict state like Punjab with great care.

It is alarming to see the relations between Punjab and the Centre deteriorate to such an extent that the Capt. Amarinder Singh government has accused the Narendra Modi-led dispensation of creating an “economic blockade-like situation”. We can debate how the blame should be apportioned but it is surely irresponsible of the Centre to let things come to such a pass.

Let us, for a moment, buy wholly the Modi government’s argument that trains can’t run because railways fear safety due to protesting farmers. Even so, the Centre has shown great lethargy in trying to resolve the situation. It appears that the Centre is in fact trying to impose an economic cost on Punjab, which is fully opposed to new farm laws that weaken the minimum support price (MSP)-based procurement system.

Pawan Dewan, chairman of the Punjab Large Industrial Development Board, has pointed out that train services were not stopped even when the insurgency was at its peak in Punjab. The state is already suffering economic losses thanks to the suspension of goods trains, which protesters have been saying for days they have no intention of stopping. If Punjab is suffering economic losses due to a shortage of coal, urea and fertilisers, then it is the Indian economy that is suffering. The Modi government doesn’t seem to think Punjab’s economic losses are India’s economic losses. A government that can win elections amid a recession sees no incentive in thinking about the economy over political interests.

And the issue is political: the Modi government amended farm laws, changing the way India’s agrarian economy works without consulting the farmers or absolutely anyone in the states of Punjab and Haryana, which have been crucial in ending India’s food shortages in the past.

Sadly, this isn’t the only example of how Indian federalism is being assaulted in letter and spirit. As opposed to the promise of co-operative federalism, we are seeing combative, contested and coercive centralisation. 

Also read: At the peak of his popularity, why Modi is going after dissenters

Nation of the states

India is at a crossroads today. We cannot pretend the Indian economy’s troubles are due to the Covid pandemic alone. The economy has been in doldrums for four years now. Every time the Modi government says the worst is behind us, things get worse. We are facing the only recorded recession in our history. We are facing a grave border crisis with China, continued militancy in Kashmir, a pandemic we have learnt to pretend is not a big problem, and extreme economic distress that may have pushed as many as four crore people into extreme poverty, if you believe the International Monetary Fund.

India needs a national rejuvenation today, and it cannot happen if the Centre rides roughshod over states. It can happen only by strengthening federalism, not weakening it.

Take the Covid lockdown in April. You can pretend it wasn’t a failure but it was: Prime Minister Modi said Covid will be defeated in 21 days. Here we are, seeing another Covid wave. The lockdown was so severe, with police beating up poor people for not staying indoors, that it pushed the economy into recession. 

Did we really need a uniform national lockdown for 1.3 billion people? Did districts that didn’t have more than a handful of Covid cases need a complete shutdown of economic activity? Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel complained that while the states had to do all the work, they hadn’t even been consulted before the lockdown. Endless video-conferencing with the states began only when the lockdown had failed, so as to transfer the responsibility, and thus the blame, to the states.

Also read: The disappearance of ‘samanvaye’ from Indian politics 

1.3 billion people need decentralised power

The Modi government-led Centre no longer sees states as being equal partners in the responsibility of running the country and ensuring its progress and prosperity. The Centre is not even a patronising patriarch. It is, unfortunately, often a bully, which blatantly uses investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in its pursuit of partisan political interests. The CBI was always a “caged parrot” but now it is more a political attack hawk. When the Congress was in power, for example, we didn’t see BJP/NDA-ruled states withdraw general consent to the CBI to do its work in their states. At the very least, this reflects a breakdown in the trust between the Centre and the states that we must all worry about.

When the states consented to the Goods and Services Tax (GST), they trusted the Centre to keep its word. And yet, this year, the Modi government tried not to keep its word about compensating states for the shortfall in GST. When it was forced to do so, the prime minister wanted us to be grateful. No, the Centre is not doing the states a favour by keeping its commitment to compensate them for shortfall in GST revenues.

When you see the Centre asking the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to auto-debit dues from Jharkhand in an ongoing dispute, you know how much this government respects federalism. 

A government that openly seeks ‘one nation, one election’ wants the states to not have power and autonomy. There is no bigger threat to the India Constitution than the weakening of its federal structure. An entire state, Jammu and Kashmir, has been deprived of an elected legislature for years now, for no good reason. 

We have to realise that much of what is ailing India today, starting with demonetisation, is because a few men in the Prime Minister’s Office think they can run a country of 1.3 billion people all by themselves. India’s size, scale and diversity needs strong federalism. We are a “union of states”, the Centre must not forget.

The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. These guys were dirven out of corridor of power, so they are singing tunes of federalism to hold on to something in the state,

  2. Well said. We are better off as the United States of India than being the colony of UP and Gujarat that we are currently.

  3. Federalism did not die when Indira Gandhi was dismissing governments of opposition parties in sixties and seventies of last century ( 1966 0nwards) . Stop this type of fear-mongering that federalism is in danger of being extinct. But why to stick with federalism, ? The authour seems to be , well educated journalists but always seems to indulging in spreading the message and press notes and instructions received from some ex-dynasty . India has three layers of Government . These layers were O.K in pre- instant communication era. Now , with explosion of IT, Internet , satellites , Mobiles A. I. etc. where message can be communicated, instructions given , performance monitored on real-time basis , why to have multi-layer administrative set up ? Time has come to do away with state governments or to reduce their powers. a strong central Government , with some diffused power centers like elections commission, various Commissions — human life commission, a powerful Education Commission etc having well defined powers and jurisdiction on whole of India should be considered , when whole world is becoming a global village. 21 st century needs to administered with tools, technology of 21st century . The country should be prepared to have unitary political set up as international threats can not be met with diversified command centers.

    • I didn’t know people could be so foolish and write such drivel, which too gets published in portals like ThePrint. If we even implement a modicum of change like you have proposed, suffice it to say there will be civil war in India. Go figure why that will be the case. Another Hindi speaking, overbearing, smug, North Indian 🤡 spotted!

  4. I agree that a country of our size cannot be run from Delhi. But the term cooperative federalism is somewhat misleading.
    It works well when there is cooperation. As the word impliws the cooperation can not be one sided.
    The core of the divergence ocurs from the penchant for hand outs, often for special interests with purely election in mind by states.harmonisation of conomic policies are the corner stone of cooperative federalism.The changes in agricultural procurement requires major transformation in the long term
    of crop production .practices in states like Haryana and Punjab. With a polarised polity, dialogue will be one of a dialogue of the deaf.
    While I do concede that dalogue is good , but talks without outcome is meaning less. And please do not threaten the country with militancyb bogey. I wonder whether militancy is apart of cooperative federalism

  5. “One nation one election” is a dog whistle like “Hum paanch hamare pachaas.” What they mean by this is – keep voting for us otherwise you will have to suffer the fact that a replacement govt will give Dalits, minorities, tribals and other poor people the same rights that you enjoy. The BJP-RSS govt only wants the mega rich to keep getting richer – the rest must maintain status quo. Poor should remain poor and beholden to the rest. Middle class should always be dependent on the govt or private sector to employ them and work all their lives to repay loans for expensive housing and expensive education for their kids.

  6. Laughable arguments.
    People, when blinded by ideology, would go to any extent to oppose progressive and well-intentioned acts. The farm laws were hailed by agricultural economists across the nation. No less than Prof. Ashok Gulati, the doyen of Indian agricultural economists, has approved of the laws. In fact, he “disapproved” saying that the law should have been much more market friendly, much more bold in its sweep.
    However, the opposition to the farm laws has been purely political. No scholar has endorsed the viewpoints of these politicians who want the farmers to be at the mercy of the APMC middlemen forever.
    Its sad to see that certain journalists, simply because they hold everything “saffron” in contempt and disdain, participating in ideology based disinformation campaign against well intentioned and progressive laws.

  7. India has been doing pretty good these past decades. Let us not be misled by rhetoric.

    What constitutes federalism? In India the State Governments are from different parties. The constitution affords them independence of Governance. As a common man what I see is that the State Governments blame the Centre for all ills and take credit for all that is good.
    Let us first see real Governance from the State Governments under what is before clamoring for more when we see that they are incapable of handling matters that are totally within their powers.
    The differences are evident in the various reports (statistics) available.

  8. _Federalism is not a virtue in itself.

    I’d rather have a strong functioning central govt rather than three dozen states run by political dynasts who care two hoots to what happens to the nation as long as their gaddi is family preserve.

    Dear author: save your breath, India will save itself

  9. Federalism is not a virtue in itself.

    I’d rather have a strong functioning central govt rather than three dozen states run by political dynasts who care two hoots to what happens to the nation as long as their gaddi is family preserve.

    Dear author: save your breath, India will save itself

  10. My god Shivam Vij depreciates day by day to new low of journalism. All his articles are opinions and not fact based as with Mr. Shekhar Gupta. Shivam Vij would do better as a blogger than a journalist.

    Frankly The Print is only running due to charisma of Shekhar Gupta, otherwise no one knows people like Ruhi Tewari who has a perticular phobia of Yogi Adityanath and Shivam Vij.

    Shekhar Gupta should better establish Print before he retires otherwise these types of journalists would drag it down to gutter.

    Please for god sake tone down you opinions and present us with factual criticism of government rather than propaganda.

  11. This is what Hindu Rashtra looks like. Complete with its own Hindutva rate of growth. The only joy this Diwali is that there are no firecrackers.

    • And if by chance the luddite liberals to and selective secularists come to power, there will be no Diwali either.

    • And you think Sangh worked hard on the Hindutva project for the last 100 years just so that aloo is rs 5 cheaper in the bazaar?

    • These crocodile tears over dying federalism is just the Authors frustration over the opposition not being able to create difficulties in governance for BJP govt. Modi tried cooperation and discussion when he first came to power in 2014. But the opposition, who couldn’t digest the fact that a saffron govt led by Modi did actually come to power, something they didn’t expect, made it just a point to oppose anything and everything using Rajya Sabha or State govt’s. The mindless opposition for the sake of opposition is more dangerous to our country than the counter bullying nature of central govt. We need to think what came first? The chicken or the egg, i.e. Mindless opposition by these obstructionists or The bullying response from centre. Blocking railway lines or roads or doing bandhs of any kind in any part of the country by any group damages the economy. When trains were first blocked from operating by sitting on dharnas on railway tracks, that didn’t boost nations economy in anyway. Not running trains when fear of damage to public property like railways is there,atleast safeguards public property. In the garb of federalism, the author is just lamenting the weakening of obstructionists.

Comments are closed.