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.
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.
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.