A new 'Federal Front' of regional forces to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in 2024 is the latest buzz in Opposition circles. This intriguing prospect has been sparked by a recent lunch meeting between NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar and election strategist Prashant Kishor, who played a key role in the recent massive victory of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. While there are three years to go before the next general elections, the fizz and crackle in the air is matched by rumblings on the ground. In recent days, regional leaders have been pushing back strongly against a domineering Delhi.
Not a day has passed recently without an Opposition Chief Minister firing a fresh salvo at the Modi-led central government, or urging collective action by states to press their demands on the Centre. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has written a letter to 12 counterparts, asking them to collectively demand a moratorium on loans to small businesses. Mamata Banerjee has called for a "union of states" or an alliance of state governments to collectively resist bullying by the Centre. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has tweeted that people want to see a central government that does not keep fighting and abusing state governments. At a recent GST Council meeting, several Finance Ministers from Opposition-governed states openly took on the Centre on revenue-sharing: those from the Congress even alleged that they were being deliberately excluded from key GST committees.
This tug of war mirrors the state of politics today. India has a supremely powerful Prime Minister in Narendra Modi, but equally powerful are supremo Chief Ministers across Opposition-ruled states. They represent increasingly assertive regional identities and locally-rooted politics, and function as brakes to New Delhi's over-centralisation. In fact, the power of Chief Ministers is evident even within the BJP, as seen in BS Yeddiyurappa digging in his heels and resisting any attempt to oust him from office in Karnataka. They will not budge an inch on their home turf and are as keen as the Centre to project their own brands. In the age of populist economics, they want to take total ownership of their welfare schemes. They refuse to be extras in a Modi-centred show, or a silent chorus line to Modi's lead act. Both Bhupesh Baghel and Mamata Banerjee aim to put their photos on vaccine certificates, AAP wants to be identified with its ration delivery scheme.
The Modi government's Covid vaccine policy is a classic example of how Centre-state relations are being pushed to almost breaking point. The Centre has argued that Opposition-ruled states were responsible for vaccine policy flip-flops, by first pressuring Delhi to allow them to procure vaccines directly from manufacturers, and then, when they failed, appealing to the Centre to take back the job. In response, Opposition-ruled states accused the Centre of keeping them in the dark about the dire shortage of vaccine availability in the first place, and pushing resource-starved states to negotiate in the global market.
At the heart of the tussle is a serious breakdown of trust. Narendra Modi, as a three-time Chief Minister, only the second state government head after Deve Gowda to move directly from state capital to the Prime Minister's office, knows well how restive Chief Ministers, tilting against the suffocating diktat of Delhi, can bring policy-implementation to a halt. Aggressive over-centralization in Delhi results in administrative paralysis.
Today, charges and counter-charges are flying: Chhattisgarh claims that the Centre is falsifying its vaccine wastage figures to embarrass a Congress-ruled state. Ditto in Rajasthan. Even tiny Lakshadweep is convulsed with protests against the arbitrary rules made by a Centre-appointed Administrator.
It's a clash of titans, a clash of supremos, and a clash of competitive populisms. Populism rules the polity, and the key characteristic of the hardcore populist is to deny any legitimacy to the Opposition. The BJP plays the politics of entirely delegitimizing opponents and critics, dubbing them "urban Naxals" or "anti-nationals" and denying the political Opposition any space whatsoever, indeed attempting to push it beyond the pale of legitimate politics. It seems after sloganeering students, anti CAA-NRC protestors and Leftist academics, opposition Chief Ministers are the new 'enemies'.
Comparisons can be made with Indira Gandhi. She dismissed Chief Ministers NT Rama Rao and Farooq Abdullah, and paid a heavy price for playing centralizing politics in Punjab. The Modi-led BJP hasn't removed Chief Ministers in the Indira Gandhi-style, but central agencies have often acted against state leaders in a threatening manner; the overnight dissolution of a state - Jammu and Kashmir - to turn it into a union territory remains the starkest example of the Modi Government's centralisation drive.
It's time to rescue Centre-State relations and administer booster doses of a trust and good faith vaccine. The Planning Commission earlier functioned as a platform to hear grievances and allocate financial resources. But the Planning Commission is disbanded and the Niti Aayog is more of a government think tank. There is a need to find a new institutional mechanism that is non-partisan and autonomous, possibly a Chief Ministers' Task Force.
While state governments need to assert their demands rationally, the BJP-led Centre must realise that 21st-century modern governance lies in operationalizing federalism. The less space Opposition chief ministers get, the more likely they are to stitch together a broad coalition of common purpose and accelerate attempts to forge the 'Federal Front' for 2024.
(Sagarika Ghose is a senior journalist and author.)
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