Centre State Relations in India
The framers of the Indian Constitution were fully conscious of the need for a strong Centre. They made suitable legislative, administrative and financial provisions in the Constitution designed to give the Central Government powers adequate for coping with all threats to the country’s integrity and for ensuring necessary uniformity, co-ordination and harmony in administrative standards. But they also recognized that the State Governments should not be made mere agents of the Centre but should be invested with extensive powers so that each State may be free to pursue its own way of life and develop its resources without let or hindrance. They reconciled unity with diversity in a way fair to all parties concerned.
The extremists on both sides are dissatisfied with the existing arrangements. Some persons advocate the scrapping of the federal scheme and its substitution by the unitary system of Government. They think that federalism has weakened the Central Government stood in the way of effective planning for development, encouraged fissiparous tendencies and subversive forces and created the danger of disintegration. The champions of the autonomy of States, on the other hand, deplore the unitary bias of the Constitution as incompatible with the federal spirit and with creative freedom, and urge transfer of more powers and resources from the Centre to the States to make their autonomy a reality. In a vast country like India where different regions have different cultures and different political, social and economic conditions, they argue, diversity should be allowed full scope. According to them, excessive centralization produces apoplexy at the Centre and anemia at the circumference.
The case for unitary government is not as strong as it appears on the surface. The fact that the Central Government enjoys unlimited authority does not ensure that it will always be strong. Hitherto, the Central Government has been stable and fairly strong because the Congress Party controlling it has a majority in Parliament. Nobody can say that the present situation would indefinitely continue. The strength of a government does not depend upon the legal powers it enjoys but upon the political support it commands. If we want the Central Government to be strong, we must work for fewer parties which are well-organized and well-disciplined and which are animated by public spirit rather than by lust for power and self-aggrandizement. Another vital source of strength is fully developed national consciousness. So long as the people think in terms of region, caste, community, language or race and render only lip-homage to nationalism, a strong Central Government will remain only a pious hope.
National homogeneity cannot be produced by force or by legislation. It is a delusion that fissiparous tendencies owe their existence to the liberal powers enjoyed by the States. They are deeply rooted in our consciousness. Whether the redefinition of State boundaries on a linguistic basis is right or wrong is beside the point. No democratic government could resist the demand for linguistic States because the popular pressure behind it was so overwhelming. Would communal riots disappear if State autonomy is taken away? Can any Central law obliterate caste distinctions and compel the people to vote strictly on merit and without any reference to the caste affiliations of the candidates? Untouchability has been abolished by law, yet it persists throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. It is widely acknowledged that a common language is essential for creating national consciousness and the Constitution has chosen Hindi as the official language of the Union for this purpose. But so strong is the opposition to Hindi that much headway has not been made in this direction. The stark fact has to be faced that we are seriously divided over language, religion, race and region and no Government, whatever its form, can stimulate national consciousness to an appreciable extent.
The assumption underlying the plea of a unitary form of government is that national unity can be achieved by legal means and by a show of strength. This is a grave fallacy. National unity has to be built up by hard endeavor—by political discipline, by education, by social justice. If the Central Government does not appear to be strong enough to be able to deal with fissiparous forces and subversive elements in an effective manner, the reason is not that it lacks legal powers. The real reason is that we have not yet learnt to think in national terms. Regionalism, communalism, casteism and linguism would not disappear if the federal system is scrapped. The advocates of unitary government have to prove that the Central Government is very much handicapped for want of powers in the performance of its duties. The Centre has all the powers which it needs to cope with ordinary and extraordinary situations. Its authority is limited by the political realities. We are confronted today with another menace to national unity—left-wing extremism. This menace cannot be eliminated merely by imposing a ban on it. Subversive forces can be destroyed only by wise and imaginative statesmanship, only if economic growth is accelerated and full employment and social justice are achieved. Concentration of all authority in the Centre would not necessarily lead to greater administrative efficiency. Uniformity is essential where common interests are concerned, but not where creative administration demands full expression of rich diversity. Each State has its own culture and language, its own peculiar social and economic problems, its own political conditions. No Central Government can have the requisite knowledge for effectively dealing with local problems. Liberty becomes meaningful only if authority is decentralized and the citizen feels that he has a voice in shaping his own destiny and the destiny of the people. Authority must be as much pluralized as possible. Federalism has nothing to do with our weaknesses.
We need a strong Central Government because it alone can provide political stability, effectively organize the defenses of the country, achieve rapid economic growth and promote social justice. The history of this country is a warning against weakening Central authority. It should always be in a position to deal effectively with external threats and with the internal agents of the enemies. The story of all federations is that of continuous growth in their powers. One has only to refer to the extraordinary growth of the federal power in the U.S.A., despite the very limited authority conferred originally upon the Centre by the Constitution, to realize this point. Federations with limited jurisdiction suited the countries before the advent of the railways and other means of communication and transport and before the Industrial Revolution transformed the hitherto predominantly rural economy. With the integration of the country consequent upon these developments it became inevitable that the Central power should grow to secure uniformity in laws relating to inter-State commerce, industry and transport. Federal power has everywhere expanded in response to the need for it. In an underdeveloped country which has adopted socialist planning as a means of economic development, the need for extensive Central powers is much more imperative. The Planning Commission has to formulate production targets for each sector of the economy, mobilize the financial resources requisite for development, settle the pattern of industrialization, and determine the order of development and location of industries to prevent unbalanced growth. The Government has to supervise, direct and control the economy and create a welfare State. The framers of the Constitution have very wisely provided for a Central Government with extensive powers so that it may be in a position to cope with any problem, however grave or difficult.
The Indian Constitution has a unitary bias. This is not a matter for complaint but for gratification. It is not often realized that the older federations are also progressively moving in the same direction. Only the framers of our Constitution profited from the experience of these federations and drew up detailed lists of subjects to avoid litigation and to arm the Centre with all the powers necessary to achieve uniformity and co-ordination of administrative standards, to provide positive leadership in the social and economic spheres and to protect the country against external aggression and internal subversion.
Our Constitution-makers have definitely provided that the State Governments have to ensure compliance with the laws enacted by Parliament and that the Central Government is entitled to give such directions to the State Governments as it may deem necessary for the purpose. The State Governments, indeed, are specifically barred from doing anything which may prejudice or impede the exercise by the Union Government of its powers in the State. But for these provisions there might have been frequent clashes between the Centre and the States and the latter might have stood in the way of the national will being carried out. The financial scheme embodied in the Constitution fully takes into account the growing needs both of the Centre and the States. The Finance Commission periodically examines the financial needs of the States and recommends allocations to the States from the Centre to enable them to meet their growing welfare and developmental needs and to help backward States to come up to the level of more affluent States.
The framers of the Constitution were fully aware of the dangers confronting the new independent State or of the dangers likely to arise internally or externally. The emergency provisions of the Constitution are designed to cope with such dangers. They are unquestionably very drastic, but they are essential if our freedom is to be safeguarded and financial and political stability is to be assured. When the Constituent Assembly was debating the emergency provisions of the Constitution, the critics saw all kinds of dire political possibilities in them. In times of war or when there is a threat to law and order, no nation can be very fastidious about the means to meet the danger. If the federal character of the Constitution has temporarily to be discarded and the country is to be ruled as under a unitary polity and if the fundamental rights of citizenship have to be suspended for the duration of the emergency, no serious objection can be taken to the assumption of extraordinary powers, partly because there is the Parliament to see that the powers are properly exercised and partly because extraordinary situations can only be met with extraordinary means.
In all democratic, freedom-loving countries, fundamental rights are curtailed in practice if not in law and national authority is strengthened when emergencies arise. Similarly, when in a State the Governor finds that the government cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, Central intervention becomes inevitable. This power of President’s rule vested in the Centre has had to be exercised far more frequently than the makers of the Constitution visualized, but the responsibility for it lies with State politicians and with the electorate. In fact, there is considerable force in the criticism that the Central. Government is not as prompt to intervene as it should be and that it waits for a situation to get out of control before it makes up its mind. It is for the Central Government to determine in the light of the conditions prevailing in the State how long President’s rule will last there. No one has the right to threaten dire consequences if President’s rule is not soon terminated. Profiting by the American experience, the Constitution-makers have also provided that, when a situation has arisen whereby the financial stability or credit of the country or any of its parts is threatened, the President may declare a financial emergency and may during the period of emergency give directions to any State in order to ensure that canons of financial propriety are observed and financial stability is achieved. These emergency powers provide an assurance that if an emergency arises, the Central Government will not find itself handicapped for want of powers. No one who knows the situation prevailing in the country and the external dangers confronting it can say that these powers are not needed.
The Governor has come in for a good deal of criticism on the ground that he does not act impartially when he invites a party leader to form the administration but is influenced by extraneous political considerations, such as the wishes of the ruling party at the Centre. The allegation is hard to prove or refute. The Governor is undoubtedly appointed by the Central Government and can be recalled by it if it is satisfied that he is not discharging his duties efficiently or in the right spirit. But he is also the constitutional Head of the State, and has normally to abide by the advice of his Council of Ministers. His problem is to see that the State has a stable administration. Unfortunately, this problem has become exceedingly difficult in a large number of States on account of the multiplicity of the political parties, the changing loyalties of their members, the dubious tactics of party politicians determined to gain adherents and other factors. In such situations the Governor has to be very cautious in accepting the claims of party leaders. No instrument of instructions which has necessarily to be of a general character can be a real help. Must the Governor accept the advice of a Ministry which has been defeated in the House and grant it dissolution? What assurance is there that the mid-term elections will make a more stable government possible? The Governor has to decide when a situation has arisen in which the government of a State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. Can any guidelines be of any assistance in making this decision? The fact is that Parliamentary Government cannot be run smoothly in the absence of well-organized and well-disciplined political parties with clear cut policies and programs and that where there are too many parties and too many independents interested more in the acquisition of power than in serving the people, a stable administration is out of the question. The Governors are bound to be involved in controversies and to be accused of taking sides by frustrated politicians unless we develop the right kind of party system. The real charge against the Governors is not that they play a positive role in ministry-making but that they do not play a more active role in State affairs and allow corrupt ministers to remain in the Cabinet and help a discredited ministry to escape a possible defeat in the legislature. The only effective way to check Central intervention in ministry-making is to present the Governor with a clear choice when he is called upon to choose his Chief Minister.
It is a serious mistake to think that the States do not possess enough powers and are utterly dependent upon New Delhi for initiative in everything. They possess far more powers than they did under Provincial Autonomy. Before they were given autonomy, they were no more than administrative units of the Centre. Nobody can say that education, health, local self-government, public order, administration of justice, water supply and irrigation and trade and transport are matters of less importance than those entrusted to the Government at the Centre. They, in fact, affect the lives of the people far more directly than Central subjects.
The State Legislature has exclusive jurisdiction over 66 items and concurrent jurisdiction over another 47 items. The division of powers between the Centre and the States is quite fair. Some critics have, indeed, criticized the scheme of the division of powers on the ground that by leaving vital issues like land reform, food production and higher education with the State Government, the framers of the Constitution have added to the difficulties of the administration. It cannot be legitimately claimed that their financial resources are meager. The Finance Commission may not have satisfied all the States, but there have been very large transfers of financial resources from the Centre to the States. One explanation of the paucity of resources at the disposal of the State Governments is that they are reluctant to exploit their revenue potentialities fully. To take only one example, despite the prosperity of a section of the rural community—big and medium-sized landholders—the tax burden on it is still very light. The State Governments have not hitherto been able to achieve much in development because party discipline in the States is lax and ministerial changes are quite frequent, the States hitherto have been preoccupied largely with reorganization of boundaries on a linguistic basis, the quality of leadership has been comparatively poor, and hard solid work has been neglected in the pursuit of power-politics. The complaint that the Central Government does not deal impartially with all States and is motivated by political considerations in determining the location of new industries and plants and in other matters is unwarranted. The fact is that so many diverse claims have to be reconciled that no decision can command general acceptance. The resources of the Central Government are by no means inexhaustible. It has to spend a formidable amount on defense and administration, and on development. When the States press for allocation of more resources to them, they tend to forget the needs of the Centre.
Some States have manifestly exaggerated notions of their powers and they view every move by the Centre with deep suspicion and resentment when it appears to them to be an interference with their affairs. The Central Government is clearly entitled to take steps to protect its offices and undertakings against violence. How do these steps interfere with the jurisdiction of the States in respect of law and order? The Constitution has no doubt defined the respective jurisdiction of the Centre and the States, but administration would come to a standstill and chaos would follow if the two Governments do not readily co-operate with each other and do not co-ordinate their activities. The Central Government would stultify itself if it allows violence to rage with impunity, if subversive forces are permitted to undermine public respect for authority and if a party can throw all canons of civilized behaviour to the winds with impunity. The State Governments do not settle disputes between themselves by the rational method of give and take. Instead, they choose to pressurize the Centre in the hope of getting a favorable verdict for themselves. They are thus constantly putting the Centre in an embarrassing position. When an impartial commission has investigated a problem and given its award, the States immediately reject the recommendations unfavorable to them and accept only the parts which concede their demands. All this is not to suggest that the Central Government is infallible. Like all governments, it is subject to various pulls and pressures and its decisions are not always impartial or determined strictly on merit. But why cannot the States undertake to abide by the verdict of an impartial commission on disputes between themselves or on their grievances? We need both a strong Centre and strong State Governments. Some State Governments display their strength in defying the Centre and in threatening dire consequences if their demands are not conceded. The real strength of a Government lies in its ability to maintain law and order and stamp out subversive forces, its readiness to take all measures to achieve political stability, its pursuit of nation-building activities with real earnestness and passion, its ruthlessness is dealing with corruption, other anti-social activities and vested interests which block all avenues to progress. Politics at the State level is not very edifying. Detections are the order of the day. Coalitions cannot last because we have not yet learnt to live and work together despite differences. Instead of falling foul of the Centre, the States should concentrate on setting their own houses in order.
The Rajamannar Committee on Centre-State Relations set by the Tamil Nadu Government has proposed a number of changes designed to increase the powers of the States in respect of planning, finance, taxation and judiciary. According to the Committee Chairman, the sum and substance of the report is in favour of the autonomy of the States consistent with the integrity of the country, and if the Committee’s recommendations are accepted, “our Constitution will provide for an ideal federal system of Government.” Constitutional experts know that there is no ideal federal system in the world, and that each country has to decide in the light of its political and economic conditions and the strength of its national and regional sentiment how the powers are to be distributed between the federal union and its constituent units. In fact, if there is any generalization which can be made without any fear of contradiction, it is that everywhere the Central Government is growing stronger and stronger.
The reason for this phenomenon is not difficult to understand. The needs of defense and development and of effective regulation, direction and control of the social and economic life of the community to ensure uniformity have rendered it absolutely essential that the Federal Government should be strong. The Rajamannar Committee has not shown full appreciation of this fact in its anxiety to safeguard State autonomy. It is true that our Constitution has a unitary bias, but no one who knows the history of this country and the need for discouraging fissiparous tendencies can find fault with it on this score. Everyone realizes that the community of language is a powerful cementing factor, yet the Committee recommends continuance of English as the official language of the Union and as the link language among the States. It has also recommended that the offices of the Central Government situated in the various States should use the regional languages of the States for administrative convenience. What part Hindi can play in stimulating national consciousness is not fully realized. The Rajamannar Committee’s approach is frankly one-sided; it ignores the national interest which should always be paramount and should transcend sectional interests.
The emergency provisions of the Constitution are its most valuable part. No one who knows the grave dangers, external and internal, which the country is confronted with, can say that the undoubtedly drastic powers which the Union Government can exercise in critical conditions are uncalled for. Yet the Committee has not hesitated to demand total deletion of the emergency provisions of the Constitution and has recommended as an alternative that sufficient safeguards should be provided in the Constitution to secure the interests of the States against the “arbitrary and unilateral action of the ruling party at the Centre.” Who is to decide what arbitrary and unilateral action is? Surely, in political matters Parliament alone can be competent to decide how emergency powers are to be exercised and controlled. In times of emergency the need is for swift decisions and their bold execution. One highly reactionary recommendation made by the Committee is that every State should have equal representation in the Rajya Sabha irrespective of population. The fact that this principle of equal representation prevails in the U.S.A. is no justification for introducing it here. It is highly undemocratic. Uttar Pradesh cannot by any stretch of reasoning be equated with small States like Haryana, Kerala or West Bengal for purposes of representation in the Rajya Sabha. Voting in Parliament is never on State lines; it is always determined by party decisions. The Committee has said that the territorial integrity of a State should not be interfered within any manner except with the consent of the State concerned. This would mean a permanent bar to the revision of State boundaries even where there is a legitimate demand for separate Statehood or for alteration in the existing boundaries. The Committee has recommended that the Articles in the Constitution which relate to the issue of directions to the States by the Union in respect of the execution of federal laws should be scrapped. This would lead to administrative chaos. The Committee has recommended that an inter-state council should be set up and that no decision of national importance should be taken without consulting the Council except in regard to subjects like defense and foreign relations, the recommendations of the Council being ordinarily binding upon the Centre and the States. Can the national Parliament not be depended upon for safeguarding the national interest? The Central Government has undoubtedly greater financial resources at its disposal, but its needs also are equally greater. If the President is to be always guided by the advice of the Governor who in turn is always to be guided by his Council of Ministers, a situation may arise in which the Centre would stand utterly helpless when there is no stable administration in the State or when the State Cabinet is committed to revolutionary or virtually secessionist programme.
It is of the utmost importance that the Centre and the States should work in complete harmony and fully co-operate with each other for the realization of common ends. The fact that the Centre at any time is ruled by one political party and a State by another is no reason why this co-operation should not be abundantly forthcoming. The difficulty will only arise if a party committed to revolution by violence captures power in a State and tries to shake the confidence of the people in peaceful social change. Within the framework of the Constitution, there is scope for all kinds of experiments to put Centre-State relations on a more co-operative basis. The financial resources of the States can be augmented by more liberal allocation of funds and they can be assured of greater freedom in their use. Planning, to be truly effective, must emanate from below. But whatever the party complexion of the Central and State Governments, we cannot afford a feeling of hostility between them. No useful purpose is served by making the Centre a scapegoat for the errors of the State politicians. Federalism is an excellent device to achieve reconciliation of unity and diversity, but for its successful working it needs a high degree of political intelligence and resourcefulness. It also needs tact, tolerance and restraint. Given these virtues, there is no question, however delicate, which cannot be solved, no misunderstanding which cannot be removed and no tension which cannot be relieved. These virtues are not much in evidence today. They have to be developed.