The decision of the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, to skip the swearing-in ceremony of Prakash Singh Badal in Chandigarh may remain the subject of feverish speculation, but there is little doubt that it has been greeted with a sense of intense relief by the political managers of a beleaguered Congress at the Centre. The relief may, however, prove to be short-lived if the Union budget fails to live up to Didi’s exacting expectations of a fiscal bonanza for West Bengal.
For the past six months or so, ever since the magnitude of West Bengal’s near-bankruptcy has hit home, Mamata has lost little opportunity to needle the Centre at every available opportunity. From puncturing the prime minister’s diplomatic mission to Bangladesh to teaming up with other regional parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party to derail the National Counter Terrorism Centre, Mamata has made it abundantly clear that New Delhi will have to pay a price for her political support in a fractured polity. More to the point, she has also clearly indicated that she is not without political options she can choose to exercise if the situation so warrants.
There is a temptation, particularly in the political establishment of the capital, to view Mamata as an unguided missile and a leader unable to make the transition from agitational politics to governance. As with most things about the chief minister, this has as much to do with her feisty style of articulation and her shrillness as with the substance of her interventions. Compared to J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu whose steely utterances are always very carefully measured or with Naveen Patnaik, who falls back on aloofness and understatements, Mamata is a law unto herself.
Yet, the dislike for Mamata’s inimitable style does not take away from the fact that among the political class at least, she is no longer being viewed as an excitable Bengali aberration. More and more, Mamata’s political positioning is being linked to wider developments in the polity. In particular, her interventions in the affairs of the nation are being linked to a larger restlessness of the states on the issue of federalism.
Needless to say, the Congress at the Centre, and even a section of the BJP, is inclined to miss the wood for the trees. Ever since the United Progressive Alliance government assumed power in 2004, there has been a steady encroachment of the Centre in areas which should, ideally, have been left to the states. Mega-welfare schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme may have been well-intentioned and designed by professional do-gooders genuinely concerned with the eradication of poverty. However, the one-size-fits-all assumptions of schemes have left state governments fuming and, at the same time, helpless.
During a brief visit to Odisha earlier this month, I was told by senior members of the state administration that the MNREGS has contributed to panchayats surreptitiously doctoring the books to compensate for the Rs 10 lakh grant for discretionary good works that was previously given to them, and which have been taken away by Sonia Gandhi’s pet scheme. It was also indicated that environmental clearances are increasingly being used by the Centre to settle political scores with governments ruled by non-UPA parties. Despite the large amounts of money the Centre was supposedly channelling to the states, the perspective from Bhubaneswar was that this was eerily reminiscent of the tied aid that marked American benevolence to the third world.
The United States of America was often unable to comprehend why the image of Uncle Sam was negative despite the large amounts of aid poured into poor countries. In a similar vein, the likes of Rahul Gandhi have found it difficult to understand the logic of the so-called benefactors not being able to reap a political harvest. A key talking point of the Congress general-secretary during his energetic but politically unrewarding campaign tour of Uttar Pradesh was the large sum of monies “we” sent from Delhi but which the wicked “haathi” ate up. The corruption charges against Mayavati may have stuck and contributed to her eventual defeat, but the heir-apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was unable to gauge that the variety of paternalism he and his mother champion no longer has the same emotional impact as when Indira Gandhi promised to banish poverty. It is this fundamental incomprehension of a changed mood that has contributed to the heightening of federal impulses.
The problem isn’t something confined to the Gandhis or those who contrast the “national outlook” of the first family with the “regional” orientation of everyone from Akhilesh Yadav to Naveen Patnaik. The manner in which cotton exports were peremptorily banned by the Union commerce ministry without even a hint of consultation with the cotton-growing states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab indicates the astonishing arrogance of even those technocrats who presume to act on behalf of the ‘nation’.
The BJP on its part has imbibed many of these centralist assumptions to the point where its supporters on the ground speak contemptuously of a Delhi-based coterie that has no idea of ground realities. The imperious manner in which B.C. Khanduri was removed as chief minister of Uttarakhand in 2009, and Vasundhara Raje as leader of Opposition in Rajasthan, spoke eloquently of the high-command culture of the Congress finding its way into the BJP. Incidentally, both leaders had to be reinstated — Khanduri to extricate the party from the mess created by his Delhi-appointed successor, Ramesh Pokhriyal, and Vasundhara Raje because the proposed successors had no support among either the legislators or the voters. Today, a cold war exists between Narendra Modi and the party’s national leadership, triggered by the latter’s disregard of the concerns of the chief minister. The writ of the BJP central office in Delhi does not run in Gujarat. For all practical purposes, Modi is at the helm of a regional party.
What is particularly surprising is the fact that the opportunities presented by the concerns over the federal structure have completely bypassed many in the BJP. Despite the indifferent performance in UP, the party is acting on the smug assumption that any future government at the Centre must factor in the “alternative pole” of politics. This may well happen if both the national parties are able to secure an incremental ‘national’ vote in the 2014 parliamentary election. But in the event that the dissonance between the assembly and Lok Sabha polls is slender, India may be confronted by a unique situation of the regional parties calling the shots in any future government formation. The BJP cannot take its natural advantage from any anti-incumbency vote against the Congress for granted. The possibility of a post-poll gang-up of all regional parties (including those nominally attached to the UPA and the National Democratic Alliance) dictating the terms of politics to the national parties can no longer be discounted as fanciful.
A major shift is taking place in politics: a decisive mood shift in favour of a more equitable federal arrangement. However, rather than wait for the change to happen automatically, it is incumbent on the regional parties to plan ahead for a programme that involves constitutional amendments for an institutional shift of powers in favour of the states. In 1950, the ‘unity and integrity’ of India was the principal preoccupation of the Constitution-makers. Today, the oneness of India has been firmly entrenched in the popular imagination. The time for a radical devolution of powers — both political and economic — to the states may well present itself after the 2014 election.