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Blind spot: Editorial on Modi's blows on India's federal structure

In the early months of Covid, Centre encroached upon state powers on various issues

The Editorial Board Published 12.08.22, 03:52 AM
Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi File picture

Beauty, the wise say, lies in the eyes of the beholder. The prime minister can hardly be faulted for spotting, at long last, the beauty of India’s federal structure. Speaking at a governing council meeting of the Niti Aayog, Narendra Modi stated that India survived the pandemic on account of the strength of its federal edifice and the principle of cooperative federalism. Unfortunately, Mr Modi’s vision needs a bit of correction. This is not because of the nature of Indian federalism; a harmonious relationship between the Centre and the states of the Union, as envisioned in the Constitution, is, indeed, a beautiful sight. However, the period that Mr Modi referred to — those early months of the Covid-19 pandemic — had witnessed some of the most blatant assaults on the federal structure by his government. The states were not informed about the imposition of the first lockdown that was a unilateral decision by the Centre. The centralisation of the decisions pertaining to the lockdown and containment zones seriously impeded the ability of the states to battle the virus locally. Worse, this phase also witnessed Mr Modi’s government encroaching upon state powers, such as those related to transportation services. Then, there was fiscal constriction: the Centre encroached upon financial instruments on which the states have a claim. Demands of additional revenue by states were met not with relief but conditional credit. Even goods and services tax compensation to states remained unmet. Ironically, the second — deadlier — wave of Covid was marked by ‘unilateral decentralisation’. Complacency and unpreparedness on the part of the Centre forced the nation to experience a brutal lashing at the virus’s hands. As things started to deteriorate, the Centre indulged in a pathetic blame game with the states. But the strain on India’s federal structure precedes and transcends the pandemic. This is because the deterioration in the Centre’s relationship with states ruled by Opposition parties has been a hallmark of Mr Modi’s regime.

This bares an enduring structural problem. In the Indian federation, the Centre enjoys an enviable range of powers. The rise of an authoritarian, partisan executive has amplified the sense of besiegement among states. A strong Centre — Mr Modi’s claim to fame — need not imply an intimidating entity. Indian federalism stands to gain from a Centre that is respectful of the rights and autonomy of the states.

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