Cooperative Federalism or Unitary State?

Samuel Philip Mathew

In January 2015, ahead of its
first full-fledged budget, the present NDA Government at the Centre had
announced the scrapping of the Planning Commission. The announcement of a NITI
Aayog to replace the Planning Commission was a regressive step which further
pushed the country into a market driven economy and privatization in all
spheres, at the expense of diluting even the inadequate schemes aimed at
improving people’s welfare that existed then. Whatever role the Planning
Commission had in allocating resources for the public sector and deploying
public investment keeping in mind the regional disparities has now ended.

The old Planning Commission
was an instrument of the Central Government, with the states having no say in
the allocation of resources. However, the Modi’s claim that the new set-up
would be based on cooperative federalism* with the states as stake-holders has
turned out to be a spurious one. The National Development Council, to which the
Planning Commission reported, was not a statutory body. It was a forum where
state chief ministers expressed themselves, not just on issues affecting their
own states but on national development issues. The centre was under some
pressure at its meetings to accommodate states’ demands. In January 2016, a
year after the dismantling of the Planning Commission, the Central Government
made it clear that it wished to completely replace the National Development
Council by the Governing Council of NITI Aayog, which is a powerless body,
designed to work like a think-tank. That think tank is under the Prime Minister
and the Prime Minister’s Office. This is in essence a centralized unitarian
Moreover, since allocations to
the states are now being decided by the Finance Ministry. The states are
subjected to the political whims of the Central government. By saying “one
size fits all” cannot work, what was done was to put the states at the
mercy of the Centre to be dealt with arbitrarily, without any common principles
and norms. This has dangerously opened new doors for political bargaining and
deal making. Underlying the abolition of the concept of the Planning
Commission, was the NDA Government’s ideological conviction that public
resources should be put at the disposal of the private sector and the market
forces. With this, the role of the State in ensuring the citizens the
fundamental rights and fulfilling the Directive Principles of the Constitution
regarding education, health, food security and livelihood, has been abandoned.
These centralising measures
constitute an essential element of the neo-liberal strategy, and were being
introduced by the previous UPA government as well. But the present NDA
government, with its unquestioned and single-minded loyalty to the corporate-financial
oligarchy, which had spent massively to ensure its coming to power, is pursuing
this agenda with a relentlessness that is quite unprecedented. Neo-liberalism
always wants a centralisation of power and resources in the hands of a union
government that is sympathetic to corporate interests, so that the states,
devoid of resources, will then be constrained to entice such corporate elements
into their domains, as the only possible means of bringing about any investment
and growth. Neo-liberalism wants,, in short, a destruction of any authentic
federalism that allows leeway to states for pursuing divergent strategies,
including strategies that do not strictly conform to the demands of the
corporate-financial oligarchy. The abolition of the Planning Commission and the
National Development Council were in line with this neo-liberal agenda.
This attempt at the complete
destruction of our federal structure has come to the fore, more visibly, with
the recent Niti Aayog’s ‘instruction’ to collectors. Bypassing the state
government, the Niti Aayog has asked the district collectors to convene grama
sabhas on January 26, the Republic Day, to get feedbacks on the aspirations and
priorities of citizens regarding the formulation of a vision document envisaged
by the Prime Minister. As March 31 will mark the end of Five-Year Plan concept
in the country, following the dismantling of the Planning Commission, the
Central Government is coming up with a 15 year vision document comprising of 3
year action agenda and a 7 year strategy document.
The letter from Niti Aayog’s
chief executive officer Amitabh Kant on January 11, has requested all district
collectors to prepare a one page document listing the suggestions and
priorities of the citizens from every grama sabha and forward it to the agency
by January 31, after convening a ‘special grama sabha’ on January 26. The
letter also said that ‘Once collated, the national priorities will be taken
into serious consideration in drafting India’s vision document and shall
also be presented as Citizen’s Vision of India to the Prime Minister’.
No communication in this
regard has been made to the State Governments and the letter has directly been
sent to the district collectors. This is the second instance in which the Niti
Aayog has directly given instructions to the district collectors. The earlier
one was with regards to the steps to be taken to reduce the hardships of the
public pertaining to the demonetisation issue. It is alarming that the Niti
Aayog is operating an informal WhatsApp group meant for the Digital India
initiative in which only the Niti Aayog officials and the district collectors
are the members. Not only is the bypassing of the State Governments
unconstitutional, the district collectors are in no way empowered to convene a
grama sabha meeting. According to the Panchayati Raj Act, the power to convene
grama sabhas rests with the respective local bodies. Therefore, it is both
unconstitutional as well as against the spirit of federalism.
If at all the Prime Minister
was serious about formulating a Citizen’s Vision of India, it would have been
appropriate to convene a meeting of the Inter-State Council to draft it. It
would have ensured that the citizens voices from all across the country is
recorded. Considering the fact that this is the second instance where the State
Governments have been bypassed by the NITI Aayog, it is clear, that this is a
deliberate and planned effort at destabilising and dismantling the federal
structure of our country. India
being a country that is inhibited by several nationalities, it is imperative
that the federal structure of our country is upheld without fail, to ensure
that the spirit of equality, brotherhood and justice as envisaged in our
constitution prevails. Such nefarious designs would eventually deal a body blow
to the unity and diversity of our country. Yet, no strong opposition to such
dubious measures of the Central Government and the NITI Aayog have been
expressed and that is concerning, to put it mildly.

*It is said that the Prime
Minister kept quiet when the Tripura Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar asked him
what he meant by Cooperative Federalism. One is not sure, if the Prime Minister
was hinting that Cooperative Federalism means to keep quiet.

The Author is a Research Associate at C-DIT, Trivandrum.