By Swapan Dasgupta
The conference of Chief Ministers last Monday to discuss internal security was marked by a spectacular degree of discord between the Centre and the states. An explanation for this trust deficit may indeed lie in partisan politics. However, when formidable state leaders charge New Delhi of viewing the provinces as mere municipalities and question the rationale of the Centre’s intrusiveness in subjects ranging from internal security to environment and anti-poverty schemes, there are grounds to probe the likelihood of an emerging Constitutional breakdown. Has the “cooperative federalism” the Founding Fathers crafted in 1950 passed its sell-by date?
The question is neither heretical nor insolent. Political documents—and the Indian Constitution is a political document—are rooted in a context. In 1947, the members of the Constituent Assembly addressed their mission with multiple dreams but total clarity on two counts.
First, they were deeply suspicious of any federal scheme that advocated a minimal Centre and strong states. This wariness stemmed almost entirely from the Congress experience with the Pakistan movement and the stand taken by the Chamber of Princes in the debates on the federation that was supposed to take the 1935 Constitution to its logical conclusion. With Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Princes out of the way, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Government imagined that state’s rights were no longer a paramount issue. A strong, paramount Centre was the consensus of the political class in 1947.
Secondly, flowing from its earnest commitment to the unity and integrity of the new India, the Constituent Assembly was equally in love with centralised planning. This wasn’t exclusively an infatuation with the Soviet Union. Many Congress leaders were sold on President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US and the welfarist impulses of the Labour Party in Britain. They sought to replicate some of the achievements on both sides of the Atlantic in India.
In his seminal work on the making of the Indian Constitution, Granville Austin has documented the remarkable extent to which members of Nehru’s Cabinet were anxious to place all crucial subjects on the Central list. Jagjivan Ram wanted labour legislation to be dictated from Delhi; Rajkumari Amrit Kaur imagined that public health was too important a subject to be left to provincial politicians; and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was of the view that education should be a Central subject so that the “intelligentsia of the country will be thinking on similar lines.”
The centralising impulses of the Nehruvian Congress finally coalesced in the establishment of the Planning Commission in March 1950. Although this body wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution, it soon evolved into what Sardar Patel feared would be a “superbody”, dictating the terms of national development to the states. Apart from viewing states as subordinate bodies to the Centre, the Planning Commission was premised on the belief that a few well-meaning and politically driven experts could draw a blueprint for the whole nation.
Austin described Indian planning as ‘intellectual centralisation”. In hindsight he was guilty of understatement. Over the years, the Planning Commission has overshadowed the Constitutionally-approved Finance Commission and the National Development Council. It has repudiated diversity, marginalised entrepreneurship and become an instrument of political control. The sight of popularly elected Chief Ministers lining up before the Deputy Chairman of the Commission to get their state plans approved is profoundly humiliating and calculated to make states appear like beggars. The we-give-the-money syndrome has, indeed, become a hallmark of the Gandhi family’s speeches.
There was a time when the same political party ran the governments at the Centre and the states. The Constitution-makers and the Nehruvian consensus never imagined a situation when this would not be so. Nor could they envisage a future when the intellectual fashions of the 1950s and 1960s would be junked and even placed among history’s bad ideas. The over-centralised features of the Constitution reflected their belief in their own infallibility.
Sunday Times of India, April 22, 2012