Centre-state relations going sour

One development which has gone unnoticed in the confrontation between Trinamool Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is the delineation of relations between the centre and the states. When the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) protected the West Bengal BJP office, it gave a message that the centre was the ultimate authority, and it had its own force to ensure implementation of its word.

When West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that they too “were a government,” she threw down the gauntlet to the centre that the state was supreme in their own affairs. India is a federal polity. The states have their autonomy as spelled out in the Constitution. The Supreme Court has said in many judgments that the centre could not run roughshod to suppress the states in their own spheres.

This is the same old story: the state’s assertion against the centre’s. It has happened in the case of certain states earlier. Kerala, which often has communists at the helm of affairs, was disturbed many a time by New Delhi, including imposition of the president’s rule for the first time ever in the country.

Soon after independence, E.M.S. Namboodiripad was the chief minister of Kerala. He differed with New Delhi, ruled by the Congress, which wanted to extend the Preventive Detention Act. But Namboodipard argued that it was a way of the British rule and did not fit into the democratic structure of the country. He opposed the enactment. Among the chief ministers, he was the only one to do so.

Chief minister B.C. Roy of West Bengal, present at the meeting, was so offended that he chided him, snidely adding, “You were the only patriot among us.” Namboodiripad did not budge from his stand and merely said that he did not want to join issue with him. But he wanted his ‘no’ to be registered. When it came to his party whether or not to endorse his stand, it gave him full support.

However, it did not take long to prove what he had said. Soon after, the centre faced the railways strike. The Kerala government supported the demands of the railway staff. The encouraged workers in Kerala threatened to set the central government’s offices in the state on fire. New Delhi deployed the CRPF to protect its properties. This was an odd situation to face when the state’s police force would not do anything to ensure that no harm came to what belonged to the country, not a particular state. Fortunately, there was no showdown because the central government accepted the workers’ demands and the strike was averted.

The fallout of the threat of railways strike led to the creation of zonal council – East, West, North, South and Central – presided over by the Union Home Minister. The purpose was that the states could discuss the matter among them so that they could iron out the differences before it came to Parliament. The councils lasted till the Congress ruled both at the centre and the states. When the other parties came to power in the states, the arrangement did not work. The experiment ultimately ended in 1977 when the Janata Party, a combination of several parties, ruled the centre. It was given out that the zonal councils were not required because the party in power represented all of them.

Even otherwise, the centre-state relations have not been cordial, particularly ever since the BJP came to power. It tends to enforce its ideology on states ruled by parties other than the BJP. The RSS is its foot soldiers. This is resented by the opposition. If the BJP continues to formulate such policies which reflect its ideology, the coherence of the very federal structure is threatened. The elders in the BJP should look up and take necessary measures so that the unity of the country is intact.

But, unfortunately, with five states – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa – going to the polls, the BJP is bent on adopting all possible methods to capture power in these states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah will go to any extent to extend its rein.  Their pre-poll speeches in recent times indicate what the party has in its mind.

To a large extent, the BJP cause has been served by the family feud in the Samajdwadi Party (SP). Although Mulayam Singh has said that he was the party chief and would see to it that there was unity in SP, his brother Shivpal Yadav appears to be the spoiler. Chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has the majority of MLAs with him and there is no question of him being displaced.

It could only be a storm in a tea cup, but it has dented the image of the party. Akhilesh is bound to gain because his image before the voters is that of a clean person who was trying to govern transparently. His welfare measures will also stand him in good stead. Not surprisingly, even the Congress wants to have a pre-poll alliance with SP to prevent BJP coming to power.

The scenario in Punjab is no different. The Akali-BJP combination may still get a majority because the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) does not have a Punjabi face to project, as if it is from the state itself. In Uttarakhand, the Congress may scrape through after how the BJP tried to dislodge the Rawat government before the court’s intervention. In Manipur and Goa, the local elements may come to matter the most. But one cannot rule out the BJP’s ascendancy when the Congress no longer remains the only alternative.

Whatever the outcome of the polls, the BJP-ruled centre cannot turn a Nelson’s eye to the developments in the states, particularly West Bengal where it is the weakest. The daily bickering between Trinamool Congress and BJP will only aggravate the situation and drive the public to question the very democratic system itself.


The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.