September 19, 2004Public Policy

Wages of imperfect federalism

Coalition governments, insurgencies and ideological extremism

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Even as the America’s 2004 presidential election campaign degenerates into a noisy tu tu mai mai, voters are presented with a choice of exactly who they want as their president for the next four years. They may vote indirectly through an electoral college - the merits of which are debatable - but they know that in the end, they generally elect the person most of them voted for.

Coalition politics and blunted governance

In contrast, in India’s Westminster style democracy the electorate votes for parties instead. The underlying assumption here is that the leaders of these parties are prime-ministerial candidates; and parties implicitly take these leaders to the electorate. Since the late 1980s, this assumption has been repeatedly proven wrong in India, throwing up political minnows like I K Gujral and Manmohan Singh or regional powerbrokers like Deve Gowda (and god forbid, Lalu Prasad Yadav) as Prime Ministers. Given India’s ethnic, linguistic, religious and demographic diversity, the Westminster system operates under boundary conditions, suffering from and causing the demise of charismatic leaders with nationwide appeal. The patchwork of coalition politics blunts governance, accepting chaotic mediocrity instead of a stable pursuit of excellence.

In the intentionally maimed version of federalism that is in place in India, there are no avenues for regional voters to take up issues of regional interest at the national level. The Rajya Sabha, instead of representing the states as in the US Senate, ends up becoming the house of elders’ - a sort of place where failed or aged politicians are put out to pasture, or where film stars and other celebrities are forced to make cameo appearances during parliamentary crunch times, or for a back-door entry into the Cabinet. It is a system that suits the politicians fine, hence their enthusiasm to tweak it into further representative irrelevance.

Liberation Army of [insert your favourite region here]

If the result of the distortion of the principle of federalism were limited to suffering the absurdities of coalition politics it would still not have been so bad. But a more sinister expression of regional nationalism’ is in the form of insurgencies - be it in Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, Punjab, Manipur, Nagaland or Andhra Pradesh. With scarce avenues to express their grievances, the disaffected populations turn their anger against an abstract monolith called India. If Manipur’s Rajya Sabha members had as much power as those of Uttar Pradesh, they could well have had the political weight to address the concerns of the people of Manipur long before things came to such a sorry pass. Despite the considerable media attention given to the problems in Manipur, one has hardly heard of (let alone heard from) Manipur’s Rajya Sabha members.

Rise of the ideological extremists

Once a party of nationwide appeal and a natural party of government, the Congress party too has degenerated into a coalition cobbler. Without charismatic national leaders, it is not surprising that the Congress was unable to balance politics (and politicians) at the state level with those at the Central level. Allies of convenience in the states are often competitors at the central level, and vice versa; leaving the Congress with an ever shrinking seat count in the Lok Sabha and with deeper political retrenchment in the states.

The political vaccuum created by the receding Congress at the national level has been exploited by ideological extremists - both the Mandalist’ socialists of the Janata Dal stable and the Ram Mandir’ religious nationalists of the BJP have had their moments under the sun. Instead of presenting alternatives, the Congress made half-hearted attempts to co-opt both these forces and in the process made itself more susceptible to coalition politics.

The absence of an underlying federal structure makes it difficult for the Congress to ever go back to being the national party it once was. Its need to balance its interests in the states with its interests in the centre will continue to diminish its ability to regain its lost ground.

Adieu federal in structure, unitary in spirit’

Reforming India’s federal structure is not difficult. If the Rajya Sabha is restructured along the lines of the United States’ Senate, India would have the appropriate tools to solve three of India’s most pressing political challenges. To tackle its most difficult problems, those of social and economic development, India needs to be federal both in structure and spirit. The wages of half-baked federalism are more than what India can afford to pay.

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