May 23, 2022 ☼ The Intersection ☼ liberal nationalism ☼ constitutionalism
The anxieties over delimitation can take a dark turn unless the federal structure is strengthened in parallel
This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
My previous column on how India’s enlightened adoption of linguistic pluralism has allowed it to escape the fate of its subcontinental neighbours was published, coincidentally, the day angry mobs stormed the Sri Lankan prime minister’s official residence forcing him to resign and seek refuge in a military facility. The triggers of the island’s crisis might be recent, but the roots go back to 1956 and its failure to construct a equitable republic for its two main ethnic groups. I’m underlining this again because the basic structure of the state can propel a society’s growth, development and satisfaction or their opposite. In political organisations as in consumer products, design matters.
Linguistic pluralism is the first of the three major design elements of responsible for independent India’s unity, development and dynamism.
The second is the federal structure. When I was a high school student, our civics curriculum taught us that India is “federal in structure but unitary in spirit”. Contemporary public discourse celebrates “cooperative federalism” as a positive model of governance. Indian federalism differs from American or European federalism in that pre-existing States did not come together and constitute a federation. It is also true that the unitary spirit of the Indian republic is a deliberate act of nationalism.
Even so, Indian federalism is still federalism. Rejecting charges of centralism, Ambedkar explained that “The States, under our Constitution, are in no way dependent upon the Centre for their legislative or executive authority. The Centre and the States are co-equal in this matter.”
Like the Tamil adage lamenting the plight of garland in the hands of monkeys, we have allowed popular fashions and political exigencies to undermine the federal structure.
The Constitution strikes a balance between popular will, exercised by the Lok Sabha, and the interests of federating units through the Rajya Sabha. It is straightforward to see that this is modelled more on the American model than on the British one. Our upper house doesn’t represent the interests of heritidary lords and theocrats, but as the very name suggests, it is a chamber where States negotiate their interests. The Lok Sabha can be constituted the basis of latest population of India, but the Rajya Sabha’s capacity to stand up for the States’ interests would remain unchanged. Even if the Rajya Sabha makes for an unequal federation — upper house seats are also allocated on the basis of population — to the extent that it functions as the voice of the States, it serves the federal purpose.
Messing around with the imperfect federalism has been expensive for the Indian republic (September 2004). The costs are mounting.
If we had stuck to this design, then matters like delimitation exercises would not have raised the deep anxieties, fears and grievances as they have since Indira Gandhi’s times. States in the south and the east are concerned at the prospect of the more populous north gaining more seats in the Lok Sabha. The fact that the delimitation of the Lok Sabha constituencies has been postponed twice since the 1970s suggests that there are deep misgivings among states as to their status and power within the federal structure. These misgivings are reemerging now that a delimitation exercise is in the offing. That is why it is crucial to take an enlightened national approach to the matter, over partisan and parochial ones.
The Lok Sabha must be expanded and constituted on the basis of population: We can devise an optimum formula for this but the constitutional principle demands that population be the basis. If this means highly populated northern states get relatively more seats, then that has to be accepted. However, this is only half the story. The constitutional principle also demands that States’s standings not get diminished relative to each other, or to the Union.
Looking at my archives, I had cheered the Supreme Court when it first stayed the amendments. But it’s final verdict was disappointing and, I maintain, constitutionally erroneous.
For this we must first correct the grave mistake the Parliament and Supreme Court made in the 2000s. The 2003 amendment to the Representation of People’s Act that did away with domicile requirements for Rajya Sabha candidates and the 2006 Supreme Court verdict in Kuldip Nayar vs Union of India that upheld it have undermined the federal balance. At the time I argued that as much as I respect Dr Manmohan Singh’s intellectual and political credentials I cannot accept that he was in any position to advocate the interests of the State of Assam, which he officially represented in the Rajya Sabha. The Rajya Sabha has become an instrument in of party leaders, just as the Lok Sabha after the anti-defection law. Parliament has been reduced to a mere numbers game, with some added special effects.
In India today, students have to prove that they have lived in a state for seven years before they can get admission to professional courses under the state quota. A citizen has to demonstrate proof of residence in order to register as a voter in the local and state elections. Many states have domicile requirements for government jobs and welfare entitlements. Yet when it comes to the Rajya Sabha there is no such requirement. We thus have the absurd situation of a person who cannot even vote or stand in a panchayat election in a State representing it in the Rajya Sabha. Domicile requirements must be brought back.
I have argued for a more equal Rajya Sabha for a long time; here is a post from 2003. The need has only grown stronger.
The upper house must also be reformed to give force to Ambedkar’s vision of equality among the States. In the United States, Rhode Island, a minuscule state compared to giant California, has the same number of representatives in the Senate. Here, Manipur has a single Rajya Sabha MP — who does not even have to be from the state — compared to Uttar Pradesh’s 31. Design has consequences. Perhaps the Supreme Court was right to opine that the Rajya Sabha is not akin to the US Senate, but in the interests of strengthening national unity we should make it so. Let all States have the same number of seats in the Rajya Sabha.
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