Poll has thrown up basic issues

By Inder Jit
(Released on 5 March 1985)

Several issues of basic importance to the future of our polity have come up in the course of the poll battle for the State Assemblies. What kind of a Union is India — federal or unitary? Opinion over the past two decades and more has been divided. There are many who feel that India, which is a Union of States, essentially a federal polity. However, there are others who feel that India is not quite a federation of states in the true or classical sense of the term. Instead, it is a mixture of both and is some kind of a federal-cum-unitary state. The confusion, perhaps, arises because of the background and circumstances in which the Union of India came into being. In the case of the United States of America, for instance, independent states decided to come together even as they retained a measure of their independence or autonomy. In sharp contrast, India at the time of independence was ruled by the British from New Delhi as a unitary state. And, Princely India was under its paramountcy.
True, British India was divided into provinces. Each province had its own Government headed by a Prime Minister, as the heads of provincial governments were then called. But the arrangement was for administrative convenience. Absolute power vested in the Raj at New Delhi. Following independence, the unitary polity was divided into States. The Centre retained many of the powers of the Raj and gave the States a measure of genuine autonomy. In other words, the unitary Centre voluntarily shed some of its powers and shared these with the States and not vice versa as in the case of the United States of America. Consequently, the past two decades have seen stresses and strains grow and develop between the Centre and the States. As a student of history, Nehru strongly believed that India’s real strength lay in its rich diversity and, therefore, worked for a healthy federal polity. This, he believed, would ensure for India richness which could not possibly come from uniformity imposed from New Delhi.
Nehru was also clear that a federal, decentralised polity with a strong Centre would ensure speedy and balanced growth. In fact, he set up the Planning Commission to provide not only planned development for the nation as a whole but also for planned development at the State level through a federal de centralised set up on the economic plane. The Planning Commission was made autonomous and virtually independent so that it could plan for India’s development uninfluenced and unencumbered by the Government at the Centre and its political complexion. Sir V.T. Krishnamachari was named the Commission’s Deputy Chairman and Nehru as Prime Minister its first Chairman. De facto, however, ‘VT’ headed the Commission and Nehru was Chairman only to provide a link between the planning body and the Government — and to answer questions on planning in the two Houses of Parliament. But the situation changed following elevation of Indira Gandhi to Prime Ministership.
Slowly but surely, the autonomy of the Planning Commission was eroded bit by bit and the country, in effect, sought to be run as a unitary state through both constitutional and extra-constitutional devices. (Remember, the role which Governors are now expected to play!) The final denouement came when the Commission, originally conceived as a body of independent experts, was virtually reduced to the position of a Government department and the Planning Minister appointed its de facto head and named its Vice Chairman. Simultaneously, the National Development Council, headed by the Prime Minister, came to be transformed into a brazen instrument of the Centre from its original concept of a body designed to fashion a national view on planning and economic development at the political level and ensure unity in diversity. Fortunately, Mr Rajiv Gandhi has sought to restore to the Planning Commission its original autonomy. Dr Manmohan Singh, one of India’s eminent economists, has been appointed its Vice Chairman and the States assured a fair deal. But other issues have arisen in the meantime.
The Prime Minister has now taken the stand that the same party should be in power at the Centre and in the States in the interest of speedy and coordinated development. Initially, Mr Gandhi denied Press reports that he had advocated one-party rule at the Centre and in the States. However, the Congress-I manifesto for the Assembly poll has taken the same stand. It reminds the voters that Parliament and the State legislatures are creatures of the same Constitution and adds: “There is a clear linkage between the Central and State Governments in the formulation and implementation of development plans and programmes.” Undoubtedly, there is a linkage between the Centre and the States. Equally, development is likely to be more coordinated and smoother if the same party is in power at New Delhi and in the States. But the stand taken by the Prime Minister and his party goes against the letter and spirit of the Constitution — as also the background.
There was nothing wrong in Mr Gandhi appealing to the voters to elect Congress-I to power in each State that he visited in the course of his poll campaign. But to many veteran observers of the national scene he appears to have slipped up in linking the Centre and the States as a whole and pleading for one-party rule in the country. What he has stated amounts to holding the voters for the Assembly poll to ransom with the virtual threat: “Vote for a Congress-I Government in your State or else…” Shorn of polite verbiage, this amounts to giving notice that the States which vote for the Congress-I are likely to get better or more favoured treatment than the others. No wonder, therefore, that the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and the leader of the Telugu Desam Party, Mr N.T. Rama Rao, reacted sharply and not only demanded “legitimate allotment” of funds to the State from the Centre towards welfare programmes but also gave a counter-threat. He said at one poll meeting that there would be “bloodshed and great revolution” if due share of funds was not allotted to the State. He further added: “We are not beggars to ask for charity or alms. We are entitled to legitimate and due shares from the Centre.”
Centre-State relations have burst into the open once again, as they did last July. Four Chief Ministers then walked out of the meeting of the National Development Council in an unprecedented protest. They were: Mr N.T. Rama Rao of Andhra Pradesh, Mr R.K, Hegde, Karnataka, Mr Jyoti Basu, West Bengal and MrNripen Chakraborty of Tripura. They left the NDC meeting to protest against Dr Farooq Abdullah’s “anti-democratic and authoritarian dismissal”. Opinion was then sharply divided on what came to pass. Mrs Gandhi and her Congress-I colleagues were strongly of the view that it was wholly improper for the Chief Ministers to have made “a political statement” at the NDC forum. The four Chief Ministers were equally clear that the statement was perfectly in order. As Mr Hegde later pointed out: The Chief Ministers are political beings. What is more, Chief Ministers beginning with EMS of Kerala from Nehru’s time have made political statements at the NDC meetings. There has been never any bar against making them.
Impartially and candidly, both sides had a point. Mrs Gandhi was partly correct when she said that the National Development Council was only a forum for planning and national development and was not concerned with politics. However, Mr Rama Rao, Mr Hegde, MrBasuand Mr Chakraborty had greater force — and justice — on their side. First, politics cannot be separated from planning in any federal polity as Mrs Gandhi knew only too well. Times out of number, she herself stated that national development was dependent upon close co-operation between the Centre and the States. This had inevitably led the NDC to a discussion on Centre-State relations and in the last case on the question of New Delhi’s virtual coup in Srinagar — and the credentials and legitimacy of the successor State Government. Second, where else could the Chief Ministers have raised the Kashmir question in the absence of political forum? Nehru recognized this fact of life and did not, therefore, object when EMS first and Annadurai subsequently made political speeches at the NDC.
Significantly, the founding fathers of the Constitution recognised the need for a national political forum and wisely provided for one in the shape of an Inter-State Council. Alas, few remember that the establishment of an Inter-State Council was recommended in 1967 by a top-level Study Team headed by Mr M.C. Setalvad, one of free India’s top constitutional experts. The team, which submitted its report to the Administrative Reforms Commission, included among its members Mr M. Bhaktavatsalam, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and MrHitendra Desai, Chief Minister of Gujarat, was clear that the Inter-State Council should take care of all issues of national importance in which the States were interested. Indeed, Mr Setalvad, who as India’s first Attorney General was invited by Nehru to address Parliament on certain crucial matters, went one step further. He wanted the Inter-State Council to replace the National Development Council, the Chief Ministers’ Conference, the Finance Ministers’ Conference, the Food Ministers’ Conference and the National Integration Council.
The Sarkaria Commission is, no doubt, going into Centre-State relations. However, certain things need to be done without delay. One such thing is the need to ensure genuine functional autonomy of the Planning Commission. The appointment of Dr Manmohan Singh as its Vice Chairman is to be welcomed. But this by itself is not enough. Much more needs to be done to make the Planning Commission a truly autonomous body functioning as experts in the best national interest. Unknown to most people, the Planning Commission has no statutory base or authority. It was created through a Government resolution and its Vice Chairman and Members hold office at the pleasure of the Government. Originally, the term of the Vice Chairman and members was five years. Today, however, their position is as insecure as that of the Governors. The Planning Commission should be made a statutory body. What is more, it is time for the President to set up an Inter-State Council which could perhaps be given a better all-embracing name such as: National Affairs Council. Every effort must be made to find a solution to the basic issues raised by the poll. No scope should be left for any tension if India is to function as a happy and healthy Union of States. — INFA