Who’s in charge here?

India spends around just under 2% of its GDP on managing external threats as a core sovereign function of the Union government. By all accounts, this arrangement works well. Two generations of Indians since 1965, have never known war personally, except those brave hearts, who chose to take upon themselves, the weighty task of protecting the country.

Murky mandates complicate domestic governance

Things get murkier when it comes to protecting citizens from internal threats – sustained civil strife and violence, crime and now disease-led-disasters. Jurisdictional overlap between the Union government, state government and local bodies is part of the problem. Who to finger remains unclear, when things go wrong as they have done from time to time? The ravages wrecked today by the Covid pandemic is just the latest example.

India a notionally quasi-unitary State

Constitutionally, unlike in the case of a perceived or actual threat to national security from war, external aggression or armed rebellion, the breakdown of the constitutional machinery in a particular state or financial emergency, there is no mechanism by which the fractured constitutional mandate can be unified through legislation or proclamation. The purpose of a tiered democratic architecture is to allocate powers to those best placed to discharge their duties (the principle of subsidiarity) and to be held accountable for their actions.

Clearly, there is no need for a state government to fix street lighting which local bodies can do more efficiently. Similarly local policing is better left to the local police who are part of the cultural context in which people live rather than be sucked upwards to a top down appointed “external” police force.

Being like China with Indian characteristics

But at times of national distress, like today, it is natural to wonder if things would have been different under a unified, centralized governance system, where the buck stops with the Union government. After all China presents such an example. Of course, China does not stop at just centralization of authority – although not of implementation powers which are delegated to provinces. It does however reduce political choice to a charade, thereby presenting only one option for voicing dissatisfaction with the government – rebellion. But then, consider that, India presents citizens with full political choice, nevertheless rebellion simmers in Jammu and Kashmir and the Maoist infested badlands of eastern and central India.

There would be very few Indians who would voluntarily accept a Chinese style political architecture sans political choice. Ask the Left parties. Even the 40% at the bottom of the economic pie seem unwilling to throw off the freewheeling, albeit heartless governance styles they are subjected to, for a highly regulated arrangement where freedoms – even if they might be contextually notional -of movement, speech, profession, political affiliation, religion and cultural beliefs are protected by law.

India no stranger to single party dominance

And yet, our political system has, from time to time, thrown up overwhelming national consensus for a dominant political philosophy – that of the Congress, however ambiguous and all-encompassing it might have been- till 2014. And now of the BJP – which has gradually moved towards the soft, economic welfarism of the Congress, albeit remaining uncompromisingly Hindu in essence, as opposed to the religious rainbow appeal, which the Congress, the Left parties, the Lohia inspired parties and other regional parties adhere to today.

Absence of the political will to cooperate

Complex multilayered governance system like ours, whilst good at empowering and reflecting the diversity of the country, also come with massive drawbacks. The biggest is that they rely on the goodwill and good intent of all three vertically arraigned governance levels at working cooperatively towards public good. Sadly, these networks of goodwill and cooperation, across party lines, have corroded undermining the potential for meaningful cooperative governance.

There appears to be no easy way of rolling back the harm already done to the political fabric. The abandonment of principled politics for transactional gain has been a steady downward spiral. We are now at a junction where we can only rationalize the chaos. The principle of clarity of command inspires a simple option.

The buck should stop with the Union government

We should abandon the constitutional division of mandates by making the Union government legislation overriding across all areas thereby making state governments constitutionally subservient to Union legislation.

This is not to say that local variations in rules and regulations to accommodate contextual differences would disappear. But local variations would need to be approved by the Union government, as is the case today, for Union legislation in areas within its mandate.

Radical as it may sound, lifting the Union government a notch above the state governments is already inbuilt because of the overwhelming financial authority and fiscal flexibility it enjoys and the proclivity of successive Union governments to micro-manage development and social protection programs.

Formalizing the dominance of Union legislation would simply make the existing distortions de-jure. India would go from being a quasi -unitary state to an unambiguously unitary one. For everything, from clogged drains to trains running late, kids unable to read, hospitals unable to cater to the sick, the buck would stop at the door of the Union government.

The Prime Minister would be one notch above Chief Ministers. Ministers in Delhi would directly supervise their counterparts in state governments. The Union bureaucracy would be administratively superior to state level bureaucrats- much like local government officials are administratively inferior to state level officials today. This would conform to the position on the ground as it exists and align with the “One Nation One Law” theme of the BJP.

No point waiting for a thousand flowers to bloom

Formalizing a “winner takes all” political architecture, notionally junks the opportunity for a thousand flowers blooming via local body and state elections. But where do we see this happening? The dominant color is Saffron all the way to the door of the Deccan in the South and to the borders of Odisha in the East. It can only spread farther.

National parties in opposition and the regional parties ruling in state governments (Tamil Nadu for example) will naturally oppose a diminution in their perceived autonomous, political “status”. But if it comes with more pan-India, coherent and effective governance and better service delivery, public interest must be put before narrow, political interest or embedded privileges based on historical local support.

Extracted from the author’s opinion piece in TOI blogs April 24, 2021 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/opinion-india/whos-in-charge-here/

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