[This is the third part of a series on India’s Constitution and how the Modi led govt. has undermined and subverted it]
One of the key components of the Republic, as spelt out in the Constitution adopted 69 years ago, was a federal structure with more or less clearly demarcated responsibilities between the Central and state govts, directions for fair division of resources, protection for rights of states, especially those with special problems of backwardness, and a system of detailed checks and balances to preserve this structure. This flowed from the diversity of peoples, and their cultures, histories and social fabric, that makes up India.
While central govts. in the past, driven by economic imperatives of the big bourgeoisie for centralisation and concentration for facilitating greater profits, had regularly sought to impose Central govt. will and policies on state govts., this drive has acquired a predatory character under Modi. This is not surprising because Modi and his party are wedded not only to advancing the interests of the big bourgeoisie but they also subscribe to a monolithic notion of the people, ignoring the diversity that exists.
As a result, the Modi regime has seen a wilful trampling of rights of states both in economic as also in political terms.
Grabbing Power in States
BJP has used bribery, threats, friendly Governors, horse-trading and a bag full of dirty tricks to seize power in several states despite the people’s mandate going against it. This strategy not only threw democratic norms out of the window but severely damaged the federal principles of our Constitution. Some examples:
· In the 2014 Assembly elections in Arunachal Pradesh, BJP won 11 seats, Congress 42, People’s Party of Arunachal 5 and Independents 2. Over the course of two tumultuous years, the numbers changed to: BJP 48; Congress 1; PPA 9; Independents 2! Wholesale defections, a spell of President’s rule, death of an ex-CM, Supreme Court’s intervention, recall of a reluctant governor and four chief ministers later, the BJP finally grabbed power!
· In Jharkhand’s Assembly elections in 2014, BJP won 35 seats and its ally AJSU 5 seats in the 81-member Assembly. They were just short of the majority. So, again they won over some independent members and lured 6 out of 8 MLAs of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha to gain a majority.
· In the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections for 243 seats, the BJP got just 53 seats and 2 went to its allies. It was a sound drubbing, delivered by the RJD-JD(U)-Congress alliance which got a whopping mandate of 178 seats contesting as a pre-poll alliance. Yet, BJP broke up the alliance, lured away JD(U) and its chief minister Nitish Kumar, and in July 2017, formed a coalition govt.
· For the Goa Assembly, elections in 2017 gave BJP just 13 of the 40 total seats. They cobbled up a coalition after results were announced with small local parties and formed a govt. even as the single largest party, the Congress sits in the opposition with 17 seats.
· In Manipur, BJP won 21 seats out of 60 in the 2017 Assembly elections while the Congress got 28. But the BJP won over two local parties NPP and NPF and lone MLA from its ally LJP to claim the govt. The Governor Najma Heptullah, a former BJP MP, helped along by inviting BJP led alliance first to form the govt.
· In Meghalaya, BJP won just two seats in the 2018 elections for the 60-member Assembly. But it struck a post poll alliance with NPP to become part of the govt. Again, a helpful Governor, Ganga Prasad, a former BJP MLC from Bihar helped.
· And, finally in Karnataka Assembly elections in 2018, despite having only 104 MLAs in a 224-member Assembly (elections to 2 seats were not held), the former Gujarat MLA Vajubhai Vala in his new role as Governor of the state invited BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa to form the govt. ignoring the larger Congress-JD(S) alliance. Had the Supreme Court not intervened and called for a floor test the next day, BJP would have happily grabbed power. As it happened, Yeddyurappa resigned rather than face defeat and a new Congress-JD(S) govt. was installed after a 55-hour long BJP rule.
GST- Disempowering States
Under the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) states have absolutely no power in deciding what tax rates to impose on what commodities, a right that was given to them under the Constitution of India. This snatches away the freedom of the states to pursue alternative strategies. The taxation system determined by the central govt. becomes the strait-jacket in which all state govts. have to fit in. Although there is a GST Council made up of representatives of all states but the Central govt. has the hegemonic sway over it.
As it is, the states’ fiscal position is dire and with the imposition of GST their dependence on the Central govt. has become even more. This disastrous move is violative of the federal structure of the Constitution.
GST has been brought in at the demand of the big corporate sector of the country. It has resulted in the squeezing out of the smaller industrialists and ruin of the small trader. Currently some compensation is being paid by the Centre to state govts. for the tax revenue losses they suffer but the future looks bleak, especially in the face of the tanking economy.
Freezing Welfare Funds
Time and again during Modi’s rule, state govts. have had to beg and demand that Central funds for this or that scheme be released. The most flagrant of these has been the rural job guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) for which Central funds are always short with states running up huge debits. This year, for example, 99% of the funds for MGNREGS were used up by the third quarter and yet the govt. was sitting on its cash pile - meanwhile lakhs of very poor people were starving because of lack of income from the scheme. This policy of the Modi govt. led to repeated protests from States, and in one well known event, caused then Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar to even sit on a dharna in Delhi in November 2014.
Modi govt. also cut funds in several central schemes ranging from education programs, scholarships for SC/ST, child and mother nutrition programmes, minority development schemes etc. This not only jeopardised the welfare programmes and deprived people of much needed benefits but also put state govts. under tremendous strain because they had to continue spending from their depleted resources.
The policy of cutting welfare funds – an integral part of the neoliberal dogma to which Modi and BJP subscribe – has damaged the states’ fiscal situation and rendered them weaker and more dependant on Central largesse.
15th Finance Commission
The Modi govt. has planned to further restrict States’ fiscal freedom through the onerous and arbitrary terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission. In the past too, Finance Commissions (which lay down resource division between Centre and States) have been used to squeeze state govts. rights but Modi’s reign has seen this trend dramatically increased. The terms of reference not only include the usual neoliberal principles of implementing Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Acts (FRBMA), adhering to zero revenue deficits and keeping fiscal deficit to 3% of GSDP, but also included are such blatant violations of democratic and federal principles like stopping grants for covering revenue deficit, curtailing “populist measures”, using 2011 Census for determining tax shares (rather than 1971), and forcing states to follow Modi’s own policies like the New India 2022. All this means that the whip of financial cutbacks is being used to restrict States’ own policies – which is directly a violation of the Constitutional safeguards and federal structure.