IPCS Debate

Expanse of Federalism: South Asia Sui Generis?

20 Jan, 2014    ·   4269

D Suba Chandran responds to PR Chari's commentary on the nature of Indian federalism

PR Chari, in his commentary titled ‘Limits of Federalism' in South Asia, makes several important assertions on the nature of federalism evolving in the region. Both his assertions and the nature of evolution need larger debate and understanding. But this debate need not have a negative perspective, but be seen as the evolution of a South Asian form of federalism.

‘Hodgepodge of Regional Parties’: ‘Distressing Implications’ for South Asian Peace and Conflict?
While explaining the nature of evolving federal practices, PR Chari makes the argument that the “federalisation of India’s polity has enabled its conversion into a true democracy, with the unexpected result that the regional parties have now become more assertive in several of the larger states.” And is there a "A hodgepodge of regional parties...with distressing implications for peace and conflict in South Asia"

Two important issues need to be addressed here. First, why should the regional assertion be seen as an ‘unexpected result’? Is that not a logical extension of federal principles? Or is it a general expectation that in a federal set-up in South Asia, regional parties should not be assertive?

Second, do the assertions of regional parties in federal politics essentially create a ‘hodgepodge’ with negative implications for regional security? This perception in fact is increasingly becoming common, especially in New Delhi - that assertions by regional parties (in case of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis Bangladesh and Sri Lanka respectively) have affected India’s foreign policy.

These questions demand a larger debate – both in national capitals and sub-regions.

Who Decides the Composition of a Federal Government?
The government at the centre has generally been formed by national parties such as the Congress and BJP (with minor exceptions). In the last two decades, regional parties, especially from South India and West Bengal, have been playing a substantial role in the formation of federal governments. Should one be alarmed by this phenomenon?

The above also means something significant for regional politics. There is a remarkable decline of national parties in the regions. Alternatively, an argument could also be made that the regions support regional parties more than the national ones. Why? Perhaps the national parties are no more ‘national’ or are unable to address regional sentiments.

The mandate to rule at the federal level cannot be limited to one sub-region or a few states. Since independence, the states of undivided Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar decided the Prime Minister, with other states having a lesser role or no role at all. Even today, India’s Northeast, Sikkim, J&K and Himachal Pradesh have no major role in deciding the outcome of the government in New Delhi. Is such a structure essentially representative and federal? Why is there a hullabaloo today in New Delhi against regional politics? Should that only remain the domain of only a few states in central India?

What is happening today – the assertion of regional parties - is essentially a balancing act and good for the federal structure of India. Ideally, this should have been the case since independence. Parties such as the Congress used the ‘divide, exploit and rule’ strategy vis-à-vis egional parties by piggybacking on one party or another; to a large extent, this has been the case from J&K to Tamil Nadu.

This balancing act by the regional actors, however unstable it appears, should be seen as transition or evolution of a truly federal structure.

Assertive Regional Politics: Bad for Foreign Policy? Or Correcting the Imbalance?
In recent years, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have been criticised for sabotaging India’s foreign policy objectives. Undoubtedly, there is an element of truth in such accusations.

But there is another side to this story. This is where one has to have a re-look at foreign policy-making in a federation in South Asia. What role should the sub-regions play in foreign policy-making, especially vis-à-vis the neighbours?

In this context, India’s foreign policy since independence has been far from federal. The regions were neither taken into confidence nor even consulted in deciding the foreign policy vis-à-vis the neighbours. Foreign policy is drawn in New Delhi, that too by a few ministries and individuals. Even the consultation process in New Delhi, with ministries outside the PMO and MEA, has been minimal.

The sub-regions criticise New Delhi for being arbitrary in deciding foreign policy. There is an element of truth as well in this argument. Was the government of Tamil Nadu consulted fully when New Delhi decided to support the Sri Lankan Tamil militants? Were the governments of J&K and West Bengal consulted before making major decisions regarding Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively?

Today, New Delhi perhaps finds it convenient to cover its own incompetence and shift the blame to regional governments in making crucial foreign policy decisions. As in the case of internal politics, the regions are bound assert their sentiments and interests on foreign policy matters as well, especially those relating to the neighbourhood with which they share a boundary. Instead of perceiving this as a negative phenomenon, it should be seen as a positive transition. All transitions will have a negative component attached to it. 

There is perhaps a new federalism evolving in the region, with its own unique features.