Didi’s drama: How petulant CMs indulge in vengeful federalism

A defining feature of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s politics is her disregard for long-term consequences. The turning point in her long and valiant battle against an entrenched Left Front was her unrelenting battle against land acquisition for the Tata car factory in Singur in 2010. She won that battle, caused the factory to relocate to Gujarat and destroyed the Left bid to reinvent itself. Mamata’s populism won her the big political prize but for Bengal, the consequences of the Singur agitation were not appetising. Already tarred by the reputation of being an impossible place for industry, its reputation as a place to avoid was even more strongly reinforced.

Mamata’s petulance and excitability were again on display last week when she staged a two-day dharna to protest against an attempted CBI interrogation of the Kolkata police commissioner in connection with the Saradha chit fund scam that affected some 17 lakh depositors. Claiming that the exercise was politically driven by a vengeful Narendra Modi government, Mamata ensured the CBI officers were physically prevented from serving notice. Claiming that any interrogation of the police commissioner would be an assault on federalism and the Constitution, Mamata tried to make her dharna a national issue. She even equated it with the freedom struggle.

The Supreme Court order instructing the police commissioner to join the CBI inquiry, yet protecting him from immediate arrest, has put an end to the drama momentarily. However, with Mamata inexplicably detecting a “moral victory” in the court order, it is likely that last week’s contrived Centre-state tussle will resurface, particularly as the political temperature rises.

Hitherto, the debate on India’s federal arrangement has centred on allegations of an overbearing and discriminatory Centre. In the 1980s, the Jyoti Basu government in Bengal had made the Centre’s unequal devolution of resources a mainstay of its attacks on the Congress governments. To this was added the Centre’s politically inspired discrimination of non-Congress-ruled states through the licence-permit raj. And politically, non-Congress parties complained bitterly about the unending misuse of Article 356 to impose President’s rule.

Much of these earlier concerns now belong to history. With the emerging norm of different parties governing at the Centre and the states, Indian federalism has become far more even-handed and equitable. With the 14th Finance Commission devolving 42% of central taxes to the states — up from 32% — and additional revenues from GST, chief ministers are no longer compelled to go to Delhi with a begging bowl. The end of licensing has meant that states are now competing with each other for greater investments, rather than lobbying with the Centre for favours. Politically too, after the Sarkaria Commission report and the SC judgment in the S R Bommai case, the Centre’s elbow room for punishing awkward state governments has diminished substantially. From allegations of the Centre’s high-handedness, the debate has veered to making cooperative federalism more meaningful.

Debates, however, inevitably get derailed. The past four years have witnessed a new, disturbing phenomenon: the increase in the petulance of state governments. What was witnessed in Kolkata last week — and which the Supreme Court rightly ruled out of order — was a state government preventing the Centre from carrying out its federal responsibilities. If CBI officers can be prevented from interrogating state government officers, what is to prevent a state government from either obstructing the NIA (National Investigation Agency) from apprehending terror suspects or the home ministry from deporting illegal immigrants? Mamata’s antics amounted to a state exercising a veto over the Centre’s authority in a legitimate sphere.

With political polarisation becoming even more intense, the exercise of state’s rights has contributed to vengeful federalism overshadowing cooperative federalism. As usual, West Bengal has led the way with the state government opting out of the Ayushman Bharat health scheme. It is understood that the ostensible reason was that Modi’s photo was displayed in some notifications. Mamata’s government is now also contemplating blocking the Centre-funded Rs 6,000 subsidy to small and marginal farmers.

It is conceivable that many state governments have their own healthcare and farmer subsidy schemes. People of those states can either exercise choice or benefit doubly from the expansion of the welfare net. Blocking out central schemes for political ends is unjust. It is tantamount to arm-twisting by Delhi being replaced by small-mindedness in the states. In her state of high excitability, Mamata may be disinclined to consider the long-term consequences of hogging the limelight at all cost. But maybe those who fancy Kolkata as the new venue of political tourism should.

Article Courtesy: Times of India https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/right-and-wrong/didis-drama-how-petulant-cms-indulge-in-vengeful-federalism/
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