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Now, federalism debate in India

2011-10-31 05:22:48
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N Sathiya Moorthy
“The Centre is trying to weaken States with too much interference,” Jayalalithaa said. “It is completely out of sync with ground realities,” she added. In converting a forum that was called to finalise the draft for the Twelfth Five-Year Plan document into a stage for unilateral political discourse, the AIADMK Chief Minister could not resist the temptation of taking mug-shots at the Congress leader of the ruling coalition at the Centre.
According to Jayalalithaa, the Centre “appears to be hell-bent on penalising non-Congress Governments” in the States, a charge that has been heard for over 40 years. So politicised did her speech become that she could not leave out a bilateral concern like the Palk Bay fishermen’s issue, which had nothing to do with macro-economic development and policies, but everything to do with a neighbouring nation like Sri Lanka.
It is easy for the opponents of power-devolution of any kind in Sri Lanka to use Jayalalithaa’s NDC speech to decry all demands for accommodating the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils in the post-war era. It is easier still for those demanding power-devolution to seek further inspiration from the ‘national discourse’ in neighbouring India, where a quasi-federal scheme at inception has been deemed as more federal than in the past – but seems to be anything but that, if one accepted Jayalalithaa’s arguments.
In a way, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has even touched upon ‘Police powers’, which has been a bone of contention in Sri Lanka. She described the controversial Communal Violence Bill as a “blatant attempt to totally bypass the State Governments and concentrate all powers in the Central Government.” Coming as it does after the Centre conferring all powers for terrorism probes on the newly-formed National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the months after the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, the Communal Violence Bill has been criticised also by the political Right and Left at the same time.
For those in Sri Lanka wanting the nation to have nothing to do with power-devolution, Jayalalithaa’s speech is enough to seal the fate of island-wide discourse on the ‘national problem’. For those supporting power-devolution, it is an inspiration as to the depth and width of national discourses of the kind, and consequent expansion of the scope of powers of the States/Provinces in the Indian context. The truth however lies in between, and that is also the success of Indian democracy – federalism or not. It is dynamic and accommodative, not frozen and unbending.

All this does not mean that the Indian devolution discourse can be unilaterally influenced by speeches like Jayalalithaa’s. While they definitely are pointers, more serious discourses have given shape to postulates and concepts that have been incorporated in the Constitution from time to time. The Sarkaria Commission Report and the Justice Venkatachalaiah Committee findings, and the 100-plus Constitution amendments, among others, stand testimony.
What stands out in the process is that political India does not consider a open debate on issues of public administration, or Centre-State relations, as a sin – despite having unresolved and unmitigated problems of its own on this score. If anything, such processes provide an evolutionary model, leading to incremental devolution – and not otherwise. The concepts that evolve through such debates and discourses, politicised at times yet with great relevance and consequence, often take into account contemporary socio-economic idioms and interpretations, and do not remain stuck in a historic past alone.
In India, it is a continuing process. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is stuck with the one that it began at Independence, as retrograde as it has turned out to be. The anti-devolution camp in Sri Lanka would argue for the continuance of the district-level decentralisation, when the world has moved far away from village-rule and city-States. This section needs to acknowledge the inevitability of the existing scheme leading to a situation in which power-sharing becomes an unconscious consequence.
This would be more so in the case of the ‘Sinhala majority’ regions and Provinces, which would not be, and cannot be, under the Centre’s scanner as much as their Tamil counterparts will continue to be. If left un-accommodated and un-calibrated, they acquire a dynamism of their own, unnoticed and unguided by a more powerful and purposeful Centre.
 ‘Moderation’ should be the name of the game if anyone is serious about avoiding such a catastrophe in the unforeseeable yet unpredictable future. Such ‘moderation’ needs to be moderated if it’s not to moderate the course, unilaterally. For now, Tamil Minister Douglas Devananda has said that powers under 13-A should actually be devolved incrementally, even as the discourse continues on ‘Police’ and ‘Land’ powers, for instance.
That is a beginning. But if one went by the Tamilnet report, there are those in Jaffna who want both the US and the TNA, whose leaders are now in Washington, to dump 13-A for starters!


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