Is Narendra Modi pushing for more centralization of the Prime Minister’s Office? Are chief ministers of states ruled by opposition parties facing partisan approaches from the federal government? Is Modi ignoring states while making key policy decisions unilaterally? Has his government damaged the delicate fabric of federal-state relationships with its insensitivity and aggression toward opposition-run states?

These critical questions have started overshadowing the concept of cooperative federalism in India. Critics says Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are trying hard to move the country away from debate and consensus-building on important federal-states relationships.

There are allegations that if a chief minister of a state ruled by a party other than the BJP is critical of the central government or if there is an election in that state, the Modi government selectively tries to defame that particular chief minister, using the federal government’s anti-corruption measures, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and tax and other central regulatory agencies.

There are also allegations that the Modi government is trying hard to block the rise of strong and dynamic regional leaders, misusing government machinery and money power.

Modi needs to understand that the federal government did not create the states, but the states created the federal government.

Modi should be comfortable enough in his position to work with any government ruled by any political party duly elected by the people in the states.

Modi needs to understand that the federal government did not create the states, but the states created the federal government

In fact, BJP-ruled states have shown a poor record of governance, struggling with corruption and communalism and languishing in almost all major development indicators. On other hand, whether it is the Indian National Congress government in Karnataka or the Aam Admi Party in Delhi or Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha, they and others are achieving huge success in improving the lives of the poor in their respective states.

Midday meals in Tamil Nadu, rural employment guarantee in Maharashtra, and the right-to-information acts in Delhi were all successful state experiments that later received nationwide acceptance. Yet in many of these cases, the central government took up those revolutionary ideas and then legislated them from the top down. The central government genuinely has to appreciate the achievements of non-BJP governments to strengthen the spirit of federalism in India.

The major opposition Congress party and many state chief ministers are not taking Modi seriously any more as he is not doing enough to make any changes on election finances, as this is the key structural reason for large-scale corruption in India. In other ways, Modi’s own political party has been criticized for using large-scale money power to win elections, migrate leaders from other regional political parties, and win support of elected representatives from other parties to form governments where the BJP does not win a majority.

A World Economic Forum study shows that Indian companies have to pay 50% of the total costs of real-estate and infrastructure projects as bribes to get regulatory clearance from central agencies. This irritates most of the chief ministers, who are trying hard to attract investment in their respective states.

Many states have appealed before the courts, accusing the Modi government of making unilateral interventions in non-BJP states through governors and lieutenant-governors. For example, an elected Delhi chief minister who won a sweeping majority in the state election said on one occasion that 30 of his government’s orders had been declared “null and void” by the lieutenant-governor, a nominated representative of the federal government.

Many states have also protested the disastrous way demonetization was carried out without any consultation with them.

There are several recent examples that speak volumes about how Modi is trying to damage the federal fabric of the country to win elections and target states that voted against the BJP. One can recall how Modi announced a special package for Bihar during one of his public election rallies; he used an auction-like process: “Take 50,000 rupees, no, take 80,000, no, OK, I am giving you 120,000 rupees.” Is this the federalism Modi is trying to make more cooperative?

Non-BJP-ruled states are showing an increasing reluctance to support Modi’s policies and even reluctant to share the dais with Modi as his government and his ministers are rampantly violating the spirit of federalism and protocols in states ruled by non-BJP parties. There are hundreds of such examples coming out on a regular basis of how state chief ministers are ignored by the Modi government for political reasons. The relations with a number of chief ministers have soured because fo bitter election campaigns by Modi.

A major violation of the spirit of cooperative federalism by the central government is found in levying cesses and surcharges to deny the states their share of additional tax revenues mobilized by New Delhi. By doing this, the central government had done more damage to the federal structure of the country.

Modi’s government’s claim of higher tax devolution has also hurt the federal spirit of the country, as in actuality, most of the state governments are facing serious crunches in the resources needed to finance their development and other ongoing welfare schemes for the poor.

Looking at the damage already done to the federal fabric of the country, will Modi now re-evaluate his approach toward non-BJP-ruled states and take serious note of his own slogan of cooperative federalism?

Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries.

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