A NOTE ON COOPERATIVE FEDERALISM
By Biswadip Mitra
No one knows better than Prime Minister Narendra Modi how important it is to give more powers to the states. He was, after all, the chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years. So once he took over as the prime minister of the country, Modi wanted to change the way things worked between the Centre and the states; he wanted all the sides to work in the true spirit of “cooperative federalism”.
India, though with a strong Centre, is essentially a federation. The Constitution clearly defines the powers and relations --- executive and financial --- between the Centre and the states. And, it worked well when the single party was in government at both the Centre and the states. But with different political parties occupying power, the concept of cooperative federalism somewhat looked fragmented. There were frictions and the states often complained that the Centre was trying to impose its writ on them, especially in cases of Centre-funded schemes. Certain states objected that some of these schemes were not appropriate for them; the one-size-fits-all approach was wrong.
Prime Minister Modi has been trying to do it differently. He understands that the states have a vital role to play in the nation’s development. And so the government has accepted the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission. The government is working on the recommendation on how to give more power to the states, on how they want to utilise the Central grants for welfare schemes.
In a country as diverse as India, it is important for the Centre to act like the benevolent head of the family, rather than a bullying big brother. Therefore, the right approach should be to respect the mandate; the states, even if ruled by rival parties, must be made partners in the country’s journey to progress. The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog should be an effective tool for that, and not just a clone of the erstwhile Planning Commission.
As we know, under Article 263 of the Constitution, the Inter-State Council was set up to facilitate investigation, discussion and recommendation for better coordination of relation between the Centre and the states. If the cooperative federalism has to work, then this particular institution has to be revitalised. We have seen that over the decades, the Inter-State Council has not been utilised properly. That is not a good thing for any federation. The prime minister, who wants to usher in a new era, should ensure that the Council is not ignored.
Many states have long been demanding that certain Central ministries should be pruned or abolished because they deal with matters that are essentially in the State List. The prime minister, hopefully, will have a serious look at this demand as well.
While talking about cooperative federalism, the prime minister also mentioned competitive federalism --- which means that states would compete with each other to get more investments and in turn offer better services. However, we have to remember that not all states are equally equipped in this regard. Therefore, the Centre will have to ensure that there’s a level playing field for all the states. A government which talks about cooperative federalism cannot ignore this aspect.
In the end, it is important for the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre not to act on the basis of its brute majority. India is a parliamentary democracy and it is the responsibility of the government of the day to ensure equity, putting aside partisan considerations.