KCR, Mamata Banerjee discuss bulldozing of federal structure

Recently, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called her Tamil Nadu counterpart M K Stalin and suggested a meeting of CMs of non-BJP ruled states over the “constitutional overstepping and brazen misuse of power by (their) Governors”. On February 20, KCR met Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray to expedite the process of uniting non-BJP parties.

KCR, Mamata Banerjee discuss bulldozing of federal structure

The recent pushback by opposition chief ministers against alleged centralising tendencies of the BJP government recall similar efforts made by opposition CMs several decades ago — their target then was Indira Gandhi’s Congress government at the Centre.

Soon after becoming CM in 1969, Stalin’s father, M Karunanidhi, spoke about setting up an expert committee to study Centre-state relations. Months later, his government appointed a committee headed by P V Rajamannar, former Madras High Court Chief Justice, which, in its report submitted in 1971, recommended that “the Inter-State Council should be constituted immediately”. (Article 263 of the Constitution provides for the setting up of the Council “if at any time it appears to the President that the public interests would be served by [its] establishment”. The Council was ultimately set up in 1990.)Decision 2022 |On the drawing board, the shape of Opposition.

The next time opposition CMs rallied against the Centre was in 1983. Since returning to power in 1980, Indira had dismissed nine state governments. leading to what Granville Austin called the constitutional revolt of 1983. On March 20 that year, Ramakrishna Hegde (Karnataka), M G Ramachandran (Tamil Nadu), N T Rama Rao (Andhra Pradesh), and D Ramachandran (Pondicherry) met in Bangalore. A white paper issued after the meeting demanded more powers for states, and abolition of the post of Governor. It was also decided to form a council of southern CMs.

On May 28, NTR convened a meeting of 14 non-Congress parties in Vijayawada. Among those who attended were L K Advani of the BJP, Maneka Gandhi of the Sanjay Vichar Manch, S S Barnala of the Akali Dal, Sharad Pawar of the Congress (S), Basavapunnaiah of the CPI-M, and Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference.

The meeting passed a resolution demanding the abolition of Article 356.

A statement issued at a meeting of non-Congress leaders convened by Farooq Abdullah from October 5-7 said: “Unitary features (of the Constitution) have increasingly come to overshadow its federal features.” Among the attendees was A B Vajpayee.

Cong, BJP: roles reversed

Three decades later, two successive full-majority governments in Delhi are triggering similar frictions. Strong, adversarial CMs are challenging the Centre, and pushing back against its policies. With the BJP in power and the Congress seriously weakened, the roles have been reversed. A lot of the criticism against the Centre’s alleged high-handedness today echoes the denunciation of Indira’s Congress years ago. Interestingly enough, even while in the opposition, the BJP was never against the idea of a strong Centre —what it opposed was the way in which Indira used the unitary bias in the Constitution.

Among the issues that current non-BJP CMs have raised are the alleged centralising drive in education, partisanship of Governors, the new electricity policy, the general weakening of federal principles in the fiscal, economic, and legislative spheres, and the distribution of revenues. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Delhi have protested against the proposed changes in the All India Service rules of IAS and IPS officers. Ten opposition parties have objected.

Responding to the criticism, Indira had appointed the Justice R S Sarkaria commission to examine Centre-state relations. It began its work in February 1984, and submitted its 600-page report in October 1987. Some of its recommendations have been adopted, but many remain pending. The Supreme Court has urged the Centre on several occasions to implement the recommendations on the selection and appointment of Governors.

Are there shortcomings or grey areas in the Constitution itself that have allowed the repeated misuse of the Centre’s powers? Not quite, wrote the jurist Nani A Palkhivala: “The problem has arisen today in an acute form because over a period of years the Centre has acted in a manner in which at best has been contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and at worst has been tantamount to a fraud upon the Constitution… The truth of the matter is that it is a noble Constitution which has been worked in an ignoble spirit.”