South Asian Dialectic

Limits of Federalism

20 Jan, 2014    ·   4265

PR Chari explains the domestic and internal factors in South Asia that have an impact on federal principles

The Indian Constitution distributes political, financial and legislative authority  between New Delhi and the States, with the centre enjoying primacy due to its control over finance, defense, trade, telecommunications and foreign investment. But. the  states, too, have wide authority on vital issues that have significance for  India’s investment climate, like power, agriculture, land, domestic investment and police. The system works well when the Center and the States are in synch, which is by no means assured when narrow parochial interests supersede the  demands of national interests. 
India remained a centralized democracy while the Congress, in the initial few decades ruled the Centre and the states, which changed radically in later years. It is arguable that the federalization of India’s polity has enabled its  conversion into a true democracy, with the unexpected result that the regional parties have now become more assertive in several of the larger states. They will increasingly decide who will govern New Delhi in future. A hodgepodge of regional parties seems likely, therefore,  to shape the structure of the new Government in New Delhi  and guide its security beliefs, with distressing implications for peace and conflict in South Asia.  
Domestic and electoral politics, incidentally gained ascendancy in 2013, and this process seems likely to continue into 2014 with the flawed Bangladesh elections of January 5 bidding fair to create more problems for the region that what they were designed to resolve. India will go to the polls in mid-2014; presentiments are that neither the Congress Party, nor the Bharatiya Janata Party will reach within striking distance of crafting a stable Government. The Aam Admi Party, for its part, had too little time to organize itself on a national scale; all that could be expected of it is some presence being registered in the metropolitan centers of India.  All realistic analyses points to New Delhi being ruled post- elections by a coalition of parties owing allegiance either to the Modi-brand nationalist Right or the Rahul-Sonia led left-centrist party. These developments have serious implications for India’s internal and external security.  
Several of these security challenges arise for conceptual reasons. The workings, for instance, of the federal principle in South Asia have revealed how parochial interests have acquired disproportionate influence on national security and foreign policy. Instances of the periphery and core coming into contention were visible all over South Asia in 3013, as, for instance, between the Madhes and Kathmandu, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunwa provinces with Islamabad, Jaffna and the Eastern province with Colombo.   In Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka the national interests as discerned by their respective central Governments clashed with the regional interests of their federating units (states/ provinces). Local perceptions of the need for greater autonomy and even independence have informed dissent, which came into conflict with the Centre’s need to maintain national unity. 
Significantly, the political support available within the federating units has made it difficult for the Center to peremptorily reject their demands.; indeed, the elections held in 2013 revealed an aggressive provincialism developing in the region.  The growth of regionalism is inevitable appreciating that the political map of South Asian countries must reflect its social and cultural diversities, yielding contrary trends and mixed conclusions. In Nepal, the Madhes parties failed to muster any great support, which strengthened the hands of Kathmandu in dealing with their constant threats of secession. But, in Jaffna, the success of the Tamil National Alliance highlighted the unresolved problem of Tamil disaffection, which the Rajapaksha government in Colombo seems determined to ignore.  The situation in Khyber-Pakhtunwa remains delicate with the prospect of its provincial parties making common cause with either the tribal elements in the FATA region or the warlords in Afghanistan or with both to loosen their ties to Islamabad.
Another example. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tame acquiescence to DMK pressure in November 2013 by not joining the CHOGM summit in Colombo can be variously interpreted.  Some 6 entries in the Union List under the Indian Constitution embed foreign policy firmly within the exclusive authority of the Union Government. Apparently, the PMO and MEA had strongly favored the Prime Minister joining this meeting. A brief visit to Jaffna was also planned to promote India’s relations with the Tamil-dominated Northern Province. Tamilnadu’s success in swaying New Delhi’s foreign policy decision would be anathema to federal purists. But, this incident illustrates how parochial considerations acted to the detriment of India’s federal and national interests. 
Earlier, New Delhi’s decision to enter an agreement for sharing the Teesta river waters was given up under pressure from Ms. Mamata Banerjee and the West Bengal government. Further, India could not  finalize  the  Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh that envisioned the transfer of enclaves and straightening out portions of the border, that was concluded in September 2011, and  ratified by the Indian Parliament. Hardliners in Bangladesh have already raised the pitch against India on these issues., which is egregious since  it was with the help of Sheikh Hasina government that India was  able to neutralize the terror outfits operating against India from Bangladesh soil.