Indisputably there is need for a new national alternative. The two mainline parties are too similar and too caught up in a rut to deliver results sought by a new generation living in a changed world. Both the Congress and BJP need to reinvent themselves to acquire current relevance. As yet neither party offers any hope of change. It is left to the regional parties to attempt filling the void. That is why tentative moves towards a new front are in evidence.
Mr. Naveen Patnaik and Miss Jayalalithaa held confabulations. Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav is interacting with other leaders with undisclosed intentions. Miss Mamata Banerjee has left little to conjecture by flatly asserting the need for a new front. She told a TV channel:
“If the regional chief ministers can sit together for the future of the country, I will be very happy. That’s the best for the country. India should be run from different parts of the country…We have already decided on a federal front. I think the states should be more powerful.”
Miss Banerjee is right and she is wrong. She is right to emphasize that regional leaders should confer and have a say in governing the nation. In a vast multi-lingual and multi-religious subcontinent such as India there can be no democracy without genuine devolution of power. She is horribly wrong to say that India should be run from different parts of the country unless she means that national policy should reflect all parts of the country. A literal meaning of her remark would suggest the first step towards balkanization. Regional leaders are understandably obsessed with the over-centralization of power by the Union government which erodes democratic rights. They seem to be oblivious of the enormous harm to the nation arising from a weak, directionless centre.
The word federal is much misunderstood and misused in India. Federalism does not imply merely devolution of power. It implies most of all a rational division of power that allows each different tier of the administration sufficient authority to deal with subjects that fall exclusively within its jurisdiction. That implies self-rule for all segments at all levels. That in turn implies that the centre also has unfettered authority to exercise power on subjects that affect the entire nation. That is what federal democracy is all about. It is not without significance that in India the word federal is used to denote the powers of the states. In America the word federal is used to denote the power of the centre. In America the states are more powerful than states in India. In America the centre is more powerful than the centre in India.
The second very common error in India is to confuse coalition with federalism. Coalitions are ad hoc and subject to swift change. Federations are institutionally structured for permanence. That is why Miss Banerjee and other regional leaders must appreciate this difference.
India today is in critical need of stability and coherence in governance and policy. Both the UPA and NDA coalitions denied that to the nation. The envisaged third front will be no different. That is why it is imperative that if the regional leaders are serious about creating a meaningful alternative to the current political dispensation they must commit themselves to a proper federation that delivers genuine federal democracy to the people.
Miss Banerjee is right to identify the state as the critical unit of governance from where the impulse for change should come. What needs to be appreciated is how the states should move forward in order to achieve success. The states must first of all agree on an appropriate agenda for the proposed federation. Secondly they must create the appropriate organizational structure of the federation. And finally they must devise the necessary steps to politically achieve this. Let us consider these in that order.
The appropriate policy agenda should focus not on the passing political developments that are best addressed during election campaigns, but on the basic systemic and structural changes required to put Indian democracy back on the rails. The following five point policy agenda for systemic reform is being iterated for that purpose:
1. South Asian Union:
The Federation should commit itself to undo the spirit of the Partition and to recreate Hindustan as a confederation of sovereign nations comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. It should be resolved that a clause in the Directive Principles of the Constitution be introduced to pursue the goal of creating a community of nations having common tariffs, common defence, and no visas among themselves.
2. Smaller States:
There should be constituted a new States Reorganization Commission (SRC) that would create smaller states for effecting better administration and promoting cultural and ethnic identities. The commission would act according to predetermined norms. The SRC should also consider the desirability and feasibility of converting the prominent metropolitan capitals into city states that may simultaneously serve the interests of the new smaller states that emerge after the SRC proposals are implemented.
3. Federal System:
There should be created a five-tier system of governance. The five tiers would be federal, state, district, block and primary. We should delimit the present districts so that each district conforms to each parliamentary constituency. Similarly, each block would conform to each assembly constituency. The primary units would be the rural village and the urban colony. The three tiers below the federal and state tiers would each have its own elected council and executive committee. The area MP could preside over the district council, the area MLA over the block council, and the elected headman over the primary urban or rural council. All executive powers related to problems faced solely by those residing in an area would devolve on their own elected body. A new primary tier of policing would be created to function under the jurisdiction of the primary urban or rural unit that might deal with petty crime and local security. The elections to all bodies of the five tiers should be simultaneous, mandatory, time-barred, and under the authority of the Central Election Commission. All elected bodies of the five tiers should have fixed five-year terms. The President’s election should coincide with the general election. The presidential candidates should file their nominations at the same time as the candidates for parliament and all assembles. The newly elected MPs and MLAs should elect the new President immediately after their election. In case of any executive head at any of the five tiers losing a simple majority in the house, the whole house would elect the successor who would complete the fixed five-year term.
4. President’s Role:
While devolution of power will enhance self-rule and liberty for people, an executive President will ensure unity and stability of the Republic. The President should have a role commensurate with his mandate that is the widest held by any individual in our Republic. To this end, we should give constitutional status to newly created bodies, as well as to certain existing bodies, in fields that require autonomous functioning, and make them accountable to the President. The Central Election Commission, CBI, CVC, etcetera, would come under this provision. The President’s relationship with the Prime Minister and the cabinet would need review. Flawed conventions that have no basis in our written Constitution have rendered the President into a ceremonial robot. The Constitution gives the President powers and responsibilities that are never exercised in practice. This must be rectified.
5. People’s Plan:
The Planning Commission should be converted into a Peoples’ Planning Commission accountable to the Inter-State Council that would be overseen by the President. This Commission should concentrate on formulating Peoples’ Plans that deploy the bulk of public funds, including those realized from disinvestment, for providing infrastructure to the masses in the spheres of roads, management of drinking and irrigation water, power generation, healthcare and literacy. Public investment in these sectors would expand employment and purchasing power in rural India . In industry there should be created in addition to the public and private sectors a Workers’ Sector in which all employees would have a share of profit and ownership, and in floor level management. All board decisions would be transparent to workers.
After the partners of the proposed federation have edited and approved the draft agenda outlined above the next step would be for them to create the appropriate organizational structure of the new federation. The federation may evolve in two stages. In the first stage there would be just one identity at the central parliamentary level but permission for retention of separate identity at the state level. In other words all parliamentary elections by the federation partners would have to be contested under one common symbol. Different symbols may be allowed for state elections. Only after electoral results inspire confidence may the regional parties singly or collectively merge voluntarily their respective identities totally with the federation at both the state and the national levels. The common election symbol for parliament at the outset would preclude pressures that could destabilize the Union government. The central parliamentary board of the federation would lay down norms for the selection of electoral candidates. However the selection would be left to the regional parties as long as they are constrained to abide by the norms determined by the central parliamentary board. The draft constitution of the proposed federation can be prepared in one day.
Once the agenda of the federation is approved there should be a nationwide movement to propagate its benefits throughout the nation. This would not only help attract new adherents from those presently outside the political process. It would be desirable even for regional parties that already have formidable organizations at the state level. It would facilitate cooperation among workers of the federating partners. The proposed federation would have to agree that all the regional partners would contest state elections only with one common state election symbol. The dominant regional party of the federation in each state would co-opt candidates of smaller regional partners and allow them to contest using its symbol. The discretion for selecting candidates at the state level would be solely of the dominant state party. This would ensure cooperation between all federation partners at both the central and state levels. The success in recruiting federation partners would depend on responses by state units. In other words even state units of the existing national parties that want to join the federation either singly or with their entire party would be welcome. By this arrangement no state party would lose its recognition by the Election Commission because its state identity would be intact for as long as it wants. No national party would lose its recognition with the EC because a national party is also given recognition on the basis of requisite presence in a prescribed number of states.
This, then, is the challenge that faces the regional parties if they genuinely want to create a national alternative that can transform India and inspire a new generation. Question is: will enough state units respond?