The convergence of many non-BJP Chief Ministers at Mamata Banerjee’s swearing in ceremony last week has revived talk of a Federal Front to take on the Modi-led NDA in 2019. While it is true that most Indian fronts are really affronts to the idea of stability and even coalition dharma, it is not necessary to dismiss the idea itself as “tested, tried and failed”, as Arun Jaitley did soon after.
What has been “tested, tried and failed” is not
a Federal Front, but opportunistic combinations where regional parties with few
seats between them headed the government, supported by a major national party from
the outside. This happened in 1989, when VP Singh was supported by the BJP and
the Left from outside, and again in 1996-98, when Deve Gowda and IK Gujral were
propped up by the Congress from the outside. Earlier, completely unstable
governments were offered temporary crutches by the Congress – the Charan Singh
government by Indira Gandhi in 1979-80, and the Chandra Shekhar government by Rajiv
Gandhi in 1990-91. When Congress yanked the crutches, these governments
This is the sum-total of coalition governments at the centre that were not led and held together by a major national party – either the Congress or the BJP.
Jaitley is right to suggest that without the glue of a major national party, such coalitions fail. But the glue holding a future Federal Front together need not be a national party with 140-180 Lok Sabha MPs, but an ideology and programme for constitutional change.
A Federal Front, by definition, cannot only be about keeping someone out of government, but about passing on more powers to the states. An anti-Modi front is not the same as a Federal Front, for it will have no reason to hang together once the primary objective of ousting the Modi government is achieved.
The glue for the Front’s longevity has to be provided by an ideology and a programme of change. Here’s what would work.
#1: Constitutional reordering: A Federal Front must believe in greater devolution of power to states. Currently, political power rests with the states, but economic levers remain tilted towards the centre. A Federal Front should campaign for greater economic freedom to states, with very few residual powers left with the centre. Barring defence, foreign policy, currency, monetary and fiscal policy, and broad policies on foreign investment and environmental protection, growth and development should be driven by states. A rejig of the central and concurrent lists through well-thought-out constitutional amendments should be the focus. Once more power to states is a reality, article 370, which gives special powers to Jammu & Kashmir, can be abolished, for all states would then have the powers that only J&K has now.
#2: State sovereignty: Article 356, which enables the centre to dismiss state governments, is less abused now than before. But the potential remains, as the recent efforts to change the government in Uttarakhand shows. This article can either be junked, with the centre’s powers being restricted to article 355, or amended substantially to allow President’s rule only in very limited circumstances. Article 355 is the way to go. It says that “It shall be the duty of the Union to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” This means the centre can direct states to do the right things, but not destabilise or remove a state government till it is voted out in the assembly.
#3: Understanding on national leadership: No Federal Front will work if there is no understanding on how it will select its national leaders, including the PM. Emasculating the office of PM, as had happened during 1996-98, will kill the idea of a Federal Front for India does not want this office devalued. The Central government needs sovereignty in its own areas of operation, and this can’t be assured if every decision is going to be decided by a changing combination of state interests. If this happens, people will choose national parties for Delhi. An understanding on the prime ministership and selection of the cabinet can be a simple rotational system, but it must be an empowered rotation. The PM’s office is an executive office, and can’t be reduced to a non-entity.
#4: Taxation and revenues. A Federal Front needs to go slow on taxes like the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which takes power away from the states. It has to protect the interests of all states, and not just the most dominant or rich ones. The basis for a division of tax revenues, now settled by Finance Commissions, will have to be changed if states become the primary entities for economic growth. Currently, states get a share of the central kitty; in future, the available tax avenues may have to be separated, with centre and state having exclusive areas of taxation (say, income tax for centre, sales and other taxes for states). Alternatively, there could be two income taxes levied jointly, one by centre and the other by states, much like the way GST is going to be levied. Alternatively, the Centre can be given a share of state revenues.
#5: Revamped judiciary: If states are going to be more sovereign than now, it makes sense to create state-level Supreme Courts as in the US. The current Supreme Court can be split into two, one handling cases that can be appealed beyond the state, and cases that involve constitutional issues. Most civil and criminal cases should end with the state Supreme Courts. Inter-state and constitutional issues would go to the constitutional Supreme Court.
#6: New States: The right to limited self-determination should exist for all sub-regions in states, subject to minimum size and viability. It should be possible for a Vidarbha or Mumbai to secede from Maharashtra, or a Telangana from Andhra Pradesh, subject only to parameters like minimal economic viability. But it should not be possible for a south Bangalore to secede from Karnataka. The Centre should be authorised to conduct a referendum for well-defined regions, and not the states, with the courts having a say on the constitutionality of such provisions. A constitutional provision for referendums needs to be inserted into the constitution specifically for this purpose.
There is a case for a Federal Front, but not if it is merely an anti-Modi front. It will then not have a reason to hold together once the primary objective is achieved.
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