Counter-Point: Hindi Belt’s Democratic ‘Sacrifice’ Fuels Southern Tantrums

by R Jagannathan - Feb 26, 2018 12:34 PM +05:30 IST
Counter-Point: Hindi Belt’s  Democratic ‘Sacrifice’ Fuels Southern TantrumsThe Indian experience of a few states shouldering the bulk of the fiscal burden is hardly uncommon.
  • It is no longer right to deny the more populous states a higher share of Lok Sabha seats, for both the political and economic arguments that favour states with lower populations are weak.

    At best, one can compensate the south with more Rajya Sabha seats, so that southern state interests are not drowned in the politics of the Hindi belt.

A freshly-anointed Congress dataman’s claim that “the protesting Tamil farmer pays for the Uttar Pradesh farmer’s loan waiver” shows the absurdity to which some economists can descend to damage the discourse on nation-building in India.

The idea of which state contributes more to nation-building was raised by Praveen Chakravarty, a former investment banker, who was recently inducted to head Rahul Gandhi’s data analytics team in the run-up to the general elections of 2019. We cannot say if his idea, presented last year in BloombergQuint, is that of the Congress party today, but clearly Chakravarty’s claim that four states – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – contribute most to nation-building by virtue of their high share in total tax revenues generated needs debunking. The Congress party needs to dissociate itself from this idea if it wants to come to power.

In fact, it is a mistake to even lump these four states together, for neither Gujarat nor Maharashtra has ever grudged the nation its share of taxes; parochial sentiments against internal migrants have been wholly absent in Gujarat, but occasionally surface in Maharashtra whenever a regional party (like the MNS) seeks to find political space. Language chauvinism has been highest in Tamil Nadu followed by Karnataka. So, whether one can call various types of southern chauvinisms as truly reflective of contributions to nation-building is anybody’s guess.

While one can (and should) also hold the Hindi-belt responsible for pushing Hindi as a national language (all Indian regional languages should be given the status of national languages), I would like to suggest something equally provocative to prove the absurdity of using one metric to claim some states have contributed more to nation-building than the others. I would suggest that the Hindi-belt’s democratic “sacrifices” have fuelled southern “tantrums” – a point I will elaborate with figures a bit later.

Chakravarty’s loaded analysis was substantially refuted by Srinivas Thiruvadanthai in an article last week in Swarajya, where the latter pointed out that the phenomenon of tax revenues flowing in a lopsided manner from some states within any large country is almost universally true. In fact, it would be true even of some big cities in India (Delhi and Mumbai, for example), where most corporations and taxpayers tend to reside. But can we then conclude that the big urban centres contribute most to nation-building? In India, we can take this argument to absurd lengths, and claim that the upper and middle classes, most from the upper castes, contribute the most to nation-building, since their relatively higher incomes will tend to get taxed the most. And, to take the argument to even more absurd lengths, why not call Mukesh Ambani the greater single contributor to nation-building, since one company Reliance has paid more than Rs 2.88 lakh crore in terms of taxes over the last 10 years?

In this article, I would like to emphasise that using any one measure of contribution to define nation-building is actually an unwelcome contribution to “breaking India”. If commentators make irresponsible statements like these, one can be sure that sooner than later they will be stoking the embers of India’s break-up campaign.

Thanks to demographics, some states, especially the states in the Hindi belt, contribute disproportionately to nation-building by accepting a far lower share of democratic representation in the Lok Sabha than their population figures suggest. It is the higher-than-warranted share of Lok Sabha seats of the southern states that makes them punch above their weight in national politics.

If one were to take the 2011 census figures for state-wise population, Uttar Pradesh, with 16.49 per cent of the country’s population, ought to get nearly 90 seats, but it gets only 80. A clear sacrifice in the cause of nation-building since this deficit is given to other states. Bihar, with a 9.28 per cent share of the population, ought to have got 46-47 seats, but actually gets only 40 – a six- to seven-seat shortfall. (see table below).

Indicative list of states, their population share versus their Lok Sabha seats.
Indicative list of states, their population share versus their Lok Sabha seats.

Put together, four of the most populous Hindi-belt states – UP, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan – with 36.74 per cent of the country’s population, ought to have had 200 seats between themselves, but they actually have 174, 26 seats short.

Now consider who gains from this: Tamil Nadu, with a 5.96 per cent share of the population gets 39 seats, when it should get 32; Kerala, with 2.76 per cent, gets 20 seats when its proportionate share should be 15. Check it out: Jharkhand, which has the same share of population as Kerala, gets only 14 seats. This is fair, but the Keralite obviously gets a larger share of the Indian vote than warranted.

Between them the five southern states, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala, account for just under 21 per cent of the population, which should entitle them to 113 seats; but they walk away with 129.

States with surpluses or deficits of one or two can be said to have a fair share of seats that is roughly proportional to their population.

The reason why representation levels are so lopsided starts with the old population debate: in the 1960s and 1970s, when population was seen as a curse and the Congress party was seen to be pushing forced sterilisation during the Emergency, Lok Sabha representation levels were frozen for 25 years in 1976 since changing them would have meant “rewarding” states which failed to slow down their birth rates; when the matter came up for renewal in 2001, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, seen as a representative of the Hindi belt, had to extend the same unfairness for 25 more years through a constitutional amendment. This under-representation of the Hindi belt will thus continue until 2026, and one can be sure that it will continue, forcing the Hindi states to remain under-represented in the Lok Sabha.

But the argument on population has since changed globally. Population growth is not merely a curse, but also a demographic strength, with higher working age populations seen as key to reaping the “demographic dividend”. Also, rising income levels and women’s education were seen as key to lowering birth rates, proving that development is the best contraceptive.

If we accept that population holds the key to higher growth rates, one should conclude two things:

One, the future contribution to growth in India will emanate more from the demographically significant Hindi belt, and not the traditional high-growth states.

Two, if the population-as-curse argument has now been turned on head to state that population means demographic dividend, there is no case for denying the Hindi belt its higher share of MPs.

Put simply, nation-building has seen a greater contribution from the Hindi belt in terms of voluntary curbs on their political empowerment (thus benefitting the south), while the richer states in the west and south have done their bit by providing more resources for the national kitty.

The most basic equation on which democracy rests is one person, one vote. For the high-population states of the Hindi belt, each vote counts for less than it does in the south. This goes against the basic tenet of democracy – of equality.

It is no longer right to deny the more populous states a higher share of Lok Sabha seats, for both the political and economic arguments that favour states with lower populations are weak. At best, one can compensate the south with more Rajya Sabha seats, so that southern state interests are not drowned in the politics of the Hindi belt.

All said and done, all states have contributed to nation-building in their own way. To pretend that the south and the west made all the sacrifices is bunkum.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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