Modi can change the discourse around him if he can shift powers down to states and cities. India will boom once states do not have the alibi of blaming the Centre for their misfortunes.
And in allowing this to happen, Modi has himself to blame as much as the constitution’s misplaced emphasis in giving the Centre primacy in too many things.
Narendra Modi has been the target of multiple criticisms, the most important of which relate to his tendency to centralise decisions in the Prime Minister’s Office, and the second being his links to the Sangh’s Hindutva agenda.
The second criticism is motivated by political ideology, and depends on who his critic is, while the first has a ring of truth around it. However, it is not the centralisation of power itself that is the problem. (Show me one state where power is not centralised around the chief minister (CM), especially when that CM has a majority of his own.) The real problem is that Modi’s rise has revived the average Indian’s belief that all answers lie with Delhi.
This is why Modi faces excess criticism for things going wrong anywhere, since the assumption is that he can do something about it. Thus, in the horrible murder of Gauri Lankesh, it is his party and ideologues that get the blame, while the Karnataka government’s administrative incompetence in enforcing law and order gets a pass.
After the 14th Finance Commission passed on more resources to states, 62 per cent of national revenues rest with states; but it is to Delhi we look for answers to growth and jobs. When land and agriculture are largely state subjects, and both these subjects are badly in need of reform and investment, we don’t even ask states to fix the problem.
In part, it is easy to blame Modi since he presented himself in the run-up to 2014 as the man who can deliver. It thus suits everyone – from his political rivals to his media critics – to target Modi even when he may have had nothing to do with anything going wrong. Thus, James Crabtree, a former Financial Times journalist in India, uses Thomas Piketty’s new research on inequality in India to hold Modi accountable for it in an article in Mint newspaper. Never mind that Piketty’s data is only upto 2014. Even when recent events suggest that Modi is going after black money, and India’s billionaires – all fattened in the crony socialism days of UPA raj – are busy hiving off their best businesses in order to pay back bank loans, Crabtree has this to say: “Fixing this problem (of inequality), so growth is more broadly shared, will be complicated. But there are obvious places to start, not least tax collection, in a country where an improbably tiny 48,000 people admitted to earning more than Rs 1 crore in 2015”. Is this a fair statement to make when the tax base is the one thing that has grown after demonetisation, and tax collections are rising faster than the economy?
This tendency to blame Modi comes partly because of his larger-than-life personality, and the willingness of his rivals to pretend that all problems flow from the Centre’s failures.
Clearly, Modi has a problem where he is expected to be superman, when power is more evenly distributed in the Indian system. Modi has worsened this problem by trying to address problems that ought to be addressed at lower levels: for example, Swachch Bharat, is something that local bodies and municipalities should own, not Modi, though he can inspire. Smart cities are for states to promote, not the Centre.
If Modi does not change this perception, where he is expected to solve all problems or be declared a failure, he has to quickly change the political story around him, by pointed and aggressive devolution of powers.
Three initiatives are worth pushing at this stage, with barely 20 months remaining of his tenure.
First, he must create a new states reorganisation commission, where more states can be created. There is space for India to house at least 50 states. A country of 130 crore cannot be governed from either Delhi, or even state capitals. It needs to be broken up into smaller states and even city-states. Smaller states will allow more people to tweak the ears of those in power, enabling real issues to be addressed. Some states that obviously need breaking up are UP (into four or five states), J&K (into three), Maharashtra (into three, with Vidarbha and Mumbai being delinked), West Bengal (Gorkhaland being set free), Gujarat (Saurashtra and Kutch), Karnataka (into three), Tamil Nadu (into two), and possibly Kerala too.
Second, another committee must suggest changes to the concurrent list, where both states and Centre can legislate. There is absolutely no need for a concurrent list, and this list can largely be given to the states, with some role for the Centre only in setting broad standards and signposts to follow. This single act will do more to drown wrong expectations that the Centre can do everything, and prevent future prime ministers from promising too much to everyone.
Third, states should have their own supreme courts, so that only inter-state issues, constitutional issues, and broader issues of fundamental rights come up to the Supreme Court in Delhi. There is no reason why a murder committed in Bengaluru should go to Delhi for a final resolution, when a state supreme court can take a final call, and the state Governor can decide mercy petitions instead of the President or the Union Home Ministry.
India is too big to be run from the Centre, and Modi should be the first one to acknowledge this, having been a state chief minister himself. It is not centralisation of power that is the problem, but centralisation of the wrong powers in the wrong places, including Delhi.
Modi can change the discourse around him if he can shift powers down to states and cities. India will boom once states do not have the alibi of blaming the Centre for their misfortunes. And in allowing this to happen, Modi has himself to blame as much as the constitution’s misplaced emphasis in giving the Centre primacy in too many things.