The devolution of financial resources from Centre to state remains a perpetual tug-of-war, but ‘United States Of South India’ is not the solution to it.
Rather, ‘USSI’ is a flawed idea based on misunderstood economics and xenophobia.
Irish Canadian author Emma Donoghue (Hood, Room) once said, “Identity politics are wearisome, you don’t want to go on speaking for any one group as a writer”. Donoghue is merely one of the many voices getting weary of identity politics. While identity politics in one form or other has been present in politics almost as long as politics itself, its saturation in the discourse and pervasiveness in all spheres of human experience must surely be at an all-time high now.
In India too, identity politics, while practised by various groups almost since 1947, has assumed epidemic proportions since the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance thumped the opposition in the 2014 general elections. This article from July 2016, back in discussion after the Kerala floods, asking the south Indian states to join hands to get a better deal from the Centre is one of the many divisive voices heard from the practitioners of identity politics. The article makes the following points to support its case:
1. South Indian states have performed better on all human development indicators compared to their north Indian counterparts.
2. In spite of contributing much more by way of taxes, south Indian states have been treated unfairly by central governments for a long time.
3. South Indian states need to join hands in a “United State of South India”(referred to it as USSI from now on) kind of union to put pressure on the central government to stop penalising them for their good performance and give them their fair share of the taxes.
The scope of this article does not include pointing out to the many convenient assumptions made by the author of the above piece while painting the far-from-true “South subsidises North” rhetoric. These arguments have been adequately debunked here and here. Any further attempt to argue on basis of veracity of the claim is to accept tacitly that in a situation where such claims are based on data and evidence, the case for ‘United states of South India’ (USSI) is morally and practically valid. It is not.
Before we begin the discussion about the basic premise of the article, let’s quickly get two peripheral issues out of the way. First, to call out the logical inconsistencies of the idea of USSI, is not the same as denying the genuine nature of grievance many states may have about their share of the pie. I come from Maharashtra, so believe me when I say this - I hear you.
Second is a very practical point- two out of the five states marked for unification in the article above, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have currently sought special category status (SCS) status fromthe Centre. Telugu Desam Party which rules AP has even pulled out of the NDA alliance over this demand. Some of the prominent criteria behind allocation of SCS are low resource base/economic and infrastructure backwardness and non-viable nature of the state’s finances. Elsewhere on the same platform, the author of the piece under discussion, herself wrote a piece with a tagline that reads – ‘Andhra Pradesh is broken, broke andis needing a break’.
If the USSI lobby wants AP and Telangana in their fold, they have to resolve this contradiction first. Are AP and Telangana suffering from low resource base etc, and hence want special treatment from Centre or are they part of a strong, rich alliance that is carrying their North Indian counterparts with their tax money? If it is the former then surely, USSI should drop both these states to remain consistent with their basic principle of not carrying under-performers. If it is the latter, the present dispensations in those states need to explain why, in spite of being rich, they were trying to pressurise the Centre into giving up a bigger share of their resources.
The argument of the doers standing up against the no-good freeloaders is almost as old as the identity politics itself. People on either side of the ideological divide see success either as a stamp of merit or proof of privilege. This, while not ideal or even desirable, is at least acceptable in these polarised times. What is not acceptable is choosing sides depending on the argument you are making.
The same author who shows South India’s development indices as a mark of its successful governance and competent policy making, argues elsewhere - “ elitist attitude may vociferously lament loss of merit due to reservations but in reality India has lost an incalculable quantum of merit and human potential for thousands of years due to socially sanctioned casteism”.
This kind of clever change of position based on narrative is not new to the left. You still have to marvel at the chutzpah of claiming prosperity and development indices as a result of meritocracy and good governance in one case and then using the same as an evidence of oppression and lost opportunities in another. Apart from these logical inconsistencies, the case of USSI has problems on four counts - intersectionality, moral hazard, slippery slope and retaliation. Let’s examine each one of them now.
Almost every identity politics movement in the modern world has fallen prey to the intersectionality trap. Intersectionality is a philosophy, popularised by the alt-left (very often the most vocal flag-bearers of identity politics themselves), that essentially views every human interaction through the prism of oppressor-victim. In the case of USSI, the Centre, with its appeasement of North India is the oppressor and the rich tax-paying states of South are the victims. The problem with this line of thinking is once you start, it is impossible to stop.
So if a group of rich states should not carry the poor ones, should the richest among those states subsidise for the other four? Further, cities often pay the lion’s share of the state’s taxes, why should they subsidise smaller towns and villages? These fault-lines are sure to be exploited by the opposition in each state. This continuous oppressor-victim rhetoric can only end when the whole structure collapses inwards.
The bigger problem, and one that worries me the most, is the moral one. Stripped of all its righteous indignation, the argument for USSI is essentially the one about claim on government’s resources being determined by contribution to the tax coffers. It lays the foundation for creating a class of second-class citizens based on productivity. Considering how much left obsesses over the spectre of resurrection of Nazism, it is ironical that the roots of this economic ableism can be traced back to Nazism which saw disability and weakness as a moral flaw.
The slippery slope part of the problem in the USSI argument is very simple. If you take geographical proximity as a valid basis to form association of special interest groups, what is to stop from other special interest groups from getting formed and seeking legitimacy based on this precedent? Both the arguments made by USSI - explosive population growth as a result of poor woman empowerment and highest tax contribution, could be made against religious minorities too. How will we as a country react to this?
Can men as a gender form a group and demand government spend higher amount of money on them? Can the 1,000 top personal income tax payers of the country join hands and demand the government stop using their money on free education to the poor? How will we stop any of the above, and many other similar situations, once we allow the door to this slippery slope to open?
On a more practical level, USSI proponents haven’t thought about the possibility that the act of forming a federation of sorts within the nation will only result into similar bodies being formed as an act of attrition. What would happen if a United Non-South Indian states of India were to be formed? What if such body demands that state-wise data of armed forces and paramilitary forces be prepared and states found not contributing enough human capital be forced to conduct draft like activities for compulsory recruitment?
History shows that poor people suffer disproportionately in case of compulsory enrolment into armed forces. In such a case are member of USSI willing to explain to their poor if a draft is imposed upon them? Industries contributing to the south tax coffers due to being based there, sell their products/services all over the country. USSI wishes to exploit the economic leverage, what if other, more populous states decide they should exploit consumer leverage and levy prohibitive penalties, cess and taxes on states belonging to USSI? How much money will the producers of say ‘Bahubali 3’ make if Maharashtra decides to levy entertainment tax at 300 per cent on all south Indian language films?
It is not only inevitable but not altogether undesirable that devolution of financial resources from Centre to state remains a perpetual tug-of-war between states and Centre and among the states themselves. This is a serious issue that tests the leadership both in terms of political willpower as well as diplomacy. In Bob Dylan’s words – "it’s a never ending battle for a peace that’s always torn”.
Ensuring your constituents get the best deal is a day-in, day-out, all-hands on deck job that only takes applications from full-time professionals. You can’t hope to short-cut this process with an alliance based on misunderstood economics and xenophobia.