West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee demanded on Saturday (23 January) that India should have four national capitals in different regions of the country instead of just one in the north and Parliament sessions should be held on a rotational basis in these capitals.
“During the British-era, Kolkata was the capital of the country. I think we must have four capitals on a rotation basis. Why does the country have only one capital? And the sessions of Parliament should be held in different places in the country. We will have to change our concept,” she said at an event organised to celebrate the 125 birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Interestingly, Banerjee suggested that the four capitals should be located in north, south, east and north-eastern parts of the country leaving out the only region where the current prime minister of the country hails from — western India.
“We are not parochial — we are saying it for everyone”, she assured.
A lot of ink has been spilled by thinkers and netas of all ideological hues over the years emphasising the need to shift the capital away from New Delhi.
When the British moved the capital of their empire from Calcutta to Delhi, it made sense as the latter was more centrally placed to conveniently administer the subcontinent that ranged from Hindu Kush to Hind ocean.
The growing nationalistic fervour and movement against the imperial rule in Bengal must have been another major consideration. After Partition, that was no longer the case but no government showed the boldness to change the national capital.
Arguments in favour of such a proposal to shift the capital have been given not just from the point of view of geography or politics alone but from economic perspective too.
Writing in 2015 for Swarajya, investor and author Harsh Gupta had advocated that "India’s government should consider relocating to the Patna-Gaya-Nalanda triangle, and rejuvenate growth in eastern India”.
Hindu nationalists have always wanted the new capital to be close to an ancient site holy to Hindus. Ujjain, Benaras, Dandakaranya forest, etc are some of the obvious suggestions that one often hears from them.
Though Delhi is believed to be established by Pandavas and was also their capital, even they abandoned it once they won Hastinapur.
And whatever attraction the ‘Indraprastha’ may have once had is lost due to the place’s centuries old identification with Muslim invaders who reigned over Hindu masses from here.
But with the Narendra Modi government spending thousands of crores in revamping the Central Vista of Lutyens’ Delhi, including on building a new Parliament, those hopes of his supporters now stand shattered.
Coming back to Mamata Banerjee’s idea of four capitals in different parts of the country, it’s anything if not political.
West Bengal assembly elections are due in a couple of months and her suggestion of having a national capital in Kolkata makes political sense for the larger Kolkata metropolitan area is the electoral fortress of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
Of course, she is presenting her proposition in the garb of giving representation to all regions of the country and as a unifying idea.
This bluff can be easily called out by suggesting four capitals in north, south, west and northeastern India. Then we will see how fast she rebukes such a suggestion.
A true federalist wouldn’t demand more national capitals with hardly any power devolution at the state level. He/she would want that the location of a national capital doesn’t matter in day to day lives of India’s masses. And this is where Banerjee’s second part of criticism of the Centre comes.
She took the central BJP government to task for its nationalistic ideology.
“The attitude needs to be changed… One leader, one nation, one ration card, ... One political party, one nation ... what is the valuation (sic)?”, The Hindu quoted her saying. The Trinamool chief cannot be accused of being eloquent or articulate, however, one can still understand what she is trying to say here.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Modi government is really attracted to ‘one nation, one X’ type of ideas where X can mean election, ration card, civil code, one indirect tax regime of GST, mobility card, health system, power grid, market for farmers, FASTag, gas grid, etc.
While some of these ideas are innocuous (such as mobility card, gas grid, FASTag, etc), some others can be really harmful for the health of the society (civil code) and the nation (one tax).
The Indian republic was not envisioned as a federation of states but a union of them. Naturally, the central government got not just the veto but many more powers, financial as well as political, over the states. Similarly, states got many more powers than the municipalities and panchayats.
Over time, due to realisation of the severe limitations of this top-down system, the Centre has devolved more powers to states and local executive but not enough. Moreover, the recent craze for ‘One nation, one X’ ideas has led to centralisation of powers which is a big concern.
The biggest one is the introduction of goods and services tax which has seriously impacted the power of the states to tweak with indirect taxes — the only big revenue stream for them given that the direct tax regime was already the exclusive domain of the central government.
This centralised approach may appear nationalistic but can do more damage to the national unity in some cases as Jawaharlal Nehru found out with the language issue or the Hindu society with the civil codes.
One of the consequences of this needless centralisation is that it eventually leads to a situation like that of the ongoing blockade of New Delhi by farmers from Punjab and Haryana.
The Centre can get rid of its burden of providing food subsidy, running public distribution system, procurement/storage costs, fertiliser subsidy and even MNREGA if it goes for decentralisation.
Imagine how much headache it can save itself apart from thousands of crores that goes in subsidising one set of farmers from a couple of states at the cost of rest of the farmers in the country.
This isn’t just about agriculture. Every sector which doesn’t need decisions to be made in New Delhi should be completely hived off from the Union government’s responsibility and given to states with all the attached liabilities.
Similarly, the states need to be given not just extra financial resources but also the power to raise revenue from not just indirect taxes but also the ability to have their own state income tax.
In turn, the states need to devolve more exclusive responsibilities and resources to elected executive in cities and villages.
Decentralisation and localism is the sustainable way forward for India. Centralisation of powers in the national capital is a recipe for a million mutinees. The latter will invite calls for more capitals or shifting of it from New Delhi. The former will make the national capital irrelevant for vast majority of the country.
Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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