Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message to PMO officials to prioritise issues raised by the states and ensuring these are carefully monitored is indicative of the new PM’s focus on Centre-state relations. Unlike recent PMs, except Deve Gowda, who spent the years culminating in their prime ministership in the limiting confines of Delhi, Modi’s 12 years as Gujarat Chief Minister allows him to view governance from a regional perspective too. Modi’s different view of federalism does not restrict itself to the constitutional prescriptions of Union-state-concurrent lists. While Modi cannot make radical departures from this constitutional framework in the short-run, his statement promising to undertake this exercise with “sensitivity” should soothe the naysayers for the present. Modi understands that state governments touch people’s lives more tangibly than the Centre. With a hard-won support base that needs to be safeguarded from disillusionment, working closely with the states is Modi’s best way to respond to peoples’ needs and aspirations.
In the past, state and Central governments have clashed on policies which are viewed as Delhi’s unilateral impositions. These have included Finance Commission recommendations on tax-revenue sharing, appropriation of the states’ prerogative over law and order through federal agencies like the National Investigation Agency and National Counter Terrorism Centre, inadequate budgetary allocations and disbursal of development and disaster-relief packages. The PMO’s reported proposal for representative offices in state capitals to liaison better with state governments and citizens have already stirred a controversy. For opposition-ruled states, the normative knee-jerk reaction to a larger central role in states is to allege violation of the Constitution’s federal scheme. But the upside of securing more Central funding, speedy disposal of requests, ensuring favourable policy decisions and averting those inimical to state interests, would not be lost on their Chief Ministers.
Modi has received unexpected backing from Kerala. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said he was open to Modi’s new ideas and experiments and would not condemn them without assessing their worth. But whether satraps like Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar would toe the same line is doubtful. Except for Tamil Nadu, the others are heavily reliant on Central aid. Mamata’s demand for a Bengal package, Nitish’s for special status to Bihar, Naveen’s push for industrialisation, and Kerala’s pleas to reject the Kasturirangan and Gadgil panel reports on Western Ghats conservation depend on currying favour with the new PM. But the fear that the BJP will gain politically from Modi’s moves amplifying the Centre’s role in local developmental issues will worry these leaders.
The UPA government’s schemes like MGNREGA, NRHM, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan ironically won public approval for many Opposition-ruled state governments for implementing these schemes, though the funds came from the Centre. Unlike Manmohan Singh, a proactive PMO under Modi will ensure that the Centre gets its due; a politically inconvenient eventuality for his rivals. The delayed responses to the 2012 Kokrajhar and 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, farmers’ suicides, and food inflation fed off the mutual apathy of the states and Centre. Modi’s eagerness to take the PMO, from a distant entity perched in Delhi, to the states is laden with positives. But strengthening federalism has certain limits. Only three weeks ago, states including the BJP-ruled ones, rejected a Gujarat government demand for a special task force to probe fake encounters across India. Modi’s federal push is excellent political strategy; but avoiding faux pas like these that stoke distrust is key to a seamless partnership.