Scathing observations about the existing style of governance at the Centre, based on a “big brother, big daddy and big Messiah concept” and a fervent call for reinventing the fast-depleting federal principles of the country marked the debate on “Has India lost the spirit of federalism”, held in Hyderabad on Saturday, 17 September, as a part of the Dakshin Dialogues 2022, organised by South First.
Telangana IT Minister KT Rama Rao and his Tamil Nadu counterpart Palanivel Thiaga Rajan vied with each other in their harsh criticism towards the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, apart from dissecting the prevailing notions of federalism in the country.
When Lok Sabha member Sashi Tharoor and Andhra Pradesh Finance Minister Buggana Rajendranath Reddy preferred a seemingly mellowed but honestly focused approach to reinventing federalism, it became a collective South Indian voice for what was rightful in areas of governance, resource management, fiscal mobilisations, political preferences, and devolution of powers.
Centre for Policy Research President and Chief Executive Yamini Aiyar moderated the highly charged session by translating conflicts into common causes.
Consensus amidst varied views
Despite differences in perception, the South Indian leaders were unanimous in highlighting the southern success stories in areas like education, health, economy, co-existence, plurality, and cultural integration. Meanwhile, sharp political sarcasm targeting the Centre won wide applause from the audience.
In his speech, KTR targeted Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was in Hyderabad the same day to celebrate Telangana Liberation Day in a partisan manner, without any consultation with or involvement of the state government.
Terming the event a BJP show, Rao said it marked a classic instance of violation of federal principles on a subject that could unify people over caste, religion, and partisan politics.
“There was a time when the Union home minister came to Hyderabad to integrate it into the Indian union, but today after 74 years, another home minister has flown down to bully us into submission, wanting us to subscribe to their ideology, wanting us to adhere to whatever they say. It’s not acceptable,” said KTR, drawing parallels between India’s first home minister Sardar Vallbhbhai Patel and Shah.
He accused the BJP regime at the Centre of converting the country into a unitary state instead of retaining India as a Union of federal states.
Engaging directly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Palanivel Thiaga Rajan quoted a statement by him when he was the chief minister of Gujarat.
The statement was that the Union remained a myth and just signified a “temporary gathering of people to take away whatever comes from the states”.
Central government put under scanner
Thiaga Rajan came down heavily on the Union government and the BJP for the abrogation of genuine rights of states and the travesty of federalism. Its myths on devolution are susceptible, he said.
“The power of taxation has to be easier for the smooth functioning of states. In a federal system, every state has different challenges to address,” he said.
Stating in unequivocal terms that India was enshrined and designed as a federal republic, KTR made it clear that he supported the country round the clock throughout the year, but he would support the Union government only when it deserved it.
He said that a federal democracy must promote dialogues, discussions, and debates, and be tolerant towards dissent and fair criticism.
In his opinion, the current dispensation at the Centre has made consistent efforts to centralise power and pushed the Union of states to become a unitary state, which is reflected in so many areas, especially in the case of Telangana and Hyderabad.
He termed the personality cult prevailing in the nation’s leadership undemocratic, and questioned the trend of naming stadiums and medical colleges after the people in power.
He also recalled the recent infamous occasion when Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman blasted a district collector in Telangana over the absence of the picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a local ration shop.
“If the Union Finance Minister has her way, probably even the picture of Mahatma Gandhi’s on currency notes would be replaced with that of PM Modi’s,” said Rao.
He added that southern states have 19 percent of the population but contribute 35 percent towards the economy.
Tharoor calls for balance
While agreeing to most of the concerns Thiga Rajan and Rao raised, Tharoor wanted a balance while pushing forward the debate on federalism.
He said there was a need to keep the country as a single entity. Tharoor termed India’s federal unity a magnificent experience that even the European Union failed to achieve.
However, he also said that distorting the structure of federalism must be resisted by whatever possible democratic means.
He cited the unilateral actions of the Modi regime during the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns as classic examples of violations of federalism. Tharoor said no state government was taken into confidence when these decisions were made.
He agreed with KTR and Thiaga Rajan when they accused Modi of promoting a cult version of presidential-style governance by diluting core principles of federalism, which is primarily democratic and inclusive.
During his interventions, Andhra Pradesh Finance Minister Buggana Rajendranath Reddy reminded fellow panellists that devolution of power must not be confined to central state relations but also be extended to the relations between states and local self-governments.
He accused many state governments of usurping powers of local self-governance, making the concept of devolution a mockery. He said India continues to be a federal entity despite its occasional and isolated challenges.
Throughout the discussion, there was uniformity in the demand for changing the present attitude of Delhi towards the states, especially those from the Southern region.
Attempts by the Union government to implement Centrally evolved and sponsored schemes bypassing state governments also received wide condemnation.
Thiaga Rajan urged the centre to abandon its evolving concept of “one size fits all”.
The Centre’s “Hindu, Hindi, Hindutva” policy also came under sharp criticism.
Congratulating South First for hosting such a meaningful dialogue, all the speakers said it should be continued as it could help the South Indian states with whatever dues they wanted to avail from the Centre.