The demand for restructuring Centre-State relations is as old as the adoption of the Constitution of India in 1950. The Founding Fathers of the Indian constitution took note of the emerging trend of cooperative federalism in the traditional federations. They were not committed to any principle of federalism rather their sole aim was to hammer out a constitution which was capable of solving the problems that the country was subjected to on the eve of independence and would also be confronted with in the future. Its makers were enamoured with the idea that it should work for the progress, peace and prosperity of the people. The framers evolved, developed and improvised a substructure in the constitution, to promote cooperation and minimize tensions between the centre and states. They provided a framework in which the federal governments was vested with wider powers than were granted to the governments of the states.
The religious, linguistic and ethnic diversities of India, the outbreak of communal riots, the trauma of partition and its ghastly aftermath, Gandhi’s assassination, the Communist upsurge in Telangana, problems of India’s external security and complex international order, and squalor of the teeming millions affected the mood and thinking of the framers of the Indian constitution. They believed that only a strong centre can act as a foil to India’s propensity to decentralise to the point of dismemberment, that the goal of the nation-the welfare of the people would be achieved only with a centralised cooperative federation.
Initial phase of Indian federation
The history of federalism and Centre–State relations in India is marked by political mobilisation and intermittent struggle to fashion a more federal set-up. In the first phase lasting until the last 1960s, the task of nation building and development was the main concern of the nation’s rulers. This period was not solely dominated by the trend of centralisation. Whatever conflicts arose and there were many major ones-were all sought to be resolved under the Constitution. Geographic boundaries of the States have often been reorganised. In 1956, they were organised on linguistic basis. This laid the basis for the later assertion by the States for greater powers.
Later more States were formed – Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Goa. Even in 2003, three large States were bifurcated to create three new States of Jharkand, Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh to respect and encourage the local aspirations of the people.
In this regard installation of non-Congress governments at the state level after 1967 is considered as the beginning of the process of erosion of Congress hegemony. But in fact this was the starting point for the emergence of coalition politics in India. The decline of the ‘Congress System’ as advocated by Austin, brought a number of issues to the surface. One of this issues was to make room for other political parties to play their roles in the national as well as local politics. The 1977 development is the process of culmination which started way back in 1967. In post 1967 phase the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam decided to carry on a campaign on Centre–State relations in a systematic and scientific manner. In February 1970, in the DMK Conference in Tiruchy, a popular slogan , ‘Autonomy for the States; Federalism at the Centre’, was given.
In its 1971 Election Manifesto, the DMK announced: ‘Though the Constitution of India is described as a Federal one, the balance is more tilted towards the Centre and hence the States are not able to function freely in the administrative and financial spheres. Only such powers as are necessary for the Centre to preserve the strength of India should be assigned to the Centre and all the other powers should be left to the States without impairing the ideal of a strong India’. The DMK is of the view that for proper and ideal Centre–State relations, there should be more powers for the States.
Clash between Centre and States
In the reign of Rajiv Gandhi, the strategies adopted to meet the crises originating from the states under non-Congress government became counter- productive on many issues. Initially, the Congress tried to penetrate into the Hindi heartland states in order to regain their electoral superiority. But the results in the Assembly elections in as many as ten states did not register a steady growth. In Maharashtra and Punjab almost the same picture could be seen.
In a bid to settle these issues, mainly in Punjab a peace accord was concluded between Rajiv Gandhi and the religious leader Harchand Singh Longowal which failed to satisfy either the people of Punjab or the government at the centre. The demand for state autonomy in the matter of finance, was also made by Biju Patnaik of Orissa towards the end of 1973 and in 1990 when he became the Chief Minister of Orissa.
In an interview to The Indian Express in September 1991, Patnaik reiterated his demand and suggested radical restructuring of Centre–State relations.In fact the framers of the Constitution adopted a federal form of governance in the hope that the Union and the States would work within the limits of the constitution by mutual willingness and cooperation. States should not become over ambitious and the Union should also not be too coercive. Federalism can operate only if the Union tolerates the States and vice-versa. ‘Federalism is primarily a device with considerable potential for integrating the political assertion of diverse regional interests and providing a framework for reconciling demands for increased representation and participation in national development. Thus viewed, the issue is more than merely devolution of powers from the Centre to the States.’ In other words, the constitution avoids the tight mould of federalism and it can be both unitary and federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances.
Coalition Government and Federalism
For the first time in 1989, a National Front coalition government headed by V.P. Singh, which included major regional parties like the DMK, took office at the Centre. Though short – lived, this government took certain steps to strengthen the federal principle. The Inter – State Council was constituted in 1990. The entry of regional parties in coalition government at the centre became a regular feature in 1996 with the formation of the United Front government and in all subsequent ones – and presently in the United Progressive Alliance government.
The left parties, which supported both the National Front government in 1989 and the United Front government in 1996-1998 and the present UPA government, are strong supporters of the federal principle. An analysis of the nature and dimension of federal government in India will show that there has been qualitative changes in the inner dynamics of political parties in India, both at the national and regional levels.