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India’s federal structure needs revision

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The late José Saramago, Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, was once quoted as saying: “It is economic power that determines political power, and governments became the political functionaries of power.”

In today’s society, political power is created at the consent of the people, especially in a democracy, and therefore is not perpetual. Meanwhile in any society, economic power is created by the ability of its people to produce wealth, and can also be perpetual.

Over time, the role of economic power in democracy has increased substantially. As most of the democracies in the world become more capitalism-centric, the economic power of society plays a bigger factor in deciding any major policy change in a country. So in any democracy, a society that is more political-centric is going to be outclassed by a society that is more economic-centric.

The best example of this reality or contrast is India.

India is a vast country with numerous variations in races, cultures, languages, geographical features, societies, and economies. This diversity is unevenly distributed across the country. One of the imaginary distinctions that exist is that between North Indians and South Indians.

The states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are generally considered the Hindi heartland or North India. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Kerala are considered mainly South India, as they fall into the southern part of the country.

While Hindi is commonly spoken by 46% of the population, mainly in North Indian states, states in the eastern and southern parts of the country speak a variety of different languages.

Recently, what started as a Twitter exchange between a Bollywood actor and a South Indian actor snowballed into a major debate across the nation as to whether Hindi is a national language or not.

Leaders across the political spectrum have joined the debate. Home Minister Amit Shah told to media that Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English and not local languages. However, opposition and South Indian leaders back linguistic diversity. They blame the national leadership for playing politics on India’s cultural diversity by trying to impose Hindi.

India has as many as 22 official languages, and Hindi is but one of them. There is no national language mentioned in the constitution. But beneath this political debate lies a contrasting reality of India, that is, the failure of North Indian society and the rise of South Indian society. 

Until recently, Bollywood, the Hindi film industry, was considered to be the representative of Indian cinema. But the massive success of South Indian or pan-Indian films like Bahubali, Pushpa, RRR and KGF at the international level has changed the debate about whether Bollywood will hold the right to represent Indian Cinema in the future.

But the South Indian success story is not limited to films but also includes their respective state performance, whether it is governance, infrastructure, economic development, or the Human Development Index. South Indian states are way ahead of the North Indian states in such areas.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are considered Hindi heartlands. The average per capita income in the five southern states is three times that of Uttar Pradesh and about five times Bihar’s. The per capita GDP of UP in PPP terms (US$2,252) is comparable to that of Mali ($2,246); meanwhile, Bihar’s per capita GDP ($1,376) is comparable to that of Mozambique ($1,283), despite the fact that these two states comprise more than one-fourth of India’s population.

This shows the sharp contrast between North India with South India in terms of economic development. But New Delhi has never bothered about these regional economic conditions.

The leaders in the North have demanded special attention from the central leadership because of their landlocked geography, but in the end all they got was lip service. The development issue of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh needs urgent attention, as these states have the youngest population among Indian states, with a mean age of 20 years according to the 2011 census, which implies that their population growth is the highest.

While UP is India’s most populous state, Bihar is expected to become the second most populous within the next three years. The development outcomes of this region will define the nation’s overall development in the coming years.

New approach to face new realities

While the Southern states are contributing economically to the nation, they don’t occupy center stage politically and are marginalized culturally. Similarly, the North is contributing to the political strength of the nation and has a strong cultural presence but is not given enough economic opportunity to grow.

New Delhi has used the imaginary distinction between North and South India as a deliberate policy to maintain its relevance, much as the British used “divide and rule” to exploit India’s cultural differences. The lack of sub-nationalism and internal caste-based politics within the states also played a crucial role in the lack of development, especially in UP and Bihar.

But the crux of this problem is the Indian model of federalism. During the making of the constitution, its authors had a view of a strong central authority to protect the nation’s survival and political stability, given the country’s vast diversity. The Indian constitution has structurally made the central government more powerful than the states – therefore the seeming paradox of “centralized federalism.” 

Over time, India’s strong federal structure has been used to repress or punish the state governments of other parties. In 1959, Under prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s watch, the communist government of Kerala led by E M S Namboodiripad was completely dissolved. It was an exceptional case in federal relations and opened a Pandora’s box of “Delhi federalism bias.”

Then successive central government used this model to topple the opposition governments in other states with all kinds of hooks and crooks. The states where the central ruling party is unable exert much influence, or those states that don’t toe the line with Delhi’s narrative, are deprived of economic assistance.

UP, Bihar and West Bengal are excellent examples. These three neighboring states comprise one-third of India’s population but rank near the bottom in every Human Development Index, in contrast to Southern states.

 In my previous op-ed on the Eastern Corridor, I talked in detail about how the region has faced economic marginalization over the decades and what the solution lies ahead. But the key challenge for these states will be to regain their lost reputation due to the strong negative media narrative set by New Delhi, such as UP being labeled as a communal state, Bihar as a corrupt state, and Bengal as communist.

These hamper the prospects of trade and investment in the region, as investors see South India as the best alternative. More so, the aspirations of South Indians to play a bigger role in Indian politics must be taken into account.

The time has come to create a new form of system that can adequately represent the political interests of South Indians and the economic interests of North Indians. Just for the sake of New Delhi’s political interests, the interests of more than 800 million people cannot be sacrificed. A handful of people sitting in Delhi shouldn’t determine their fate.

In the span of a few years, India will have the world’s largest population. With such a level of inequalities among the regions, there is bound to be an internal power struggle in the future.

The current federalist structure lacks the strength to meet the aspirations of 1.2 billion people. Otherwise, the fault lines of Indian federalism could deepen and may lead us on the path of internal power struggle, as has happened in many other countries. The Pakistan-Bangladesh divide is one such example.

Indian needs to embrace a new system for a better future. 

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