Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly talked about the importance of ‘cooperative’ federalism. But his party’s actions show that this is merely lip-service.
Hours before the face-off between Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar and Prasar Bharati turned into a talking point, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while delivering his Independence Day address, underscored the importance of the principle of federalism. “Since I have myself been a chief minister for long, I know that states are important for the growth of a country. I understand the importance of chief ministers and state governments. And that is why we focused on cooperative federalism and now competitive cooperative federalism. And now we are taking all decisions together,” Modi said.
But as the day wore on, developments unfolding in one corner of the country’s Northeast seemed to fly in the face of the prime minister’s reassurance of autonomy to regional leaders. What eventually came into display was not the healthy cooperative federalism Modi claimed to champion, but centralism bent on muzzling opposition voices – something that once used to be a hallmark of Congress-led regimes at the Centre, particularly during the reign of Indira Gandhi.
Independence Day ended with Sarkar and his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), blasting Doordarshan and All India Radio for refusing to broadcast his speech. Sarkar was asked to “reshape” his speech if he wanted it broadcast. Predictably, the CPI(M) leader refused to comply with this humiliating order. According to a Times of India report, the letter that was sent by Prasar Bharati to Agartala AIR said, “Keeping in view the sanctity and solemnity attached with the occasion the broadcast is meant for, the CEO, Prasar Bharati was also consulted and the collective decision taken at Delhi advises that the broadcast may not go with its existing content. AIR/Prasar Bharati will however be more than happy if the Hon’ble Chief Minister agrees to reshape the content making it suitable to the solemnity of the occasion and sentiments of the people of India at large.”
While Prasar Bharati cited the public broadcasting code to justify its decision to gag Sarkar’s speech, Doordarshan tried obfuscating the issue. According to a report in The Telegraph, “Prasar Bharati got Doordarshan Kendra, Agartala, to issue a detailed clarification ‘refuting the allegation of blackout of the Hon’ble chief minister by Doordarshan/ Prasar Bharati. However, the clarification pertained to the coverage of Sarkar’s Independence Day programme, not the airing of his pre-recorded message that was to be telecast from 9am to 9.30am. While the message was not telecast, the programme, including the parade and a separate 12-minute speech of the chief minister, was shown on DD Tripura in the evening.”
That the chief minister of a small northeastern state was prevented from broadcasting his speech in Modi’s federalism-friendly India is indeed paradoxical. But then, as the list of such paradoxes continues to lengthen and multiply by the day, our sense of surprise diminishes. Consider for instance, Goa’s BJP chief minister Manohar Parikkar’s decision to inform the state assembly last month that 2,000 kg of beef was being produced every day at the state’s only legal abattoir. This at a time when the central government led by his party had banned the sale and purchase of cattle – cows and buffaloes – across the whole country. Assuring people that there will be no meat shortage in Goa, Parikkar told legislators, “We have not closed the option to stop getting meat from Belgaum (in Karnataka) to ensure that there is no shortage … I can assure you that inspection of beef from the neighbouring state will be done by a proper and authorised medical doctor, and not others.”
Similarly, it is also paradoxical that independent and strong opposition leaders are hauled over hot coals on a daily basis in Modi’s India, which claims to champion a brand of federalism that is a clear departure from the Congress’s version of federalism. In normal times, it could have been argued that Sarkar would perhaps have been spared the BJP’s shoddy treatment if he had headed an electorally-potent state like Uttar Pradesh which, with its 82 Lok Sabha seats, has the power to make and unmake politics at the Centre. Every political party that has its sights set on the durbar in Delhi has a strategic blueprint to cover ground in UP. States like Tripura don’t quite make the cut for large-scale central interference on a regular basis. And Sarkar is well-established in the state, having been elected to lead it four times.
But normal logic has ceased to operate these days. In its tenure so far, the Modi government has systematically gone after opposition-ruled governments and their chief ministers, regardless of political and electoral heft. The daily skirmishes – major and minor – between the AAP government in Delhi and the BJP are but one example of an administration whose ability to work has been obstructed at every turn. Targeting strong oppositional voices around the country – from Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal to Nitish Kumar in Bihar – the BJP, under the leadership of president Amit Shah, has rolled out a blueprint for winning 350-plus seats in the 2019 general elections. To do this, it needs to scuttle the opposition by any means.
By refusing to allow Sarkar his right to address the people of Tripura on Independence Day, the BJP has turned on its head the party’s commitment to collaborative federalism and made it clear that leaders like Sarkar will not be allowed to air criticisms of its policies on public broadcasting services. In his speech, Sarkar drew attention to the lack of jobs, increasing cow vigilantism and communal tension as causes for deep concern. “Great values of secularism have helped in keeping Indians together as a nation. But today, this spirit of secularism is under attack,” Sarkar had said in his speech. These are subjects that rankle the Centre, which wants all issues of conflict to be driven under the carpet. Or ensure that if they are raised at all, they must only be addressed in the most indirect and abstract terms. Going against this unstated government dictum, the chief minister chose to take the bull by its horns: “Minority and Dalit communities are under increasing attack. Their sense of security is shattered.”
One wonders how Banerjee would have reacted to such a government gag order. She might not have taken it as quietly as Sarkar and his party have. On the eve of Independence Day celebrations, Banerjee, in her characteristic strident style, threw down a gauntlet to the Centre, making it clear that under no circumstance would Bengal follow the Centre’s orders when observing the occasion.
With 2019 almost around the corner, and attacks on powerful regional leaders intensifying, the BJP’s lip service to federalism doesn’t amount to much. The real question is – can dissident states and their leaders form a viable opposition in this context, or will they keep fighting each battle on their own?