In Trying to Silence the Tripura CM, Narendra Modi Has Proved He Has No Interest in Federalism

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.

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. Credit: PTI

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. Credit: PTI

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.”

Read: Tripura CM’s I-Day Speech That DD, AIR Refused to Broadcast

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.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during the Independence Day function at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during the Independence Day function at the Red Fort in New Delhi on August 15, 2017. Photo: PTI

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?

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  • Both Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan are autonomous. It is possible that the PMO has undermined that autonomy- perhaps by threatening or bribing concerned officials. Good journalists or concerned activists should try to find evidence that this has happened and then approach the Courts through PIL.

    Prima facie, officials acted prudently in requesting the C.M of Tripura to amend his remarks in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. It is quite true that they may be too frightened of someone like Mamta to make any such request. However, they would try to pass the buck to the I&B Ministry.

    It is not ‘paradoxical’ at all that officials working for autonomous public bodies seek to do their job properly. The truth is the reputation of a politician improves if he or she makes sensible remarks on ceremonial occasions rather than rants and rave stupid nonsense about ‘conspiracies’. The fact of the matter is that voters in the most populous state have just elected a party which promotes ‘Hindutva’ and cow protection in a completely open and very vocal manner.

    I don’t know why the author thinks there was something ‘paradoxical’ in Parrikar’s remarks re. ensuring there is no shortage of good quality beef in Goa. It is part of Parrkikar’s job to ensure that Goa can properly look after the tourists it attracts from around the world. Announcing that meat will be of good quality and properly slaughtered and inspected is a good thing not some mysterious ‘paradox’ which proves that Modi is anti Federalism.