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A Short History of the Modi Government's Recent Attempts to Enter State Preserves

What is happening now is a multi-level operation designed to harass and tire out the opposition governments and thus make them unpopular.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s main objection to Rajiv Gandhi’s Panchayati Raj initiative in the mid-80s was that it transgressed on the powers of state governments.

L.K. Advani told a press conference that the then Union government, through the Bill, was trying to directly influence the panchayats in states. Three decades later, the government to which Advani has been a margdarshak – guide – is indulging in worse federal intrusions.  

What is happening now is a multi-level operation designed to harass and tire out the opposition governments and thus make them unpopular. It is a calculated federal trespass aimed at simultaneously stretching the long arm of duopoly to the country’s interiors. Success of the Delhi model – which was so ruthlessly enforced to strangulate the Arvind Kejriwal government and paralyse the administration – has emboldened the Union government to extend the experiment to other opposition-ruled states. 

For two years, the governors have been encouraged to behave like Lieutenant Governor V.K. Saxena. Fear of judicial spats alone acted as a restraint. Other instruments of harassment are fiscal arm twisting, misuse of the Union government’s welfare programmes and intrusion into the Concurrent List to directly reach out to voting public. The range and intensity of the impingement into the state’s preserves is mind boggling. These cover areas like agriculture, education, cooperatives, water, public health, libraries and sports.

Much of it is being done by obscuring the concept of the Concurrent List. Early last year, the Union government suddenly made a move to arrogate to itself the states’s powers of supervision and posting of the IAS cadre under them. This evoked strong protests from the opposition states who found the home ministry’s action illegal

The immediate provocation was the West Bengal chief minister’s refusal to transfer of its senior IAS officer to the centre. 

States fear that such sweeping powers to the Union government will create a crisis of loyalty and compliance within the senior bureaucracy – like the Delhi Services Act which under a combative Lt Governor has been playing havoc in the national capital territory. Apart from Mamata Banerjee, chief ministers of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have sent angry letters to the Union government.

The opposition states are also up in arms against the intimidation by the Modi regime to force them to sign off on its new education policy. This, the states find, is an outright intrusion into their preserves. Fourteen of them have not signed the Memorandum of Understanding. West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are most determined among them. Among others are Punjab, Delhi, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.  

According to the states, while they have to implement harsh conditionalities like National Education Policy-related governance reforms, they wont get any extra funds in return to compensate for the loss. Apart from this, opposition-led states also have to compulsorily implement the PM-USHA scheme for which they have to bear 40% of its cost.

In another show of open defiance of the Union, Kerala this month decided teach the portions removed from NCERT text books by the Modi regime. These include the assassination of Gandhi, Gujarat riots and references to Mughals. The supplementary text books containing the original version will reach the schools next month.

The Karnataka government had last June begun preparations for junking the NEP. It has formed an expert panel to de-saffronise the text books. The CM, Siddaramaiah, has now asserted that the rectified syllabus will come into force from the next academic year. Siddaramaiah also criticised the Modi government for imposing the NEP without public consultations. 

Look also at the way the Union government plays petty politics with opposition states. Soon after taking office, the new Karnataka government sought allocation of rice for its ‘Anna Bhagya’ guarantee scheme. When denied, it negotiated with the Food Corporation of India, which in a letter dated June 12 agreed to supply 22.2 lakh tonnes. Surprisingly, the next day, the Union government forced the FCI to cancel the agreement, apparently to frustrate the Congress party’s election promise.

The irony of it has been that days after denying supplies to the opposition states, the FCI itself found no takers for its surplus rice in public auctions. Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party-led Punjab government readily agreed to help to Karnataka government.

Such repeated arms twisting has forced the opposition governments to look for alternative sources to manage their welfare programmes .

Also read: A Manifesto for Reclaiming the Spirit of Federalism

Now taking a cue from the big boss – or on instructions – even ordinary union ministers have started engaging in picking quarrels with states. Rail minister Ashwini Vaishnaw charged the Kerala government with lack of interest in railway projects which the latter promptly rubbished

Another Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar assailed the Karnataka government for ‘destroying’ state economy in ‘two months’.

Smriti Irani charged the West Bengal government with not utilising central funds allocated to the state. The state government contradicted it. Health minister Mansukh Mandaviya found fault with the Bihar government. He said the Union government could not set up AIIMS because the land offered in Darbhanga was waterlogged. Deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav retorted saying that Mandaviya was peddling half truths. The state had specially assured the Union government that it was going to hand over the proposed land fully developed at its own cost. It had also offered different land.

Financial levers, project sanctions, tinkering with the Concurrent List and the Union government’s welfare schemes are the favoured instruments to intimidate the opposition governments. States where the BJP is extremely weak have been the worst victims of  the protracted bullying. Three months back, 10 opposition governments boycotted the NITI Aayog meeting as they found it of no use.

As a clever strategy, the Union government chooses bilateral issues to arm twist states. This is to avoid the kind of opposition consolidation that happened during the recent spurt in gubernatorial meddling. Kerala where BJP has no representation in assembly, has been the worst victim of central squeeze. Earlier this year, CM Vijayan charged the Union government with choking the state by way of undeclared economic sanctions.  

His party said that by cutting down the state’s borrowing limit, the Union government was trying to ‘suffocate’ it.

Narrating several instances of harassment, the state finance minister said the Union government wanted to force a financial crisis in the state. According to the CM, similar devices were used to  sabotage the economy of many opposition states. CM Siddaramaiah charged the Centre with refusing to release Rs. 11,000 crore dues. This has pushed the state in acute financial strain.

Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has been in a running battle with the Union government. The TMC has planned a massive dharna in Delhi on October 2 to demand clearance of state’s dues on various accounts like MGNREGA. Some time ago, the Telangana CM led a similar dharna to demand a uniform paddy procurement policy. 

He said his party will join other parties on its fight against the Union government’s anti-people policies

He had boycotted Modi’s programmes when he visited the state last July.

As noted before, the Concurrent List is another convenient tool to strangulate opposition states with. It came as surprise when the heavy weight Amit Shah was given charge of cooperatives. A year later when the Union government passed its own cooperatives law, we all realised it was a calculated move to extend the BJP’s political base to the vast spread of cooperative behemoths. 

Sharad Pawar was quick to condemn it and spoke against the government’s vindictive attitude towards cooperative banks. 

The Kerala government charged the Union government with  intervening in the cooperative sector and thus trying to ruin it.

And soon Amit Shah’s ministry began collecting details about state cooperatives.

We know what happened when parliament overstepped to impose the three farm lawsNow there are widespread protests going on against the Union government’s attempt to control and thus saffronise thousands of libraries spread all over the country

The big brother is also eyeing sports and tourism. The latest on the chopping board is health

 The Modi regime’s recent move to take full control of IIMs is another pointer. Such intrusions have prompted Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin to pitch for moving education to the state list

P. Raman is a veteran journalist. He is the author of Tryst with Strong Leader Populism.