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Issue 11

The Frailty of Quasi-Federalism in India

The Rajya Sabha reverberated with staunch opposition to the approval of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (GNCTD Bill) on 24 March, 2021 . The Bill contains amendments that would bolster the powers of the Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Delhi and further limit the administrative powers of Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP government.

In stark contrast to the earlier-vested powers of the elected government to take independent decisions on most administrative matters, the bill  mandates  LG’s approval prior to every executive action. CM Arvind Kejriwal called it a “sad day for democracy,” while Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi called the bill “the most pernicious and the most unconstitutional bill the Rajya Sabha has ever received.”  Having received Presidential assent amidst opposition walkouts in the Rajya Sabha, it has yet again resurrected debates on the current government’s commitment to federalism in India. This is not the first time that the government has come under scrutiny for passing heavily opposed legislations jeopardizing constitutional federalism. The recent GNCTD Bill, along with certain other highly controversial moves like the stance on “one nation one election”, the abrogation of Article 370, the CAA & NRC and the passage of the farm bills, all in the face of incessant criticism and opposition within and outside the Parliament, has brought the BJP under question. So, how do these contentious bills get passed despite such strong opposition? One could consider the role of India’s “quasi-federal” structure and its compatibility with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s longstanding agenda of attaining a unitary state with an overly dominant Centre. The larger debate that these legislations highlight is the inadequate checks that India’s quasi-federal structure presents to a government with a parliamentary majority. 

“Federalism” refers to the constitutionally allocated distribution of powers between two or more levels of government; one at the national level, other at the provincial, state or local levels. The principal feature of federalism is that the various levels of governments operate within their own constitutionally-defined jurisdictions with substantial independence from each other. A key tenet of the federal concept is the voluntary compact between several independent states that agree to become a part of a nation and are required to submit an integral part of their power to the Centre.

However, in most federal countries, the difference in power between the central and state governments is not as substantial as it is in the case of India. The herculean challenges faced by postcolonial India in terms of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity have contributed extensive powers to the Centre. The disunity and secessionist tendencies that postcolonial India witnessed in the form of linguistic nationalism in the South, accession of the Princely States, the Kashmir conflict, and regional rivalry with Pakistan, among others, led the members of the Constituent Assembly to advocate for a strong Union government. This was deemed necessary to ensure  political stability  for India’s survival as a unified nation-state amidst enormous cultural heterogeneity and national security threats. 

Unlike other federal countries such as the US, the Parliament in India has the power to admit new states, create new states, alter boundaries and their names, in addition to establishing unity between states or dividing them. Further, there are various provisions in the Constitution that allow the Centre to override the powers of the states; the power to make laws within fields that have not been specified within the Constitution lies solely with the Centre. Additionally, on fiscal matters, states have limited capabilities and are quite heavily dependent on the Centre. Thus, the Constitution of India was drafted with strong centralizing tendencies that confer maximum powers to the central government and is thus referred to as “quasi-federal.”

BJP leaders have been pushing for the idea of “one nation one election” in various public platforms ever since the agenda reserved its space in the party’s 2014 election manifesto. In fact, as recently as in December 2020, BJP conducted roughly 25 webinars propagating the idea. . This agenda will further affect the limited autonomy of  regional parties that contest to form  state governments across India. This centralized control of state legislatures and state governments adds to the longstanding goals of the BJP to attain a unitary state. Further, advancing the abrogation of Article 370 that granted a special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir bypassed the citizens of the state. Moreover, on 12th December 2019, the Parliament passed the heavily contentious “Citizenship Amendment Act,” which is widely considered an “anti-muslim” law. And the farm bills of 2020, which continue to see protests, received Presidential assent to become a law in September 2020.

Despite opposition parties protesting against these anti-federal legislations, the BJP has been able to enforce them majorly due to their absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and a substantial standing in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP has 305 legislators in the Lok Sabha, which is more than enough to pass any bill without the support of allies. In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP has 82 members (38 short of the simple majority of 120), but it’s allies  take the  tally to 107. Additionally, various regional parties such as the BJD, Shiv Sena, the YSRCP, the TRS and the NPF (total of 19 members) registering their votes  in BJP’s favour, gives them the required number – above 120.

Complementing such  a majority, the powers vested in the Centre under Article 256, 365 and 356 allow the BJP to enforce any law that would strengthen its hold over the states. Article 256 says that all states are obligated to enact laws passed by the Parliament, whereas Article 365 states that if the States do not comply, then the President may hold that a situation has arisen in which the government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the Constitution. Resultantly, Article 356 authorizes the President to remove State Governments and dissolve state assemblies if they cannot run in accordance with the Constitution.

As political scientist Philip Mahwood argues, culturally diverse and developing countries like India require federalism not just for administrative requirements, but for the very survival of the nation. However, the centralized structure of federalism adopted by India to tackle post-independence challenges appears to be compatible with the unitary agenda of the Central government. Additionally, the BJP’s majority forming the Centre and their recurrent tendencies to bypass state governments and its citizens pose an extreme danger to federalism, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution and must be protected at all costs. 

Picture Credits: Ipleaders

Saaransh Mishra is a graduate of Political Science and International Affairs. He is deeply fascinated by geopolitics, human rights, the media and wishes to pursue a career in the confluence of these fields. In his spare time, he watches, plays, discusses sports and loves listening to Indian classical fusion music.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

Assam Assembly Election: Litmus Test for CAA and BJP

Out of the four poll-bound states, BJP is trying to put its best foot forward in the two states where its main battles are — Assam and West Bengal. In Assam, it is hoping to retain its power as it has paved its way towards gaining power in other northeastern states, while in Bengal, it’s aiming to consolidate its power to capture the “final frontier” after being on the sidelines for decades. In both states though, it has adopted different strategies around one issue — CAA-NRC.

On a roadshow in West Bengal’s Medinipur, Amit Shah said that “Once we are in power, the first meeting of our Cabinet will announce the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act.” Citizenship Amendment Act will allow citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains who came to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, in Assam, the BJP is silent on implementing the Act.

Similarly, in Assam, BJP’s manifesto included “corrected National Register of Citizens (NRC)”  as a promise if it came to power, while in West Bengal, it was interestingly silent on implementing NRC, fearing that doing so could impact Hindu migrant voters from Bangladesh and Matuas of south Bengal who makes for a significant voter base. Today, as per a rough estimate, Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants are a significant presence in 75 Assembly constituencies – making up for a fourth of the state’s seats. These differing positions with regards to CAA-NRC to appeal to different voters further show that electoral politics and calculation is always a critical part of the NRC-CAA exercise.  It takes into account the voting potential of those who will be left in – especially the Hindus of the north, where the BJP has had support while excluding mainly Muslims through the instrument of CAA, who don’t traditionally vote for the party. 

However, in Assam, the only place so far where NRC exercise has been carried out, it led to an unintended outcome — of the 1.9 million people not in the Register, a vast majority were Hindu.  The BJP in an attempt to guard its predominant Hindu voter base is now set to revise the NRC, as evident from the electoral promise of “corrected NRC” to protect “genuine citizens.” This, along with the implementation of CAA, would mean that BJP could bring back Hindus in the ambit of its voters while excluding Muslims from the list. However, contrary to BJP’s expectation, the implementation of CAA in Assam led to a huge uproar as violent protests erupted in Assam in December 2019. 

CAA-Protest in Assam

Soon after the passing of the CAA bill, Assam saw massive and almost spontaneous protests against the CAA, especially in the upper region. These anxieties have been fueled by concerns regarding socio-political and cultural marginalisation and by the burden over state resources with the problem of language alienation, unemployment and limited job opportunities.

Source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Citizenship_Amendment_Act_protests

The Assam protest against CAA must be contextualised against the anti-foreigner sentiment that has been running consistently in the state. After the anti-foreigner movement in 1975-85, Assam Accord came about. It was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed by the All Assam Students Union and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).  Clause 6 of the Assam Accord asserts constitutional safeguards for the Assamese people and states that the “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” With the implementation of the CAA, the Assam Accord would be rendered ineffective, thereby, threatening the very linguistic, cultural and social identities of the Assamese people that were guaranteed by this very Clause.

Thus, this led to widespread discontentment as several indigenous groups took to protest the legislation. In spite of the huge electoral gain secured by the BJP in the previous election in 2016, they had not anticipated the intensity of public opposition against CAA. In an attempt to placate the protesting groups, BJP in a departure to its religious nationalism agenda recognised the long-awaited demand of ethnic groups for inclusion in the ST list. It led to the creation of autonomous councils for three of the six communities demanding ST status, in the aftermath of anti-CAA protests. However, will the fulfilment of demands of ethnic groups truly assuage the fears unleashed by CAA and will BJP be able to recover from the widely expressed discontentment in Assam?

Ongoing election in Assam

After less than 18 months of violent agitation against CAA, Assam is poll-bound again. In the ongoing election, while BJP has been tactfully silent about CAA, opposition parties like Congress have made it an issue to campaign against BJP. Releasing the manifesto that has a promise to nullify CAA legislation, Rahul Gandhi said, “We are aware that the RSS and BJP are attacking diverse cultures of this nation. Attacking our languages, history, our way to thinking, and our way of being. So this manifesto provides a guarantee that we will defend the idea of the state of Assam”. He also promised that Congress will uphold the Assam Accord, which was signed during his father Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure in 1985.

The anti-CAA agitation has also led to the birth of two regional parties: Assam Jatiya Parishad, led by All Assam Students’ Union leader Lurinjyoti Gogoi, and Raijor Dal, led by Akhil Gogoi, who was arrested in the agitation in December 2019.  It is reportedly backed by seventy ethnic groups — opposing the changes to the citizenship law.

This clearly indicates that despite BJP’s aversion to putting CAA as an agenda for election, CAA is already on agenda, as evidenced by opposition parties’ manifesto and mobilisation of voters based on anti-CAA sentiment. Thus, the outcome of the assembly election is set to not just decide the future of BJP in the entire northeast but could be a litmus test for CAA-NRC as policies. This particular election for the state is likely to have ramifications beyond who wins or loses. It might very well settle some of the issues that have come to dominate recent politics in the State.

Picture Credits: Live Mint

Author’s Bio: Ridhima Manocha is a final year English and Media Studies student at Ashoka University and has authored the book, The Sun and Shadow

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Uncategorized

COVID or Not, The Campaign Must Go On

By Neelanjan Sircar

The upcoming polls, in Assam, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, pose unprecedented challenges in election management. Even in the best of times, regulating the behaviour of political actors during elections is nearly impossible. Anecdotally, candidates regularly spend over the farcically low spending limits for candidates (although the official data show otherwise) and all manner of distribution of alcohol and cash occur in the days leading up to the polls. But this year has brought forth even more challenges. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, parties will be heavily restricted in hosting rallies or other large public events that are so crucial to a standard political campaign.

But the campaign must go on. I imagine that two campaign activities will be used as substitutes for the traditional campaign. First, in the absence of large public gatherings convened by high profile politicians, parties will have to rely much more on “within village” activities like door-to-door canvassing. Second, outreach to voters — especially from the party elite — will be far more dependent upon social media and other digital media. 

This will likely generate advantages for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by far the most well-funded party that has invested the most in its social media campaign strategies. For instance, data from the fiscal year 2017-2018 provided from Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows that the BJP received 210 crores out of the total of 222 crores from the controversial “electoral bond scheme” ushered in by the BJP, a staggering 95% of all electoral financing through the electoral bond method. This infusion of money has been crucial to maintaining electoral machinery that swells to impressive proportions during election time. For instance, in the 2019 national election, the BJP fielded an army of panna pramukhs (literally page chiefs), who were assigned to keep track of 30-60 voters each. While panna pramukhs were not fielded everywhere, the very fact that they can be fielded over a large swathe of the country indicates both the scale of funding available to the BJP and its commitment to building dense ground-level machinery during election time.

The existing investment in ground-level campaigning will be a huge asset for the BJP. In a time when movement is restricted due to the COVID pandemic, the ability of ground-level workers to mobilize and bring people to the polls is likely to have a greater impact. Furthermore, these same restrictions will make bureaucratic monitoring of elections and campaign behaviour more difficult, perhaps emboldening ground-level actors to use quasi-legal means to mobilize voters.

The BJP also has consistently demonstrated its proficiency in reaching voters through social media. The BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may not have been unique in their political appeals with respect to religion and caste, but it has been an innovator in campaign methods. Outside of the Congress, the (regional) parties that grew out of the 1990s built their campaigns in a particular manner that was labour-intensive and dependent upon the control of ground-level leaders that often had caste credentials. The BJP realized that if it had to spread beyond its traditional bases of support, it would have to develop a method of directly reaching the voter in places where it did not carry favours with local elites. The development of a strong social media campaign has created a direct channel between the central leadership, and Prime Minister Modi in particular, with the voter. This was a strategy that was effective, for instance, in the 2019 national elections in West Bengal.

Google search data provides a suggestive data point for BJP’s dominance in social media campaigning. While it is true that users of Google are likely to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than the general population, the recent spread of cheap smartphones in the countryside has significantly broadened access to the platform across India. In Google searches about politicians over the 2019 election period, an extraordinary 75% of searches were about Narendra Modi, compared to just 12% about Rahul Gandhi. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The BJP purportedly has extraordinary advantages in most social media and peer-to-peer campaigning through platforms like Whatsapp. 

Here too, the challenges of monitoring and auditing party behaviour are likely to be significant. During the elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has significant policing powers, regulating the content of campaigns and policy promises. As communication with the voter decidedly shifts towards social and digital media, where the content is less visible to third parties, the ECI is compromised in being able to regulate campaigns.

The 2019 national election exposed concerns about the impartiality of the ECI. A number of observers felt that, in the process of regulating content, the ECI showed biases towards the ruling BJP. This was in stark contrast to the narrative of the ECI that had started in the 1990s under TN Seshan and continued by subsequent heads of the ECI — which was seen as aggressively maintaining a level playing field for candidates and parties. The consequence of a level playing field was the democratization of the electoral space with new parties and new kinds of electoral appeals entering the system. 

The real threat to democratic norms today is not a momentary shift in campaign tactics due to the COVID pandemic. Rather, it is the fear that new forms of campaigning that are effective in skirting regulatory norms will get locked in, particularly when the ECI has shown little interest in innovating to meet these challenges. For all of its pathologies, the Indian electoral system showed that simply allowing parties to compete on equal footing generating high turnover in ruling parties at both the state and national levels.

Today, as the very basis of equal political competition is being challenged, we must wonder if brute force and money are all that is required to win elections.

Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His research interests include Indian political economy and comparative political behavior .

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).