Tuesday, 18 August 1998

Regionalism Rainbow Bridge or Great Divide

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

In the 11th Lok Sabha, the second largest group after the B]P is
not the Congress but the regional parties. If the CPI and CPM are
counted as regional parties—of Kerala, Tripura and Bengal-
and 12 Independents are added to the tally, 195 out of the 534
seats declared have gone to regional groups, leaving 29 for the
three national parties—the BJP, Congress and Janata Dal. Even
in 1967- the first flood-water mark of regionalism—the then
three national parties, Congress, Swatantra and Jan Sangh, won
362 seats to the others' tally of 158. 

In 1967 regional parties came to office both in the Hindi belt
as well as in Tamil Nadu. Indeed, the year before Conjeevaram
Natarajan Annadurai had warned in Parliament that Tamil
Nadu may secede if Hindi was imposed. Maoist guerrillas
laxmched armed struggles in Kerala, Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
Thanks to a drought and to Indira Gandhi's decision to devalue
the rupee by 57 per cent, inflation soared. Agitations erupted,
and those who predicted that within five years there would be
a completely centralised policy were laughed at. That is precisely
what happened.

Perhaps as a reaction to the chaos of 1967, Indira Gandhi
initiated the process whereby almost all power remained in
Delhi. Between then and her defeat at the polls in 1977, Indira
Gandhi used the imposition of l’resident’s Rule 23 times against
opposition governments, and five times against her own Congress
governments. Central control of finance and foodgrains were
used to literally starve states which had assertive chief ministers.
The centrally-engineered "food crisis" in Gujarat, that saw the
fall of Chimanbhai Patel on February 9, 1974 is a case in point.

The Morarji Desai government quickly forgot its commitment
to federalism when confronted with the thirst of Janata party
workers to come to power in the states. Nine Congress ministries
were dismissed, a "favour" returned by Indira Gandhi on her
return to power in 1980, when she dismissed nine non-Congress
state governments. The only exception was Bhajan Lal, who
presumably made an offer that she could not refuse. In the event,
he remained in office not just during her time, but in the reign
of Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao as well, falling to the
ballot last month. As for Rajiv Gandhi, while he mostly let non-
Congress governments be, during 1985-89 he changed Congress
chief ministers 22 times.

The V.P. Singh government was too involved in intra-party
clashes to be a threat to the states. However, his successor,
Chandra Shekhar, dismissed the DMK government in Tamil
Nadu and the Asom Gana Parishad government in Assam, the
reason given being "collusion with terrorists”. What Chandra
Shekhar was too diplomatic to mention was that in both cases the
terrorists-the LTTE in Tamil Nadu and the Bodos in Assam—
had been encouraged by the Congress government at the centre
to embarrass the Sri Lankan and the AGP governments

In line with its policy of inaction, the Narasirnha Rao
government adopted a similar attitude towards the states, except
when two Rajiv Gandhi appointees, - S. Bangarappa of Karnataka
and N. Janardhan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh - were replaced
with Veerappa Moily and Vijaybhaskar Reddy. Unfortunately,
neither was as much a hit with voters as they were with Rao. In
both states the Congress lost power in 1995.

However, while Rao was less adventurous than the two
Gandhis in dismissing state governments, he excelled them
when it came to centralising power. Indira Gandhi allowed her
trusted ministers to function autonomously. Rajiv Gandhi allowed
those officers whom he liked to do what they pleased (and their
ministers be dammed!). Not so Rao. By the beginning of 1994,
almost all major decisions were in effect taken by the PMO, with
the principal secretary Amar Nath Verma functioning as the
deputy Prime Minister.

Cabinet meetings in the Rao period were a delight. If any
minister offered an opinion on a pending matter, he was quickly
silenced with: “Let the officers decide on that. In the meantime,
drink your coffee". Verma dispensed with the formality of going
through the ministers, routing his orders directly to the secretaries.

The frequent misuse of Article 356 to dismiss state
governments, combined with the growth of the PMO has meant
that in effect India has a presidential system of government. It
is small wonder that the regional parties are anxious to use their
new-found clout to ram through amendments that may make the
Indian structure of governance more federal. It is the total
centralisation of power at Delhi and the fact that all parties want
their state units to act as vassals of the central leaders, which has
weakened the state-level units and allowed regional groups to

The chances are that in the coming week the Vajpayee
government will be replaced by one led by H.D. Deve Gowda.
Should this government attempt to correct the distortions in the
federal structure—a fallout of the Gandhi family's mistaken
perception of India being a family-owned company—there will
be applause. Greater financial and administrative powers to the
states will strengthen rather than weaken the Union. However,
should the government succumb to the blackmail of regional
leaders and dole out largesse in fear of loss of parliamentary
support, it will quickly become unpopular and face the possibility
of both the Left Front and the Congress withdrawing support.
Most are aware that the 11th Lok Sabha is unlikely to have a long
life. Unless, that is, a miracle provides us with good governance.

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