Interview: Sitaram Yechury

Sitaram Yechury: ‘The BJP should understand that without States, there is no India’

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Sitaram Yechury, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Interview with Sitaram Yechury, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Of late, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre has been more brazen than ever in undermining federalism and electoral democracy. The sudden announcement of a national lockdown in 2020 in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, demonetisation in 2016, the passage of laws that have undermined the rights of States and Union Territories, the centralisation of fiscal powers and resources, and the misuse of the Governor’s office are some examples of its attacks on the federal structure of India’s democracy.

In an interview to Frontline, Sitaram Yechury, former Rajya Sabha member and general secretary of the CPI (M), said that a unitary state structure was central to the idea of a “Hindutva Rashtra”. He said that while in earlier dispensations, there had been violations of Centre-State norms, today the norms themselves faced the threat of annihilation. Excerpts from the interview:

Is there a threat to the definition of federalism as laid out in the Constitution? The Central government has defended the passage of the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act 2021 and claims that it abides by the principle of co-operative federalism.

Federalism is one of the four basic features of our Constitution. It is among the four foundational pillars of our Constitution, that is, secular democracy, social justice, economic self-reliance and federalism.

Article 1 in the Indian Constitution defines our country, India, that is Bharat, as a Union of States. Without States there is no India. But it is precisely this Constitution that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS], in pursuit of its vision of what the country should be, which it defined at its birth in 1925 as a “Hindutva Rashtra”, seeks to undermine.

Also read: Federalism in peril

Its vision is a unitary state structure with a central command under the conception of one country, one language, one culture. This is the RSS vision of what India should be. Their entire work since Independence till date has been to capture the reins of government at the Centre and effectively undermine this Constitution of ours, paving the way for the replacement of the secular democratic republic under the present Constitution into their conception of what India should be, to an extremely theocratic, rabidly intolerant and fascistic Hindutva Rashtra. How does this transformation take place? By undermining the Constitution. For that “Hindutva Rashtra” to exist, they need a centralised unitary state structure where the command structure is very clearly with the Central government.

But the BJP claims that it views States as equal partners in the national agenda.

The BJP can claim that it is operating in the spirit of co-operative federalism and that it is doing a lot of things with States or recognise States as equal partners. But States are not partners alone. Without the States, there is no India. The BJP should understand that. This is what Article 1 says very clearly.

The design of federalism was such that it was converted into the form of Centre-State relations under the Indian Constitution where there was a specific delineation of functions and authorities of Central and State governments. One of the most important aspects is the division of subjects into the three lists which was undermined over the last seven decades.

The autonomy of States has been restricted by constant amendments to the lists. Many of the items originally in the State list have been brought into the Concurrent or taken over as Central subjects by earlier governments. But this government, without making any changes in the list, encroaches upon them with impunity. For instance, education, was brought into the Concurrent List from the State List during the Emergency by Indira Gandhi. Being in the Concurrent List, any new education policy for the country would have to be discussed and the States taken as equal partners. But that didn’t happen with the New Education Policy (NEP), whatever the government may claim. In reality, the NEP was not discussed.

Fiscal devolution

There has been a lot of heart-burning on fiscal devolution and resource-sharing by the Centre and the State.

In terms of economic planning and sharing of resources, there were two mechanisms, one through the Planning Commission and the second through the Constitutional Finance Commission. Every five years, the Constitutionally mandated Finance Commission has to give a report on the basis of devolution of funds between the Centre and the States.

The initial idea was that it should be a 50:50 devolution. It has now ended up never crossing 42 per cent. This 42 per cent also includes many of the planned expenditures that should have been part of the planning process. They abandoned the Planning Commission. So these transfer of funds under the Plans should have gone to the States but has now been added on, to say it is 42 per cent.

Also read: Time to overhaul or replace GST

But in terms of the tax revenue, it has never been an equitable distribution. That is because of the increasing recourse to cesses and surcharges which are not shareable with the States. A decrease in the direct tax rate, which is what has been happening particularly in the last six years under the rule of the BJP, and the increase in the share of indirect taxes means, also tends to reduce the pool of resources to be shared with the States.

Then there is the goods and services tax (GST) issue. With the GST regime coming in, the States have got virtually decimated of any authority to raise resources under any condition. The manner in which the GST was brought about and implemented, further undermines the rights of the States.

Many regional parties who form governments in the States have their own agenda. They make promises to the people like free education, free food and various other things. Where do they get the money for that? They don’t have resources. Earlier they could levy a surcharge or a tax. Now, the States’ sales tax has been abolished under the GST. There are some exemptions like petroleum, alcohol and so on, but the rest comes under the GST regime. The States have been deprived of their right in that sense. So in the case of any national disaster, instead of the right of the States to raise resources, they are being reduced as entities who have to go with a begging bowl to the Centre asking for relief. That relief is given depending on political compulsions. If the State government belongs to the ruling party at the Centre, it is given, and if not, it doesn’t get the relief in the desired quantity. There is no equitable Centre-State relation. It all depends on who is in government in any particular State.

There are many other areas where in financial issues, the States have got a raw deal. Look at health expenditures. The Centre’s public health expenditure is very meagre. It is only when the States’ health expenditures are added on does it come around to three per cent of the GDP which is in itself very inadequate for a country like ours.

Then look at the experience of COVID-19 management. The Centre gives directions and instructions, including our Prime Minister’s irrational diktats, like the lockdown, references to the lockdown being akin to a 21-day Mahabharata war, clapping of hands, banging of utensils, lighting of lamps and so on.

The actual implementation of COVID-19 management was left to the States, but the resources were collected by the Centre. Strangely, people were forced to part with one day’s salary to a private trust headed by the Prime Minister. The Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme funds of two years meant for the development of the constituency of Parliamentarians has been diverted to this PM-headed fund. So salaries were cut, funds diverted through government orders but that fund remains a private fund, not accountable, nor transparent and nothing goes to the States to finance COVID management.

Now with the second wave on, it has become more apparent, where all the Centre is doing is shoot off instructions to the State governments. The Centre is washing its hands off it saying it is the State’s responsibility. So in all these instances, one finds that manner in which the Centre has been dealing with the States has been step-motherly.

The opposition has been complaining about the State governments being toppled and the partisan role of Governors in recent times.

This relates to the issue of political governance. The conception under the Indian Constitution was that there should be a representative of the President of India as the Governor of a State. It is a Constitutional office, not a political office.

During the last six years, the BJP has brazenly and completely politicised the Governor’s appointments. At present, there is no Governor who has not been an RSS pracharak at one time or the other. It is through the Governors that governments that are not supportive of the BJP are being harassed. And where even the harassment is not sufficient, to make that government fall in line, laws are brought in to change the powers of the Governors and in particular for Union Territories, relating to the powers of the Lieutenant Governor, as it happened in the case of Delhi. We have seen how Lieutenant Governors act as the political agents of the Centre. We saw it in Puducherry earlier.

In Parliament for instance, they have distorted parliamentary practice by defining anything that they want not opposed in the Rajya Sabha as a money Bill. Now this is a very serious manipulation which undermines the federal feature of our Constitution. Under the Constitution in Article 110 (1), a money bill is defined. The Council of States has a right to discuss it. Article 110 (2) defines what is not a money bill. In 110(3), it states that the decision of the Speaker would be final on the question of what is a money bill. The spirit of the Constitution is very clear. Items that do not fall under Articles 110 (1) and 110 (2) can be decided by the Speaker. But now the Speaker is deciding on all items under Article 110 (1). And the Council of States is where the rights of States are discussed. So when decisions (by the Speaker) are taken, they undermine the rights of the States.

Also read: Governors doing the Centre's bidding

Take the agricultural laws for instance. These laws are a subject that are essentially in the State List. So if there is anything in the State List that the Centre wants to legislate on, it has to take the States on board. There are consultative mechanisms. But it was not done. In the field of education, there is the Central Advisory Board of Education which comprises and includes the Education Ministers of all the States. It is this body which is supposed to discuss the national education policies. But the NEP was not discussed in this body. Earlier, the Planning Commission was abolished. On the question of devolution of Plan funds, the requirements for each States used to be discussed in the National Development Council [NDC]. It was a forum where every State government would place [on board] what was required for the development of the State. With the Planning Commission gone, the NDC is gone. So this process of taking the States on board and institutions concerned with these processes have been virtually liquidated.

The rights of the States over their natural resources are being undermined over the years with increasing central control. All mineral resources are treated as the Centre’s property. It is the same with forest resources. This will have a devastating environmental impact. Similarly, rights are undermined with respect to fishing waters.

Then on top of this is their culture of politics, which involves using mechanisms by which the mandate of the people in any particular State is reduced in the State Assembly elections. This mandate can be nullified by organised defection by using money power, intimidation by the CBI, harassment and persecution by the Enforcement Directorate.

With these three instruments, individuals and opposition State governments are harassed. And MLAs elected by the people are bought over and a majority is obtained, again nullifying people’s mandate. It happened in Goa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh—it is an endless process. What is the meaning of elections then? What is the sanctity of an elected state government then? More than 50 per cent of the MLAs that changed parties during the last six years have moved to the BJP. The general popular belief is that whoever may win an election, it is the BJP which will form the government.

‘One nation, one election’

Your party has repeatedly objected to the BJP’s “One nation, one election” theory.

A centralised state is a crucial part of the unitary state structure required for the realisation of a “Hindutva” state, one of the principal objectives of the RSS and the BJP. It is in this context that we hear them say repeatedly “One nation, one election.” This is patently anti-Constitutional.

Ours is a parliamentary democracy based on the first-past-the-post system. It is not necessary that a single party gets a majority in an election, and it has always happened in India. Some parties form a coalition government. If one of the coalition partners withdraws support for whatever reason and the government gets reduced to a minority, then the government does not have the mandate to rule. If the government cannot command a majority on the floor of the Assembly there has to be fresh elections, a fresh mandate sought from the people. That is democracy.

In a “one nation, one election” scenario and in a situation like this, no election will be held until the time for elections after five years. This means either there will be an illegitimate government which does not have the support of the majority but continues to remain in office, or such a government is dismissed and the Centre takes over. If any government loses the right to remain in office, there is no option but to go back to the people. Further if there is “one nation, one election”, are they prepared to abrogate Article 356? Now if the Left gets elected in any State, they can dismiss the government using Article 356 and continue to rule the State from the Centre.

The government says the NITI Aayog is meant to look after the interests of the States.

The NITI Aayog has no mandate of sharing resources. It is only a “talking” body. It has no right to devolve resources. It can give directions but where are the resources to even back those directions? The Planning Commission used to discuss all this—the size of the Plan, who will get what. Now it is complete anarchy.

Also read: Abandoning the Planning Commission

Nowhere was there any consultation when demonetisation was announced. There was no discussion with State governments—just a four-hour notice before taking such a momentous decision. Whether it is demonetisation or a national lockdown, it is the same approach. It is like saying “we are the boss”. What is the meaning of the “double-engine” term that the Prime Minister uses in every campaign? It’s a virtual threat, hinting that if people don’t vote for the BJP, the State will not be allowed to develop. Is this democracy?

There was a certain conception about Centre-State relations in the Sarkaria Commission. The norms were laid down. Earlier the dispute used to be about violation of those norms; now it is simply abandonment of the norms. That’s the difference between earlier dispensations and now.

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