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Ensuring federal fairness and ushering in a culture of good governance

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Recent developments involving the union and state governments in India have once again brought to the centre-stage, the working of the Indian federal system. Effective coordination and harmonious cooperation between the two levels of government is at the core of the idea of federalism. By looking at four major developments: the office of the Governor, the handling of the current pandemic, National Education Policy 2020 and the latest legislation linked to the farming sector, provide important insights into the dynamics of union-state relations in India and the contemporary challenges.

Ensuring federal fairness and ushering in a culture of good governance

The office of the Governor has evoked interest right from the time of independence. Irrespective of which party has been in power at the centre, the Governors have increasingly been seen as representatives (some have even called them agents') of the Union government at the state level. The controversies surrounding the office of the governor have been intrinsically linked to two factors: the background of individuals appointed as Governors and the manner in which they have been appointed. When the Constitution was being drafted, leaders (like Nehru and Ambedkar) had assured the Constituent Assembly members, that as far as possible those involved in politics will not be appointed as Governors.

This assurance has been consistently breached by every ruling party that came to power at the centre. Prior to 1989, when India saw one party dominance, it is noticed that most Governors appointed were either retiring, defeated and defecting politicians or former (loyal) civil servants. A recent study of the 263 individuals appointed as Governors during the period 1989-2015 shows that close to two thirds (63%) were former politicians and one thirds (34%) were retired civil servants and military officers. This trend has continued since 2015.

Former politicians close to the ruling party at the centre have been the most popular pick of the centre for Governorship. This political nature of the appointed, gets further vitiated by the fact that the state governments are not consulted prior to the appointment of Governors. This was yet another convention that the Constituent Assembly had been promised but has been followed more in its breach.

As a result, the office of the Governor has landed in many a controversy and has often been a platform of conflict especially when a different party is in power at the centre and in the state. Recent developments in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Pondicherry and Delhi (the last two having Lt Governors) can be cited as examples in this regard. It may be useful to go back to the original intentions echoed by the Constituent Assembly on appointing non-politicians as Governors and bringing in a consultation process with the state governments prior to appointing of Governors as a way of ensuring that the office of the Governor does not become a zone of contention between the centre and the states.

The response of the government to the current pandemic provides ample proof of the need for better coordination and more effective consultation between the union and the states. When the decision of the lockdown was taken, the state governments too, were taken by surprise. It left little time to prepare for a lockdown and lead to a lot of confusion and controversies. Later, at the time of the many rounds of extension of the lockdown, one saw a process of consultation between the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers being initiated. However, there continued to be serious differences and disputes on the response of each state to dealing with the pandemic, especially inter-state movement. Reinforcing the culture of consultation, would have gone a long way in ironing out differences and resolving conflicts.

The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) has been the focus of a lot of discussion especially after the Union government formally announced its adoption. It is important to record that as per the Constitution, education comes under the Concurrent list. A subject in the concurrent list falls in the jurisdiction of both the union and the states.

When the union government takes the initiative on a matter in the Concurrent list, the hope is that it is preceded by a consultation with the states. This formal process does not seem to have been followed in the case of NEP 2020. While the policy makes some important proposals for transforming the education scenario in India, its full implementation could be hampered on account of a lack of meaningful consultation and involvement of the states as stake holders in this important process.

The NEP Committee consisted of some of the best minds in the country. However, the entire Committee was appointed by the union government with no representation to the states whatsoever. This does create a room for confrontationist politics, especially when one is dealing with a subject in the concurrent list and hopes for a consensus across the country for its implementation.

While the NEP 2020 has very many sound proposals which if implemented with sincerity can revolutionize the education system, it appears to have got caught in political cross-fires. This could well have been prevented if the state governments had been taken into confidence at the time of initiating the policy proposal. While the responses from different stake holders may have been considered while framing NEP 2020, it would have been much more inclusive if they had been involved in the process of making the policy.

The ongoing agitation on the legislation relating to the farm sector, is yet another example of a uni-lateral action by the union, on a subject in the concurrent list. Much of the agitation and apprehensions one notices across the country could well have been addressed at the formulation stage of the proposed legislation, if the state governments had been made a part of the process. In the absence of a culture of consultation, the details of a policy take a back seat and political differences between key political factors come to the fore.

It is important to note that the fact of a multi-party system is a reality in India. Of the 28 states in India, in half - 14, the BJP and its allies in the NDA are in power. In the remaining 14 states, non NDA parties are running the government. This sharing of power between different political players across the states, would require us to pay greater attention to the norms of federalism and more effective consultation between the union and the states. This alone can ensure federal fairness and effective governance in India.

(Dr Shastri is a keen student of Indian politics and is the Pro Vice Chancellor of JAIN. These views are expressed in his personally capacity and does not represent the views of institutions he is a part of)

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