The federal mandate: A call for more collaboration | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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The federal mandate: A call for more collaboration

Jun 04, 2024 10:51 PM IST

As it gets ready to lead a coalition government of allies, and strong regional allies at that, the BJP may want to reset its federal playbook

Indian voters recognise the importance of the Union of India in the nation’s political and constitutional configuration. They recognise that running the Union government may require a different set of skills and ideological commitments than running a state government. They carefully distinguish between the two sets of elections. But they are also, often, fundamentally guided and shaped by the experiences of living in their own states and local geographies. They have an emotional connect with parties that represent their regional pride. And they don’t like it when they perceive these regional parties to have been treated unfairly, or when concerns that are directly linked to their well-being are seen to be disregarded, or when the political ambitions of the party running the Union overwhelms all other factors including national security. And therefore what voters seek is a careful balance between the Union and states and wish to see the national political landscape incorporate the concerns and voices from below.

What voters seek is a careful balance between the Union and states and wish to see the national political landscape incorporate the concerns and voices from below. (PTI)
What voters seek is a careful balance between the Union and states and wish to see the national political landscape incorporate the concerns and voices from below. (PTI)

That is the core mandate when it comes to federalism and Centre-state relations in the 2024 verdict. Examine this in the backdrop of how the federal arrangement has evolved in this period.

For the past ten years, the BJP has run the Union government on the stated plank of encouraging cooperative-competitive federalism. But the nature of Centre-state ties has changed due to a set of political and policy measures. Politically, the BJP is an expansionist and deeply ambitious party, and that’s not wrong in itself. But what this ambition has often resulted in is a clash with entrenched regional formations zealously seeking to protect their turf. These non-BJP forces see in the BJP a particularly strong homogenising force that will not stop till it gobbles up all the political space in their respective states.

This political clash has assumed policy colour, or alternately, policy battles have assumed a political colour due to this competitive streak especially when states are run by parties not affiliated with the BJP. The abolition of the Planning Commission; the construction of the Goods and Services Tax regime and the promises, met and unmet, in that regime; the extraordinary role of the Centre in the public finances of states; the expansion of central schemes in domains that were earlier seen as that of states; and the increasing tension between northern and eastern states on one hand and southern and western states have all impinged on this relationship. In particular, the north-south tension has assumed a particularly bitter tone at times, especially in the walk-up to the expected delimitation exercise to be held in the next few years.

It is in this context that the 2024 verdict needs to be assessed.

The BJP has done reasonably well in a set of key states where it has traditionally been strong in Lok Sabha elections, most of which are also run by BJP state governments (MP, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Bihar) but some of which are led by non-BJP formations (Karnataka, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh). The BJP, either on its own or in an alliance, has gained in states where it was neither particularly strong in the context of state or Lok Sabha politics (Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and to a much lesser extent, Kerala). And then there are states where the BJP has faltered (Maharashtra, West Bengal, UP, Manipur), or not gained as much as it may have liked (Tamil Nadu).

In itself, this messy political landscape with strong regional variations in outcome doesn’t lend itself to neat conclusions. But three features are interesting for the future.

In the case of Maharashtra, a key reason for the BJP’s relatively failure is the perception that it assaulted the integrity and unity of two strong regional formations, both of which are closely associated with the state’s regional aspirations. The performance of the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party and the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena must be read not just as a political message, but also a message to the BJP that political battles can end up exacerbating the divide between Delhi and a state that has a deep sense of its own historical identity. As a former chief minister of one such state in Maharashtra’s neighbourhood, Narendra Modi is attuned to this sentiment and may want to be more conscious of it.

In the case of the south in general, the good news is that the BJP sees itself as a serious stakeholder in the politics of the different states there. This is good news because it means that the party has more at stake politically to handle the issue of both fiscal distribution and political delimitation more sensitively than it may have if it was only a party rooted in north India and didn’t have the ambition to expand elsewhere. This doesn’t mean that the task will be easy; it doesn’t mean that such a sensitive task is only the responsibility of the BJP. But the verdict has shown to the BJP that its strength and presence, and its ambition and interests in the region, are contingent on how it balances its cultural politics with the aspirations of different regions in the south, but also its constitutional obligations in so far as finances and representation is concerned.

And finally, there is the message from Manipur. There is no greater failure of the BJP’s internal security record than the crisis in Manipur, where the ethnic division has assumed a strong territorial dimension, where state collapse and state failure is stark, where the Union has abdicated its responsibility, and where India’s Act East policy has met its doom. One key reason for this crisis is the BJP’s political decision to back one side over the other, to prioritise the preservation of its state government and party chief minister espousing a certain form of majoritarian politics over a sober reconciliation process. The BJP has lost both seats in Manipur, failing to win over either the Meiteis who it was backing, or the tribals. And that itself is perhaps the starkest message from one corner of the country to Delhi — national unity, national security and ethnic reconciliation and harmony must take precedence over short term party calculations.

As it gets ready to lead a coalition government of allies, and strong regional allies at that, the BJP may want to reset its federal playbook.

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