Cry of Federalism


Not long after coming to power in West Bengal in 1977, the Left Front made some suggestions regarding the restructuring of centre-state relations. In a nutshell, these suggestions were : (a) 75% of the central revenue be distributed among the states, (b) the full amount of the union excise duty be transferred to the states, (c) the word 'Union' be removed from the constitution and 'Federal' be inserted in its place, (d) the residual power be vested with the states,(e) the Federal Government be responsible for defence, external affairs, currency notes, inter-state communication and relations among the states. But in the years that followed, the Left Front, instead of turning these suggestions into a vigorous mass movement, preferred to tone down them. It may be mentioned that the Anandpur Sahib Resolution drawn up and put forward by the Akalis contained similar suggestions and went even further. It argued the case for decentralisation of power at the village level too. In a convention on 'Communalism and Threat to Diversity', held in Jallandhur in 1987—this corrspondent had the opportunity to attend it—a resolution was adopted demanding that except defence, external affairs, currency and communication, all the powers should be vested with the states. The convention, held in the face of threats from the Ribiero-Sidhrtha Ray combine, opposed both state terrorism and the demand for Khalistan, and instead advocated the case for a federal Punjab. It may be mentioned that the CPI(M) never came out with a clear stand on the Anandpur Sahib resolution, and after the Rajiv-Longwal Pact (it was a much diluted version of the Anandpur Sahib resolution) was concluded, CPI(M) ideologues spoke in favour of this Pact. Longwal was assassinated one or two months later, and was given a state funeral.

When Dr B C Ray was the Chief Minister of Bengal, he habitually claimed that Bengal did not receive her just dues, and bargained with the Planning Commission for more funds. But he never argued for a really federal structure of governance. In an article published in the leading Bengali daily a few years earlier, Professor Asok Mitra said that he was not willing to exercise his influence even for the cancellation of the freight equalisation policy, which ostensibly took away Bengal's advantage in respect of coal, although he was implored to do so by Sachin Chaudhury, the illustrious founder-editor of the Economic Weekly (Later Economic and Political Weekly).

It does not require much exercise of intellect to understand that in the debate on federalism, various class interests are involved. Which class is the strongest opponent of a federal structure as recommended by the Left Front in the late 1970s, and subsequently by the Anandpur Sahib Resolution as well as by other resolutions taken at conventions like 'Communlaism and Threat to Diversity'? It is the corporate tycoons operating on an all-India plane. The regional identities, namely the regional bourgeoisie and proto-bourgeoisie as well as the regional middle classes, are in favour of greater federalisation of the economy and the polity. Some people see the abolition of the Planning Commission and its replacement with a body named 'Niti Ayog' as a step towards a federal structure. But the question is whether it will curb the power of the corporate lobby. The answer is obviously in the negative. It will rather strengthen the corporate billionaries and leave their hands unfettered by doing away with any regulatory body.

In this sense, Arvind Kejriwal’s effort to organise a conclave of chief ministers is not unwelcome, and it may be recalled that the corporate representatives did not welcome the resounding victory of the AAP in the Delhi assembly polls. But the conclave has proved to be a non-starter. About West Bengal, it must be stressed that the present government of this state is led by a party that is increasingly becoming a thoroughly corrupt one in the eyes of the general public and is relying more and more on money and muscle power for preserving its hegemony. Factional rivalries within its ranks over the share of spoils have already taken quite a number of lives. It is too naive to hope that such a government, despite its occasional outbursts against the centre will be a real force for federalism and regional autonomy.

Vol. 48, No. 18, Nov 8 - 14, 2015