Much has been made during the Lokpal debate in Parliament and outside about India's federal structure. Dismayingly poorly tutored persons have mixed up the constitutional dimensions of federalism with the political dimension.
In an editorial on November 23, this newspaper commented that Parliament and government had both failed to fully recognise the emergence of the Indian federation as a major challenger to central power and, further, that in matters of domestic legislation as well as foreign relations, they had buried their heads in sand.
India is not a federation, the apologists for the Congress have been saying. It is a unitary form of Government with the “features of a federation.”
They are not being very original. This is what the Supreme Court had said back in 1961.
That compromise held good for a time. But it doesn't any longer, because India has relapsed into its natural state — a weak centre and strong provinces. This has happened twice in the last 400 years alone.
The first episode was during 1707-1820 when, after the death of Aurangazeb, the Mughal Empire gradually weakened. It was only after the British finally defeated the Marathas (with the help of the Scindias, I might add) that the Centre began to regain power once again.
The next episode was during 1919-47. In 1919, in a fit of liberal high-mindedness, the British decided to grant more power to the Indians and thus had begun a process that eventually led to their ouster from India.
And this is the main point of this article: On both occasions, the central authority was weakened to the point of no return despite the formal arrangements to prevent the denouement.
The formal Mughal system, put in place by Akbar, was a simple one — and it comes closest to what we have had since 1999, first under the NDA and now under the UPA.
It was called the mansabdari system, where mansab meant rank. In turn, it was dependent on the number of horses and troops that a rank-holder could provide in the service of the Emperor.
This was the exact equivalent of the MPs that a regional party can supply today in return for protection. You can see the evidence all over since 1999.
This system works as long as the central authority can prevent the mansabdars /coalition partners from uniting. If they unite and taste the thunder, the roles get reversed as happened after 1707.
What happened to the British was different only in outward form. Once they set up Indian legislatures in 1919, self-assertion was only a matter of time. Their coalition partners, by the way, were the same as those of the Mughals: The princely states.
As after the WTO agreement in 1996, when some states challenged the Centre's treaty-making powers because it affected them adversely, now, some of them are challenging its power to legislate for all of India.
Indeed, Ms Mamata Banerjee has done it twice in four months: once with the Teesta treaty with Bangladesh and now with the Lokpal bill.
When will the others follow suit? When will they combine even more effectively?
I have said this many times before but it bears repetition. Our Constitution is not quite all that it is cracked up to be.
As was pointed out by the doyen of Indian constitutional lawyers, the late H. M. Seervai, it is just the old 1935 Government of India Act renumbered — but with a bell and a knob added, namely, the chapters on fundamental rights and directive principles.
The British intent in 1935 was simple: give the provinces an illusion of participation in governing India but keep real power in Raisina hill. The Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, made that amply clear.
The highly educated and history-aware Constituent Assembly realised why such overwhelming central power was absolutely important. So it retained this basic feature.
But there was a major difference: While British power was backed by the military and the police, ours is backed only by the police — which, moreover, is a state subject.
Also ponder this: If the Constitution fitted our needs, why has it been amended almost 100 times in 64 years while the US Constitution has been amended only 27 times in 224?
It was Gopal Krishna Gokhale who said “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”
If Ms Sonia Gandhi goes on humouring Ms Mamata Banerjee, will it not embolden the other mansabdars ?
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