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The Battle for States Rights in India

By Tridivesh Singh Maini

NEW DELHI–Indian chief ministers from the non-Congress states are attacking the proposed creation of the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) by the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). This center, like its namesake in the United States, is a centralized federal agency that deals with terrorism. This federal Indian operation will have the ability to arrest, interrogate, investigate, and prosecute—powers previously reserved for the states. It is for this reason that it has faced such stiff opposition from chief ministers, the elected heads of India's 28 states.

Without the support of the non-Congress states, the central government will not find it easy to create the proposed center. Realizing this, the prime minister wrote letters to the chief minister of every state opposed to the creation of the anti-terror center to assuage their feelings.

This opposition from the state level shows how they’ve become more assertive in policy issues. But in order for India’s democracy to function effectively—especially in dealing with terrorism and foreign policy—the federal and state governments will need to work together.

The recent opposition by many of the chief ministers is surprising on many levels. First, non-Congress chief ministers from different sides of the ideological spectrum–both left and right–have jointly expressed their reservations about the creation of NCTC. Many prominent politicians across the country from various political parties oppose the bill. Even the ruling party ally, the chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, is helping to block the NCTC. Mamata had ruffled feathers in Delhi in earlier instances, and embarrassed the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government by declining to sign the Teesta Treaty (a treaty pertaining to the sharing of waters from the Teesta, a river between India and Bangladesh) on the grounds that the provisions of the treaty were grossly unfair to West Bengal, which, Mamata says, cannot afford to share the amount of water promised in the treaty with Bangladesh.

This convergence between Non-Congress chief minister on the issue of the NCTC could be a prelude to the formation of a voting a bloc which could potentially form the next government in 2014. While this is wishful thinking for the time being, such a possibility is becoming more likely because Non-Congress parties—excluding the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—are gaining support in states such as Andhra Pradesh.

The national unit of BJP has not contradicted the stand taken by its chief ministers. In the past, the national party has abstained from taking a stand on issues involving states’ rights. But this time in a bid to re-invent itself and become more acceptable to the regional parties that will play a pivotal role in the formation of the next government, the BJP has unequivocally stated that it respects the concerns of the states in regards to the setting up of the NCTC. Only time will tell whether this will help the party’s prospects in the upcoming elections. Similarly, the Congress party too has said that it does not want to interfere in any way on states’ rights.

Apart from dealing with terrorism, there are larger questions that need to be addressed in the battle between the federal and state governments in India. First, national parties like the BJP and Congress have to come to terms with the fact that many state units of their respective parties have a different take on issues pertaining to the federal character. Second, central and state governments have major differences in the realm of foreign policy. Certain states such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal pursue an aggressive stance against the countries they have borders with (Sri Lanka and Bangladesh). Others–like Punjab, Jammu, and Kashmir in the West and Manipur and Tripura in the Northeast–feel that the central government is not aggressive enough in pushing for trade with Pakistan, Burma, and Bangladesh.

Certain foreign policy issues will be difficult to agree upon, but it is imperative that the federal and state governments of India work together on issues of national importance—such as terrorism and foreign policy—in order to enact policies that benefit its citizens and strengthen its democracy, rather than put the country's politicians at loggerheads. The best way could be for states to create a formal grouping that drafts collective suggestions on important issues, such as those discussed above. These can then be presented to the central government. Differences between the two can be sorted out through structured and constructive deliberations, rather than through unnecessary sparring, which only increases the acrimony between the central government and states.

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Tridivesh Singh Maini is an associate fellow with The Observer Research Foundation

(Photo courtesy of Nimrod Bar)

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