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Regional Powerhouses and Centralized Federalism in India

by Nyla Ali Khan, 22 May 2018

print version of this article print version - 22 May 2018

The process of nationalist self-imagining in India is likely to remain in a nebulous state so long as the destiny of regional politicians is etched by the calligrapher in New Delhi and determined by maneuvers in the murky den of centralized federalism.

I recall going to an event organized for the anti-Indian National Congress Opposition Conclave in 1983 at Tagore Hall in Srinagar with my father. I was 11 at the time, and my father, who had gone to medical school in Calcutta, was particularly keen that I get Jyoti Basu’s autograph in my little green autograph book. Jyoti Basu, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 until 2000. At the time, my father thought the world of Jyoti Basu’s politics and he conversed with him in impeccable Bengali. I remember being intimidated by Basu’s stoic reserve and dignified bearing. The other two indefatigable regional powerhouses I met with that day were MG Ramachandran, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 until 1987, and NT Ramarao, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh for seven years over three terms. My father reiterated that they were forces to be reckoned with, because they had the grit to defy the then complacent Indian National Congress in order to strengthen their States.

I found my tattered green autograph book a couple of months ago, and it all came back to me. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi didn’t bat an eyelid before resorting to undemocratic and unconstitutional means to quell the relationship that was being forged between anti-Congress political forces across the country.

The Indian National Congress, historically, has not been averse to mobilizing extremist religious rhetoric and forces for its benefit. In the early 1980s, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attempted to bolster her political platform by making overt and covert appeals to Hindu majoritarianism against grossly exaggerated secessionist threats from Muslim and Sikh minorities. Indira Gandhi’s mobilization of Hindu fanaticism worked wonders for the Congress in some parts of Jammu and Kashmir as well. In 1983, the Congress won 22 out of 32 Assembly seats in the Jammu region. But the performance of the Congress in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley was dismal, where it won just 3 seats, and 1 in Ladakh. The National Conference had another landslide victory in the Valley, winning 35 out of 41 Assembly seats.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was not one to accept the unambiguous verdict given by the people of Kashmir in a democratic fashion. Her ire was particularly provoked by the alliance between the National Conference and other Indian parties in an attempt to unify anti-Indian National Congress forces as preparation for the parliamentary elections in late 1984.

Prior to the Parliamentary elections in 1984, the Congress government in New Delhi orchestrated the formation of a new political party in Kashmir, comprising twelve National Conference legislators who unconstitutionally quit their party and formed a new government with the support of the Congress legislators in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly.

The beginning of representative government in J & K (in 1977) was summarily destroyed in 1984.

New Delhi asserts, time and again, that a revitalized Indian federalism will accommodate Kashmiri demands for an autonomous existence. But, historically, federalism hasn’t always adequately redressed the grievances of disaffected ethnic minorities. Autonomy, which, to my mind, is the most viable route to revive dialogue in conflict-affected Kashmir, would enable a greater degree of self-rule than traditional federalism. After several faux pas for which the electorate holds them accountable every five years, will the Congress and the BJP quit stalling the revival of the true spirit of parliamentary democracy and constitutionality in India, or will that remain a pipe dream as well?