India is a federal republic, and states matter. The recent state elections were important in their own right, and not for what lessons they might hold for the next general election.
Listening to analysts and representatives of political parties, one might be forgiven for thinking that the state assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Telangana are only a curtain raiser for the upcoming general elections in 2019. While there is no need to undermine the importance of the central government in India, or diminish the consequence of these state election results for the general election next year, for several reasons that I outline below, we need to focus a lot more on the state governments that will take power in the coming days.
India is a union of states; we follow a federal system of governance. The Constitution outlines a clear division of responsibilities between the central government and state governments. State governments are at the forefront of delivering development outcomes for their residents. The central government controls the purse-strings, but since 2014-15, we have seen the implementation of the Fourteenth Finance Commission recommendations. Transfers to state governments increased more than three-fold, mainly through restructured centrally sponsored schemes and by reformulating the share of states in taxes collected by the centre. State governments also now have more discretion in how they spend their budgets. The Fifteenth Finance Commission is expected to take this process further.
Take three key areas in particular have been flashpoints of discontent against governments: law and order; jobs; and agriculture. These are three areas that fall squarely under the mandate of state governments – not just in delivery, but also policymaking. In India today, all three of these areas are in crisis. The discontent among farmers has hit multiple states and the Centre. State governments control a range of policy instruments that affect their fate – supplements to the Minimum Support Prices, irrigation projects, financial incentives (and waivers), input prices, water and electricity provision, etc. Fixing these problems is critical to solving the widespread rural distress today. Law and order has nearly collapsed, especially in states where vigilantes roam free under various pretexts for enforcing the majoritarian will. Finally, the lack of jobs has been widely acknowledged as a ticking time bomb.
Across northern India, and specifically in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, what happens with respect to these three issues will have a massive impact on India’s development trajectory over the next five years. Provision of basic public services such as health and education, rural infrastructure, and promotion of industry – are all areas of vital national interest that are going to depend completely on these newly elected governments. In Chattisgarh, there is the additional scourge of left-wing extremism, which too has to be dealt by the new government in the state.
We have also seen how the failure of state governments affects us all. In the last few years, we have already been exposed to the consequence of the Hindutva ideologues capturing state power for the sake of power alone. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and even Assam, divisive ideologies have taken precedence over the hard grind of governance, and the results are there for all of us to see.
Larger state governments controlled by Opposition parties will also alter the centre-state dynamics significantly. At this stage, this could be vital to the fate of our federal structure. Although state governments have continued to be strengthened on paper, over the last few years, there has been a steady erosion of the role of state governments. For all the talk of ‘Team India’ and ‘cooperative federalism’, one would be hard-pressed to think of effective consultative processes, except, say, the GST Council. A large reason for this was a kind of mono-cropping at the Centre and states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah ensured that the team of Chief Ministers from their party kept a low profile, and would remain unthreatening political players.
It is already evident what a strong state government run by an opposition party can do. Take the example of Kerala or West Bengal. The Chief Ministers of these states do not hesitate to challenge the central government on matters of politics, governance and on economic matters. In many ways, this strengthens Team India. Having the Opposition control two or three more important states is vital to this project.
Last but not least, looking at these state government elections purely through the prism of these being a semifinal to the general elections of 2019 in some ways erodes our ability, as citizens, to hold these governments to account. In a democracy this relationship between the government and citizen is vital, and only when we realise that state governments matter in their own right and not just as a part of larger electoral battles can we discharge our responsibility of being active citizens.