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Cracks in federal democracies – A threat to Indian and American survival as nations

By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Federalism refers to a form of government that is based on a relationship of parity and a constitutionally defined division of powers between two levels of government of equal status. Political thinkers view it as the best system for integrating diverse fiercely autonomous political, ethnic, class, religious, socio-cultural and other groups with competing interests, all of whom may have cause to fear control by an overly powerful center.

America’s 13 colonies deeming themselves as free independent nations opted for the federal form of government precisely to retain their parity vis-à-vis each other and with the federal government. India’s several hundred kingdoms and competing political entities and interests were similarly inspired (in some cases coerced) to do the same.  Both countries formulated and adopted a constitution that demarcates powers between the central or federal government and the governments of the constituent states.

In recent years, federalism seems to be under fire as the center and states in both countries are increasingly inclined to test the limits of their powers. Once formed, the evolution of federal nations suggests a gradual movement of power from the component states to the centre. Federal governments tend to acquire additional powers, mostly in response to unforeseen situations and emergencies.

Such appropriation of new powers by a federal government can occur through formal constitutional amendment or simply through a broadening of courts’ interpretation of a government’s existing  constitutional powers or by federal agencies through their regulatory powers.  The federal government in the US, for instance, chronically uses carrots and sticks to beat their counterparts in the states to fall in line with the federal mandated policies and programs. This leads to inevitable clashes and lawsuits challenging the validity of federal or state decisions and actions.

A most recent clash is seen in the Texas Governor deciding to build the wall on his state’s southern border in order to prevent illegal immigrants from entering or inhabiting his state. The Covid pandemic, and the risk of infection from unvaccinated or untested Covid infected immigrants, has enhanced the pressure on Governor Greg Abbott to keep them out, especially against President Biden’s failure to address the problem. With foreign relations and border security defined as strictly federal powers, whether the Texas Governor can ban, prevent or eject foreigners from illegally entering his state is a burning constitutional issue all set to be heard and settled by the highest court in America.

The pandemic has highlighted other disputed areas of delegation of powers, muddling the so far believed to be clear-cut constitutional boundaries between state and federal authority. As a result of political decisions by both state and federal elected officials on public health protection and reopening of economy including issues such as mask wearing, social distancing and socializing, participation in psychologically vital societal activities such as weddings, restaurants, sports, athletics, religious, and cultural entertainment gatherings, intra- and inter-state travel by land, sea or air, in each arena, state legislatures and governors are testing their authority vis-à-vis each other while also challenging the federal government’s exercise of power. Presidents such as Biden and Governors such as Newsom and Cuomo have assumed unprecedented rule-making power which directly contravenes the constitutionally provided authority to legislatures to do so.

In other cases, such as electoral laws, the US Congress is laying claim to regulatory power that normally rests with state legislatures and designated authorities. With renewal of threats to expand and pack the Supreme Court, even the judiciary’s autonomy is at stake. No wonder today’s American government looks different than originally contemplated by the nation’s founders.

In India, federal-state tensions are on the rise with the most dramatic exhibition of federal power over a state when the Modi Government in 2019 managed to successfully repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that assigned special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and passed the J&K Reorganization Act, which dissolved the state and reorganized it into two separate union territories of Jammu and Kashmir. That political outrage storm had barely settled when Covid hit India enabling the Modi Government to appropriate several regulatory powers over national and state economic and public health policies. Enacted by the Modi Government are highly controversial laws such as those regulating citizenship and agriculture, which have added to the centre-state tension in India.

Testing the stability of Indian federation, a serious clash of wills occurred most recently between PM Modi and West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reportedly over the tenure of a civil servant who was serving as Chief Secretary of the state. He was due to retire but Modi extended his service by three months to ensure continuity in COVID control in the state. Such extensions are not unusual. A few days later with a terrible cyclone ravaging Odisha and West Bengal, Modi undertook an aerial survey during which period security regulation prevented Mamata’s helicopter from entering the aerial space. She therefore was not only unable to meet the PM on his arrival at a local airport, but showed up late at the meeting to discuss cyclone related needs with him. Those two failures were played up by vested interests as her rebuff to Modi. Worse, rather than engaging in a calm and cordial discussion, she reportedly declined to sit down, handed over a damage report to the PM, said a few words and presumably left to fly to another disaster location with her Chief Secretary tagging along.

Reportedly, while the PM did not overtly object, fury’s floodgates opened soon enough resulting in an immediate announcement of the Chief Secretary’s transfer to Delhi, on his very last day of service. Mamata retaliated by refusing to release the civil servant, an authority which Modi had similarly exercised as Gujarat’s Chief Minister!  Declining the 90 days’ extension of service given by the Centre, Mamata awarded the civil servant a three-year post-retirement term as her ‘Adviser’.

The Centre responded by issuing a notice under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act on the civil servant for “refusing to comply with the direction given by or on behalf of the Central Government”. The provision authorizes up to two years imprisonment of offenders. The step, while legal, is unprecedented and worse, it opens the floodgates for manipulation of civil servants out of spite. Observers are eager to see whether the firebrand Mamata will use the same power to imprison a central government official as part of her vendetta.

The petty incident has incendiary potential with Mamata already moving to call for an end to Modi’s regime for his many failings including undermining state autonomy on farming, public health, covid handling, and other administrative issues.

A most recent center vs state clash in America is seen in the Texas Governor deciding to build the wall on his state’s southern border in order to prevent illegal immigrants from entering or inhabiting his state. (Venn Diagram courtesy Word Press)

According to a retired civil servant, “The interesting question we have now is whether the Center expects IAS officers to defy the state government. The matter will soon move to the courts and the federal Constitution looks forward eagerly to a direction. Should officers serving states continue to be loyal to them? Or is it now legitimate for them to undercut the latter – whenever Delhi gets miffed with a chief minister? That is the crux of this battle.”

But the battle’s implications are surely widespread and grimmer. As skeptics of federalism have always believed and its doomsayers have predicted, increased regional autonomy or enhanced federal aggression are equally likely to lead to secession or dissolution of the federal nation.

Whether in the US or India, as the Constitution’s federal characteristics are being increasingly and constantly tested, the battling parties are called upon to ace those tests.

Failure is not an option as it could well mean a collapse of the Indian, or for that matter the American, state and nation as we know it.



The California based writer frequently contributes opeds and essays to The South Asian Times.

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Suvendu Adhikari is BJP’s response to ‘aunt-nephew’ leadership

Kolkata: The BJP high command is looking to build up Suvendu Adhikari as the party’s answer to the “Pishi-Bhaipo’ (aunt-nephew) leadership in West Bengal, top party sources said.

They say this is a conscious departure from the BJP-RSS line of having a ‘swayamsevak’ (from the RSS stable) for the key position like Chief Minister or Leader of Opposition in a state.

“Himanta Biswa Sarma’s emergence as Assam Chief Minister and Suvendu Adhikari’s as Leader of Opposition marks this new line that defectors who have proved their loyalty and competence must be given the top jobs,” said a top BJP leader but he preferred anonymity.

Adhikari’s victory in Nandigram has boosted his stock and his attack on Mamata Banerjee’s behaviour during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bengal has further endeared him to Modi-Shah-Nadda triumvirate, he said.

That BJP state unit chief Dilip Ghosh had no idea of Adhikari’s visit to Delhi, where he got a personal audience from Modi and all BJP seniors, points to the new clout of Adhikari.

Even BJP dissidents like former Governor Tathagata Roy, so critical of the ‘KDSA Gang of Four’ (Kailash-Dilip-Shiv-Arvind), have not been critical of Suvendu Adhikari, despite their pitch for restoring BJP ‘old timers’ to position of importance.

Roy also met BJP party chief Nadda.

He said he had come to Delhi on the request of the party top brass but state BJP sources were not aware of either his or Adhikari’s Delhi visit.

“His victory over Mamata in Nandigram with 34 per cent Muslim electorate has really boosted his credentials,” the leader said.

He said the BJP is looking at 2024 Lok Sabha and 2026 state assembly polls in West Bengal and they want Suvendu to lead the charge against the Trinamool.

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Veteran filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta passes away

Kolkata: National award-winning filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta died in his south Kolkata residence after a prolonged illness on Thursday.

The 77-year-old veteran director was suffering from kidney-related ailments and was undergoing dialysis. He is survived by his wife, and two daughters from a previous marriage.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee expressed her condolences. “Saddened at the passing away of eminent filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Through his works, he infused lyricism into the language of cinema. His death comes as a great loss for the film fraternity. Condolences to his family, colleagues and admirers,” she tweeted.

Some of his prominent films include Tahader Katha, Bagh Bahadur, Charachar and Uttara. He received the National Film Award multiple times and in several categories, including best film, best direction, best screenplay and best feature film in Bengali.

He also received accolades at the Venice Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Asia Pacific Film Festival and Bangkok International Film Festival.

“Recipient of numerous National and International honours, legendary filmmaker and renowned poet, #BuddhadebDasgupta has passed away. Sincere condolences to his family and friends (sic),” tweeted Raj Chakraborty, filmmaker and TMC MLA.

Some of his earlier films, such as Grihajuddha and Andhi Gali, focused on the Maoist movement in Bengal and how it shaped the collective consciousness of Bengalis.

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Mamata stops BJP juggernaut in Bengal

Kolkata: Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee took oath as chief minister of West Bengal for the third time at the Raj Bhavan here on May 5.

The month long, multi-phase election in the state was bitterly fought as the BJP marshalled its top leaders Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to campaign here but failed to crack Didi’s citadel. Eventually, TMC won a comfortable 213 seats as opposed to BJP’s 77.

Mamata Banerjee’s oath ceremony was marked by reports of post-poll violence and the absence of top opposition leaders. In her brief speech, she appealed to all political parties to maintain peace.

Top political leaders congratulated Banerjee after the ceremony that was curtailed due to Covid-19 cases surging in the state. “Congratulations to Mamata Didi on taking oath as West Bengal’s chief minister,” said PM Modi.

On Thursday, Banerjee told the Center and BJP to “accept the people’s mandate” and “allow us to work on Covid now” while alleging that central ministers were coming to her state to engineer communal riots. “We do not want to quarrel with you now,” Banerjee said.

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Mamata takes oath as West Bengal CM for third time

Kolkata: Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee took oath as chief minister of West Bengal for the third time at Kolkata’s Raj Bhawan on May 5.

However, the 50-minute ceremony was marked by reports of post-poll violence and the absence of top opposition leaders.

For the first time, no Left, Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader attended the ceremony in the state.

Banerjee was sworn-in by governor Jagdeep Dhankhar.

In her brief speech, Banerjee appealed to all political parties to maintain peace. “No violence will be tolerated. We will take stern action,” she said.

Banerjee’s nephew and TMC youth wing president Abhishek Banerjee and election strategist Prashant Kishor attended the event.

Top political leaders congratulated Banerjee after the ceremony that was curtailed due to Covid-19 cases surging in the state. “Congratulations to Mamata Didi on taking oath as West Bengal’s chief minister,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The TMC, which won 213 seats as opposed to the BJP’s 77, has announced a mega rally at Kolkata’s brigade parade grounds once Covid-19 cases reduce.

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Exit polls project cliffhanger for West Bengal

New Delhi: The exit poll projections of the recently concluded assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala, and Puducherry have been released on Thursday.

As per the poll of exit polls, analyzed by The Times of India, West Bengal is the only state which is not throwing up a clear result – it is likely to be a cliffhanger. Some exit polls give BJP a clear majority, others Mamata Banerjee a third term, and one projected dead heat.  Mamata has clearly proved a tough cookie to crack by BJP, which had a robust campaign led by Modi and-Shah. There is no doubt though that the BJP has emerged as a key player on the political landscape of Bengal.

In Tamil Nadu, in a clear verdict, the DMK led by M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and political heir, will come to power with a big majority, dethroning the ruling AIADMK, late Jayalalitha’s party.

As per the CVoter Exit Poll for Times Now/ABP News, the BJP aligned NDA is winning Puducherry, barely retaining Assam while the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF is set to return to power for the second time in a row in Kerala.

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“Can’t surrender Bengal to two ‘goons of Delhi’: Mamata

Kolkata: West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee held a major rally in Dakshin Dinajpur on April 22, where she attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, calling them “two goons of Delhi”.

With polling underway for the sixth phase of West Bengal Assembly elections, Mamata said, “I am not a player, but I know how to play. I was the best player in the Lok Sabha earlier. We cannot surrender our Bengal to two goons of Delhi.”

The rally witnessed huge crowds with COVID-19 social distancing norms not being followed.

West Bengal registered its highest single-day spike of 10,784 fresh COVID-19 cases, which took the tally in the state to 6,88,956, the health department said.

The ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and its rival the Bharatiya Janata Party are engaged in a battle of polls to gain the power of the state.

The first five phases of the eight-phase West Bengal assembly elections have been completed. Polling for the seventh and the eighth phase will be held on April 26 and April 29. The counting of votes will take place on May 2.

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Time for united struggle against BJP: Mamata’s letter to Oppn

Kolkata: West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee wrote to several opposition leaders saying that the BJP wants to establish a one-party authoritarian rule in India and time has come for a united and effective struggle against its attack on democracy and Constitution.

The three-page personal letter was sent by Banerjee to non-BJP leaders, including Congress interim chief Sonia Gandhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, DMK leader MK Stalin, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Hemant Soren, AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, BJD leader Naveen Patnaik, YSR Congress leader Jagan Reddy, NCP leader Farooq Abdullah, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti and CPI (M) leader Dipankar Bhattacharya.

In a three-page letter to Opposition leaders dated March 28, the Trinamool Congress supremo said, “I am writing this letter to you, and to several leaders of non-BJP parties, to convey my serious concerns over a series of assaults by the BJP and its government at the Centre on democracy and constitutional federalism in India.”

“The BJP wants to make it impossible for non-BJP parties to exercise their constitutional rights and freedoms. It wants to dilute the powers of the state governments and downgrade them to mere municipalities. In short, it wants to establish a one-party authoritarian rule in India,” she wrote.

In her letter, she discussed the controversial new law that gives more powers to Delhi’s Lt Governor compared to the elected government and said that “the Lt Governor has been made the undeclared Viceroy of Delhi, acting as a proxy for the Home Minister and the Prime Minister”.

“What the BJP has done in Delhi is not an exception. It is increasingly becoming the rule,” she said.

She also pointed out the withholding of state funds, disbanding bodies like the National Development Council and Planning Commission, using money power to topple non-BJP governments, privatization of nation’s assets and deterioration in the relations between the states and the Centre.

Targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Banerjee said, “Overall, Centre-State relations between the ruling party at Centre and the opposition parties have never been as bad in the history of independent India as they are now, and the blame for this rests squarely with the Prime Minister’s authoritarian conduct.”

The ruling Trinamool Congress and the BJP are engaged in a bitter war of words in the state in the run-up to the assembly polls. Counting of votes will take place on May 2.

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‘Khela’ will end, ‘vikas’ start: Modi tells Mamata

Kolkata: Countering Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’ popular slogan “Khela Hobe”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday trained guns at the West Bengal chief minister countering her with politics of developments, instead of unabated violence.

“Didi bole khela hobe, BJP bole chaakri hobe. Didi bole khela hobe, BJP bole vikas hobe. Didi bole khela hobe, BJP bole shiksha hobe….Khela shesh hobe, Didi ar vikas aarambho hobe, (Didi says there will be a game but BJP says there will be employment generation, development and education. Didi’s match will come to an end and the process of development will start in Bengal),” Modi said at an election rally in Purulia.

Modi also took a dig at the issues like drinking water crisis, rampant corruption and violence across the state by the ruling Trinamool Congress in the past 10-years.

“People of Bengal want an answer from Mamata Didi. This government has robbed people of its rights in the name appeasement. It has neglected the issues of Other Backward Class (OBC) communities. The state government has also encouraged coal and sand mafias in running syndicate raj across Bengal,” he said.

Optimistic about Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s electoral win, he said that the people of Bengal would resist the misrule of Trinamool in the forthcoming state assembly polls this time.

Braving high mercury, hundreds of sloganeering BJP supporters, armed with party’s flags, caps and posters, came to attend the Modi rally that was held at Bhangra More in Purulia district on Thursday.

“The countdown for the end of the Trinamool government has begun. Now no more fear. Our target is to only secure electoral victory…Didi has received leg injury. I’m concerned about that. I pray so that’ she gets well soon,” he said, wishing Mamata Banerjee a speedy recovery.

Earlier, the state unit of BJP had dubbed Mamata’s Nandigram incident a sheer ‘drama’ to win voters’ sentiment in the seat.

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