India votes for decentralisation
State elections may not predict the shape of next Lok Sabha in 2014, but they do reflect the mood of the electorate. UP, Punjab, Uttrakhand, Goa and Manipur which went to the polls indicate that the ruling Congress is declining rapidly. The party is nowhere in UP despite the Indira Gandhi’s family descending on the state in full strength. Punjab and Uttrakhand, which were expected to go to the Congress, have slipped from its hands. The party has been routed in Goa and the only consolation prize is Manipur where feuding factions do not allow a government run for long.
In fact, the other national alternative, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has done only slightly better. It is third in UP, slightly above the Congress, and neck and neck with the Congress in Uttrakhand. The BJP can claim to be a winner in Punjab but that is because it is riding the bandwagon of the Akali Dal. Otherwise, the BJP has cone down from 19 to 12.
The obvious lesson to learn from the verdicts is that the national parties are losing space to those in the states, which represent local aspirations. The success of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in UP casts a shadow on the prospects of both the Congress and the BJP. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of the outgoing chief minister Mayawati looked at one time an avalanche of Dalits sweeping the rest. But the avarice had the better of her and she has ruined the chance of a Dalit ever becoming PM.
The Shiromani Akali Dal’s return to power in Punjab strengthens the belief that the work at the grassroots is what counts ultimately. However, the victory for the Akali Dal, as that of Samajwadi Party, sends a message to the Congress or, for that matter, to national parties that they can no longer ignore or bypass the state parties. Their consultation is essential before framing economic and social policies. Apart from ignoring sentiments prevailing on the ground, the Congress had to pay dearly at the polls for the scams and the price rise. The state parties have been able to convince the electorate that corruption and high cost of living is not their doing but that of those who rule at the centre.
It looks as if the states are waking up to the clout they have because of the following of their people. Odhisa chief minister Naveen Patnaik has already raised the banner of revolt against the centre for possessing too much power. He has been supported by many chief ministers in his demand. Several chief ministers, including Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal, feel that the centre must have the states in the picture when it establishes organisations which require the support of their law and order machinery.
Recently, the anti-terrorism setup the centre was planning did not have prior consent of chief ministers. Still Home Minister P Chidambaram convened a meeting of chief secretaries and DGs of Police. Belonging to the all-India services and controlled by the centre, both services are manageable. The centre has to realise that the real state boss is the chief minister and he or she must be kept in the picture.
I recall the advice of Ghous Bux Bezenjo, a Pakistani leader, who warned me nearly 40 years ago that India should learn from Pakistan and transfer all subjects except defence, foreign affairs, communication and currency to the states. This what the Anandpur Sahib resolution of the Akali Dal said or was even once the demand of the CPI(M) when it ruled over West Bengal. But the Congress haughtily rejected it without realising that there is no go from decentralisation.
The polity needs a consensus. It can be developed through humility, but not arrogance which has become part of the Congress culture. How can PM Singh handle parliament sessions in the next few days if he or his party does not understand that the state elections have given the regional parties a new sense of confidence and they want to assert themselves? He has to reach out to them when important bills, including the budget, have to get the approval of parliament.
The immediate problem that the ruling Congress faces is the election of pesident due in the middle of this year. Then there is election of the vice-president. The Congress cannot impose its choice on the parties and pick up non-entities for the top positions. Regional parties will need to be wooed. In any case, a non-Congress person having ability and eminence will ideally fill the office of president. This requires all the tact and charm that the Congress can exert. But the party is too much haunted by a mid-term poll and looks pathetically clueless and without any new idea.
Some fear that a weak centre may encourage fissiparous tendencies. This is wrong because the states are an integral part of the country. They do not want to turn up to Delhi for every small concession. Today they have to do it and they have resident commissioners to pursue their projects.
Whichever party comes to power at the centre feels it must rule like the governor general of the British days. The people are more conscious of their rights. They know the value of their vote and this explains why almost 60 per cent of the electorate, more women than men, went to polling stations to exercise their franchise.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist.