The chimera of cooperative federalism


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IN its election manifesto in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismissed the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (2004-14) as the ‘decade of decay’ and promised among other things to ‘place centre-state relations on an even keel’, ‘strive for harmonious centre-state relations’ and ‘revive and make more active moribund forums like the National Development Council and Inter-State Council.’ As we await the results of the general election, it is a good time to ask whether the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government walked the talk on the federal dimension.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi regularly called for the redrawing of centre-state relations. He not only referred to the central government despairingly as ‘rulers in New Delhi’ but also accused it of being unfriendly, uncooperative and intrusive. Like many other chief ministers, he was critical of the Centre and its use of offices like the Governor for partisan purposes, a penchant for centrally sponsored ‘populist’ schemes and the less than autonomous role of the Planning and Finance Commissions. Therefore, when a three-time chief minister who repeatedly spoke against the central writ became prime minister, there were expectations of a new dawn in centre-state relations.

Immediately after coming to power, the Modi-led NDA government made the right noises. One of its first decisions disbanded the Planning Commission, often seen as a major roadblock to true federalism. Similarly, in his first speech to Parliament, the prime minister spoke of ‘cooperative federalism’, the need for the Centre and states to work together to take India forward and promised that his government would move away from the ‘big brother’ attitude and treat states respectfully.

Soon after that the NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog was set up. The NITI Aayog which took the place of the Planning Commission, its website tells us, is supposed to radically restructure centre-state relations and be a platform for cooperative federalism. It was to give states an opportunity to suggest policy interventions to the Centre. The prime minister often referred to NITI Aayog as Team India, the collective of the Centre and the states. From the first steps it seemed that the BJP-led NDA government wanted to write a new chapter on centre-state relations.

Traditionally the BJP has been a votary of a strong Centre and like the Congress has been a ‘reluctant federalist’; it was therefore surprising that the party promised a radical restructuring of centre-state relations. However, five years down the line, the BJP-led NDA regime has only confirmed the old Miles Law, ‘where you stand depends on where you sit.’ Sitting in the opposition and the states, the Centre appears to be the villain, but once in control of the central government, the perspective changes. The BJP, like the Congress in the past, used the same mechanisms and processes that vest with the central government to ride roughshod over the opposition and strengthen itself. The BJP-led NDA government’s actions do not necessarily demonstrate a state friendly tilt.


The double standards of political parties have been observed in the past as well. During the period 1996-2014 when state-based parties held sway at the Centre, they discovered that their alienation disappeared and the centre no longer looked distant as they perceived it when sitting in opposition. For instance, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) one of the strongest votaries for greater power to the states, was completely silent on questions of restructuring centre-state relations during its long and influential stint at the Centre. Therefore, it appears that parties ‘like what they see’ when they are in power at the Centre and see only ‘what they dislike’ when removed from the Centre.

The noises from the states during 2014-19 have been muted since the BJP, like the Congress in its dominant phase, is in power in most of the states. This congruence, on the one hand, shuts the voices from the states and on the other hand, creates space for centre-state relations to be worked through intra-party channels, bypassing conventional institutional mechanisms. However, when we look at non-BJP ruled states and their reactions, another picture emerges. For them, the Centre is still unfriendly, uncooperative and intrusive. We can identify four significant challenges to the agenda of cooperative federalism.

After a gap of more than a decade, Article 356 of the Constitution came back to centre stage. Since the inauguration of the Constitution, ruling parties at the Centre have time and again used the provision for partisan purposes. However, with the Bommai verdict in 1994, which laid down definitive guidelines for the removal and dismissal of state governments, there was a dramatic decline in the use of Article 356. Throwing caution to the winds, the NDA-II used President’s Rule and assembly suspensions, as Indira Gandhi had done in the past, to engineer a change in the composition of state assemblies to its advantage.

Government-opposition relations in a parliamentary federal system have been a critical explanatory factor in centre-state relations. The BJP’s political agenda of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ and the slogan of cooperative federalism do not go together. In two instances (Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) over the last five years, the abuse of Article 356 led to court-led interventions and subsequent reversals.


Jammu and Kashmir was under prolonged periods of President’s Rule both in 2015 and 2016 when the BJP and PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) were trying to forge a coalition and agree on details of government formation in the state. While critics panned the delay as a mockery of the people’s mandate, the logjam was beneficial to the BJP since it gave the party sole control over the state. The sudden dissolution of the J&K Assembly in November 2018 was criticized by almost all non-BJP parties as it was seen as a strategic move to prevent another alliance from forming the government.

In the states, the Governor has traditionally acted in a manner that favoured the party in power at the Centre. In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, the Governor’s actions were so blatantly partial that the court came down heavily and said that the Governor was not an ‘all-pervading super constitutional authority.’ The Centre had to finally dismiss the Governor to save the day. At the same time, career politicians who have been appointed as governors by the government continued to comment and make observations on political events and happenings to further the electoral cause of the BJP.


The conduct of relations between the Delhi government and the Centre since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came to power in 2015 has not been a good advertisement for cooperative federalism. After its stupendous victory in 2014, when it won all the Lok Sabha seats in Delhi, the BJP was shocked when it was reduced to just three seats in the assembly the next year. During the campaign, the BJP underlined the need to have the same party ruling at both levels for the smooth functioning of the Delhi government. Post the drubbing, the actions of the central government have been transparently vengeful, and the Lieutenant Governors have been willing accomplices to show the AAP government in poor light.

The issue of finances and taxes have similarly been an object of contention between the centre and states. The government, however, must be given credit for trying to get everyone on board for the institutionalization of the highly contentious Goods and Services Tax (GST) system in 2017. For instance, the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in its dissent note to a parliamentary committee stated that the proposed legislation not only impinges on the autonomy of the states in fiscal matters but also gives the central government an upper hand. The party was also critical of the decision-making rules and the voting weights in the proposed GST Council.

Though states have raised concerns and presented different perspectives outside the council, the functioning of the council has been smooth so far. It has worked on the principle of consensus and has not been bogged down by government-opposition politics. On issues where there have been differences of opinion, the council has used the Group of Ministers (GoM) route to sort out matters.


While the establishment and functioning of the GST system may be an instance the government could showcase the success of cooperative federalism, the same cannot be said of other financial matters. Some of the non-BJP ruled states were distinctly unhappy with the Terms of Reference (ToR) given to the 15th Finance Commission. One of the long-standing demands of states has been that in the spirit of cooperative federalism they should be consulted when the ToR is drawn up. However, central governments have not adhered to this request and consequently every time a Finance Commission is constituted, states have raised objections. In the past when the central government was dependent on state-based parties for its survival, additional ToR have been framed to placate them.

The southern states were critical of the change in the base year for population estimates from 1971 to the 2011 Census. Some of the southern state finance ministers came together in a conclave in Kerala and argued that their share of revenues would come down as a result of this change and they were in effect being ‘punished’ for lower population growth rates. They argued that the so-called incentives for reaching ‘replacement level of population growth’ would not offset losses as they had already reached an optimal fertility rate. The group subsequently met again in Amaravati, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, and drafted a memorandum seeking changes in the ToR. The Delhi government also claimed that Delhi should be treated not as a union territory but as a state. Their grouse was similar to that of the southern states that they were not getting an adequate return in terms of revenue with respect to their tax contribution.

However, there were other criticisms as well. One of the ToR asked the Finance Commission to examine the fiscal situation of the central government in the wake of the enhanced tax devolution to states following the recommendations of the previous Finance Commission. Haseeb Drabu, the former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir called this a ‘value judgment based on a half-truth… masquerading as a ToR.’1 He noted that issues regarding the Centre’s expenditure could not be part of the ToR. Others found that this particular ToR goes against the claim that the central government advanced the cause of cooperative federalism by implementing the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission.


Similarly, the old mindset that the Centre knows best not only refuses to go away but has also come back in a big way. Another ToR asks the Finance Commission to take ‘expenditure on populist welfare measures’ into account while formulating ‘performance-based incentives.’ First, when there are no definitive markers for populist policies, who decides what is populist? Are all programmes and schemes by the states populist? Second, when there is evidence to show that the Centre’s fiscal discipline record is not necessarily superior to that of the states, why should there be different yardsticks to judge the state governments? Drabu argued that the states have the right to use what is devolved to them in whatever way they want and conditions cannot be imposed on their spending priorities. With conditionalities, cooperative federalism could quickly mutate into coercive federalism.


The ToR also refers to ‘New India-2022’. However, well intentioned and well thought out the strategy for New India-2022 may be, it does not fit well with the spirit of federalism. The BJP and Narendra Modi as chief minister have been fiercely critical of Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) and the NITI Aayog constituted a sub-group of chief ministers to examine and rationalize them. Ironically, the sub-group of chief ministers concluded that ‘CSS are key instruments for meeting the objectives outlined in the National Development Agenda.’ New India-2022, therefore, appears to be an attempt to slip CSS through the back door. There may be programmes and schemes, which the centre assumes are required for achieving New India-2022, but not all of them will be relevant to all states.

Another example of central intrusion is the centrally sponsored flagship programme, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Like many other interventions, this is almost invisible as it happens through a smartphone app called Swachhata, which allows citizens to register complaints on sanitation issues in their cities. The app routes complaints to the Swachhata Abhiyan cell functioning under the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.2 The ministry then holds the corporation or municipal authorities accountable for addressing the complaints. By frontloading innocuous issues like opportunities for citizens to work on civic issues, to vote upon complaints, transparency, accountability and so on, we miss the point that sanitation is squarely in the domain of the states. Central schemes like this not only diminishes the autonomy of the states but also adds to the central overreach.


More recently, the Union government in its interim budget announced an income support scheme for farmers. This followed the defeat of the BJP in three states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in December 2018, where the farm crisis was supposedly a big factor. Many would argue that this scheme is not only populist but also bypasses states. Cooperative federalism demands that states be involved in participatory decision-making,3 instead we have the central programmes and schemes being pushed to the states in the name of achieving a New India. So much for cooperative federalism and states as partners.

Another irritant during the reign of the NDA-II has been the accusation that the government has been using centrally controlled institutions to diminish the autonomy of the states and further the interests of the BJP. The non-BJP opposition has often noted that agencies like the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate have been selectively used to target opposition leaders in different states. In November 2018, two states (Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal) withdrew what is called their ‘general consent’ that allowed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to function in their respective states. Things took an ugly turn in West Bengal when the CBI attempted to interrogate and arrest the Kolkata Police Commissioner in connection with their enquiry in two corruption scandals. The fracas in Kolkata and the public spectacle it generated was not in the spirit of cooperative federalism.

Though the BJP promised to revive the Inter-State Council (ISC), it has not kept its word. The ISC met once during the term of this government and only 11 times over the last three decades of its existence. It has met more frequently when state-based parties had a dominant say at the federal level compared to the two polity-wide parties. Polity-wide dominated governments have steadfastly refused to allow it to fulfil its mandate to support ‘centre-state and inter-state coordination and cooperation’ and ‘create a strong institutional framework to promote and support cooperative federalism’ in the country.


In a seminal essay, ‘Metaphors, Models, and the Development of Federal Theory’, William Stewart identified numerous metaphors of federalism and alerted us that they need to be prudently employed.4 Though written in the context of theory development in federal studies, his caution about the ‘typical function of metaphorical language’ is worthy of attention. He traces the adjectival modifier ‘cooperative’ to interpersonal relations and argues that it is ‘more figurative than literal when applied to federalism.’ He then notes that modifiers could often only be a euphemism to obscure and manipulate, and modifiers like ‘cooperative’, ‘consultative’, ‘permissive’ and so on are often a ‘disguise for federal centralization.’ Looking back at the last five years, the slogan of cooperative federalism, it might not be too far-fetched to say, has only served as an effective cover for creeping centralization.



1. Haseeb Drabu, ‘15th Finance Commission: Mandate Sans Mission’, The Mint, 27 February 2018. <> (accessed 1 March 2019).

2. Anurit Kanti, ‘Centre’s Swachhta App Launched in Gurugram’, Hindustan Times, 5 September 2018. https://www.hindustan ToUWEMIg3KIIsM.html (accessed 10 April 2019).

3. Balveer Arora, ‘The Distant Goal of Cooperative Federalism’, The Hindu, 22 May 2015. <> (accessed 25 February 2019).

4. William H. Stewart, ‘Metaphors, Models, and the Development of Federal Theory’, Publius, 12(2), 1982, pp. 5-24.