Modi Seeks Cooperative Federalism: Can it Work?

Modi Seeks Cooperative Federalism: Can it Work?

Modi has sought to reform the relationship between central and state governments by empowering states and curtailing centralized control. Despite this he faces opposition from various state leaders on matters of policy and campaign practice.

Ever since becoming Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has sought to strengthen ties between India’s central and state governments, repeatedly alluding to the need for a greater understanding of the states’ aspirations.

Referring to this as “Cooperative Federalism” Modi has taken steps like abolishing of the Planning Commission, which has been characterized by many as anachronistic and out of sync with changing realities, and replacing it with the Niti (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog.

The main aim of this body, which seeks to work like a think-tank, is to foster greater dialogue between the central government and the states. Moreover, aside from taking input from states, Niti Aayog will also incorporate views of experts and practitioners on important issues.

Modi Seeks to Further Empower State Governments

New Delhi has followed the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, which suggested increased transfers to state governments. The Modi government is building on this recommendation by giving states the authority to decide how they want to utilize central grants for welfare schemes.  Furthermore, the central government’s contribution to welfare schemes will also be considerably reduced. A number of states have often complained that welfare schemes framed by New Delhi adopt a one size fits all approach, which is ill-suited for a country as diverse as India. In the sphere of foreign policy too, Modi has encouraged greater participation of states.

Speaking during the inauguration of the regional leaders forum, Modi said:

As someone who has been Chief Minister (CM) for thirteen years and Prime Minister for one, this forum has a special place in my heart. But, it is not just my sentiments that lead me to give such importance to this new institution. It comes from a serious conviction, born from my experience, that states have a vital role to play in the national development. This is especially true for large and populous countries, with a high degree of geographical, social and economic diversity. It becomes even more relevant, when the constitutional and political systems are federal in structure.

Modi has also managed to strike a rapport with certain Non-BJP Chief Ministers who head regional parties such as Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister of Orissa (Supremo of Biju Janata Dal), J Jayalalitha, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (Supremo of AIADMK) and Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal and the head of the Trinamool Congress.

Tellingly, Banerjee was present on Modi’s trip to Bangladesh, following his refusal to accompany former PM Singh’s official visit. In addition to this Modi is seeking to reach out to states in North-Eastern India, despite his party’s weakness there. Apart from seeking to enhance connectivity between the North-Eastern region, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, Modi has also made it clear that his government shall try to accelerate North-East India’s infrastructural development.

Cooperative Federalism Facing A Multitude of Challenges

There have however been a number of setbacks to Modi’s Cooperative Federalism. A number of Chief Ministers were not present at a Niti Aayog meeting convened by the PM, because the main item on the agenda was the controversial land acquisition bill, which has faced opposition across the political spectrum due to its perceived ‘anti-farmer’ bias.

A number of states have complained of receiving ‘step-motherly’ treatment from the current government. This complaint has come from Congress-controlled states, including the North-Eastern state of Assam. Modi has upped the ante against sitting Chief Ministers of opposition parties, in particular those of the Congress Party, by campaigning against them in the state elections. Prime Ministers generally do not play a prominent role in these elections, yet Modi has been doing so because he requires victories in battleground states to improve the party’s tally in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament). Apart from this Modi has made subtle digs at Chief Ministers during public functions.

The concept of Cooperative Federalism carries promise as cooperation between states and the central government are imperative to India’s continued growth. However, there will be little smooth sailing for Modi who will need to contend with a number of challenges. While certain accounts he may have taken the lead in giving states a greater say in policy, politics will have to take a back seat if he is to be ultimately successful.

About Author

Tridivesh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, New Delhi. Maini was an Asia Society India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative (IPRYLI) Fellow (2013-2014). He has worked earlier with The Indian Express (New Delhi), The Institute of South Asian Studies (Singapore) and The Reliance Group of Industries (New Delhi). He is a regular contributor for a number of publications including The Global Times (Beijing), The Hindu and The Diplomat.