N Sathiya Moorthy
Among the various issues agitating the Tamil Nadu Government with and at Delhi, some have longer and larger consequences for the health and future of Centre-State relations and the federal polity evolved in post-Independence India. While incumbent Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has been shooting off letters after letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on various issues on which the State Government feels aggrieved and/or feels that its people have been wronged, it is neither the first time, nor will it be the last time, that such demands and memorandums will be received at Delhi.
Tamil Nadu has a unique place in the politico-constitutional history of the nation. Constitutional guarantees – or, the lack of them – political accommodation and electoral realities, acknowledgement of existing socio-economic realities that the rest of the nation was slow in catching up, all contributed to an avowed ‘separatist’ entity mainstreaming itself without effort and emerging as the elected ruling party, as far back as 1967. The State has since been ruled by either the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the breakaway Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Since then, the presence and strength of ‘national’ and ‘nationalist’ parties have only dwindled in Tamil Nadu, with no hopes of either the Congress, the Communists (who held sway until the electoral emergence of the DMK), or the BJP ever aspiring to be in elected power in the foreseeable future. The reasons are many. Likewise, the DMK, an ideology-driven party, split not over issues but over personalities. However, the larger issue that was projected related to governance when the party was already in power. The splintered parties still alternate in power. So have remained the ‘governance issues’ that were the cause celebre for the 1972 split.
Today, pan-Tamil ideological issues that used to be identified with the DMK at birth have been hijacked by other splinter groups and new-generation variants, with limited electoral clout, for them to be accepted as reflecting the popular sentiment. Yet, this has also pressured the mainstream ‘Dravidian majors’ in the DMK and the AIADMK to flag those very issues at the State and national-levels, from time to time. Despite sounding ‘jarring’ to ‘nationalist parties’ and irritating the national Government, which has often been unable to fathom the depth and seriousness of the Government in the State and/or coalition partner at the Centre, the Dravidian majors have been able to ensure that their negligence and neglect do not contribute to the growth of fissiparous tendencies than already.
Taking the judicial route
Among the various issues flagged by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in particular – and by her predecessor and DMK supremo M Karunanidhi earlier – a few require special mention. They are issues that have been flagged before the Supreme Court or issues that involve a legal interpretation by the State Government, purportedly impinging on the constitutional scheme, possibly in ways that the ‘Founding Fathers’ had not looked at them. Some may however need to be revisited in the light of emerging realities that the Founding Fathers might not have been able to visualise at the birth of the Constitution. Hence, also the need for a dynamic Constitution, requiring constant updating and consequent amendments – preceded or followed at times by judicial interpretation.
The issues that the Tamil Nadu Government has agitated before the Supreme Court include the ‘Cauvery water dispute’ viz Karnataka and the ‘Mullaperiyar dam height issue’ with another neighbouring State, Kerala. These are live-issues where the lives and livelihood of the State’s farmers are involved. The State is reporting ‘farmers’ suicides’ that are being attributed to the lack of irrigation waters in the Cauvery. The ‘Mullaperiyar dispute’ too has economic consequences for farmers in the southern districts, leading to its politicisation, with feared consequences in electoral terms.
More recently, the Tamil Nadu Government has moved the Supreme Court, seeking a direction to the Centre for allotting to the energy-starved State the 1700 MW of electricity surrendered by the State of Delhi to the central pool. Arguing the State’s position on the Government-imposed 15-day ban on the Tamil film, ‘Vishwaroopam’, before the Madras High Court, the Government’s legal team reportedly questioned the integrity of the Central Film Certification Board. In constitutional terms, the Board comes exclusively under the authority of the Centre, and for a State Government to challenge the integrity of a Central agency in an unprecedented manner, may be as good as challenging the integrity of the Centre. Or, so would it be viewed.
Over-stepping, or what?
Over the past decades, successive Governments in Chennai have been at times in contradiction with the Sri Lanka policy of the Centre, which however has both foreign and security policies in its exclusive domain under the Constitution. The question is if public statements and protests by State Governments against the Centre – where Tamil Nadu had set a national precedent – amounted to abject violation of the constitutional norm, or a permitted phase of constitutional dynamism, where State Governments should have the same rights as the citizens to ‘Fundamental Rights’ of expression.
In this regard, the Tamil Nadu Government has since impleaded itself in a petition filed by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in her capacity as the AIADMK supremo, that too when she was not in power, challenging the Centre’s acceding of the Kachchativu islet, off the State’s coast, to Sri Lanka when the sea boundaries were drawn in the Seventies — and without consulting the State Government. The matter is pending before the Supreme Court. On the fishermen’s issue with Sri Lanka, and also the larger ethnic issue, war and violence in that country, the State polity and Government have definite views about the Centre’s approach, which have political and at times constitutional consequences.
Yet, on the fishermen’s issue, for instance, if news reports are to be believed, the State Government, after raising so much of heat and dust at periodic intervals, and demanding mutual consultations between the fishers in the two countries, has not even responded to the Centre’s proposal for hosting the third such meeting. Nor have constructive suggestions flowed from the State Government, with consequent commitments to undertake specific responsibilities that would be required to keep the Palk Strait, incident-free from either coast.
The Supreme Court is also seen as ritualistically adjourning the case on the ‘sixty-nine per cent reservations’ in Tamil Nadu, where the State Government is a respondent, for alleged violation of the court’s ruling, fixing a 50-per cent upper-limit in the ‘Mandal case’ as far back as the early Nineties. The havoc that the judicial indifference has contributed to in the higher education system in the State – and through that the rest of the country – requires to be studied in depth.
Laxity, all around?
In the era of TV awareness and social media (in the local languages, too), greater clarity needs to emerge, faster than the conventional political class and bureaucracy has been used to, if laxity and lackadaisical approach by constitutional institutions were not to mis-represent the shared responsibilities of governance between the Centre and the States, and contribute to formation of wrong public mood and opinion, which in turn would have no place under the federal scheme, one way or the other. Taken to their illogical conclusion, which is oftentimes based on deprivation and/or emotion, the piling up of unattended claims to disparities and self-perceived notions of being wronged have the potential to cause greater harm to the national fabric than is understood and acknowledged.
It is unclear if by writing to the Prime Minister and/or moving the Supreme Court, the Tamil Nadu Government is shifting its responsibilities to the Centre, and thus contributing to any mischievous interpretation of the constitutional scheme that might not have been otherwise intended. It is equally questionable if and why the Prime Minister could purportedly maintain stoic silence to the missives from a State Chief Minister, without responding to them, point-by-point, and without further loss of time. If however, it is the view of the Centre that the State was seen as shifting its responsibilities and consequent accountability, then it could be forthright in saying so before it became too late.
There should be no denying the ways of the Centre in recent years taking unilateral decisions within its purported domain, but whose consequences are felt by the State, to their eternal disdain. Gone are the days when the Union Budget shocks were accommodated and accounted for by the States, mostly ruled by the same party as that in the Centre. Today, while there are competing claimants to accruing benefits to the common man, not many States are willing to share the blame that entirely ends up falling at the door-steps of the Centre. The reasons are not always political. More often than not, it flows from a feeling of hurt that the States were not consulted beforehand, for them to give their views, and/or prepare themselves and their population for the imminent-shocks and surprises.
Today, when international oil prices affect the last man in the last Indian village who does not know a world exists outside of his immediate surroundings, the hiking of diesel prices for bulk consumers by Rs 10 per litre has led to a unique situation in Tamil Nadu. Unable to bare the additional cost and unwilling to pass on the burden to the common man, who is already reeling under heavy price hikes, that too in an election year, the State Government has directed its transport corporations to fill diesel for their buses in the street-corner private bunks, where the diesel price hike is only 45 paise to the litre.
From the day the Centre began taking an active interest in anti-terrorism laws, which it alone can administer under the existing global climate, it has not escaped the constant complaint from the States that they were left out of the consultation process. More often than not, they have taken the narrow view of the Centre usurping their powers under the Constitution. The Centre, for its part, seems to be taking the vicarious pleasure of over-stepping its immediate requirements, and not wanting to share the responsibility with the States, which alone are the end-users, beneficiaries or affected parties, at the ground-level.
Neither side should play – nor should they be seen as playing – politics, particularly of the electoral kind, on issues that are as dear to the health of the nation as they may be to a particular State and its people. The judiciary, which is entrusted with the task of mediating sensitive issues involving the Centre and the States and between the States, too have to review the entire judicial process from within. This, is apart from a host of issues on which the higher judiciary in the country, comprising the Supreme Court and the various High Courts, are often seen as handing down contradicting views on matters involving the Executive and Legislative powers of the other two pillars of the State.
On the day the Tamil Nadu Government banned the screening of the film, ‘Vishwaroopam’, a Supreme Court Bench upheld a similar ban on another Tamil film, ‘Dam 999’, centred on the Mullaperiyar row, for similar reasons. The legal questions in both involved the supremacy of a Central Government institution accredited with the job of certifying films for public viewing – a task that the judiciary at any level is seen as being uniquely under-qualified, if not unqualified, from discharging.
Rajamannar Committee and after…
Having given up its ‘separatist’ slogan, the DMK after coming to power in Tamil Nadu, tagged on to the new slogan of ‘State autonomy’, and appointed the Justice P V Rajamannar Committee on Centre-State relations, after coming to power. The Law Commission and others like the Sarkaria Commission, not to leave out the Supreme Court, have all come up with valuable suggestions and decisions, which have not always been codified, or at least treated as an acknowledged precedent without much change, afterward.
Tamil Nadu seems to be alone, if not aloof, in agitating issues of the kind at frequent intervals with the Centre or the higher judiciary. It is unclear if on the larger issues that Tamil Nadu has purportedly flagged, other States, particularly those unconnected with specific issues at hand, do not have any view to offer, or have opposing view – or, do not want to commit themselves, for elections-driven political reason. Tamil Nadu itself is giving room for complaints of political-motivation behind its attitude and approach, some of which however seem prima facie, valid, after all.
Given the compulsions of coalition realities and consequent lack of parliamentary numbers, successive Governments at the Centre seem to leaving law-making to the judiciary, without following up on some of the judicial pronouncements through legal and/or constitutional amendments. The Supreme Court verdict in the ‘S R Bommai case’ and the ‘Mandal case’ are pointers.
Yet, the Centre and the States cannot escape criticism that they have often employed creative interpretations and imaginative enforcement, violating the spirit of judicial pronouncements at will. The Supreme Court judgements in the ‘Vineet Narain case’ and the ‘Prakash Singh case’, for instance, have been violated with impunity, starting with the CVC appointment by the Centre. Tamil Nadu, where it all began, like on many others, with the ‘Royappa case’ in the Seventies, cannot escape the blame, at present.
There thus may be a need for the Centre to look beyond politics, if that were a consideration, but at larger issues that have long-term consequences for the health of the nation, its unity and integrity. Maybe, there is an urgent need for the appointment of a new commission, on the footsteps of the Sarkaria Commission and the Justice E Venkataramaiah Commission, to review Centre-State relations, and State-to-State relations, with greater objectivity and relativity to the existing trends and emerging possibilities.
Alternatively, either the Law Commission or the National Integration Council (NIC) should be tasked with doing so. The nation can afford further laxity and insincerity only at greater peril – possibly the greatest of them all since Independence, if allowed to gather critical mass, without anyone noticing it, or wanting to acknowledge it, either.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)