How Narendra Modi has moved away from Atal Bihari Vajpayee

As the Modi-led BJP government completes seven years of being in absolute power, it is worth remembering how a former chief minister, before he went on to become the prime minister, was a vociferous supporter of India’s federal structure and had used that very argument to keep the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime on hold. After a historic mandate twice over, he is today being held responsible for weakening that very federal structure. The West Bengal face-off is the most recent case in point.

The state vs Centre relationship has become more discordant as the BJP tries to use power, stealth and money to dislodge governments at will, use the Governors to achieve its goals — we saw that in Maharashtra and more recently in West Bengal. The excessive use of central agencies also has led to the states revoking the blanket approval given to the CBI to be able to conduct an investigation. Maharashtra saw the BJP use the CBI, ED, IT, NIA and NCB to try and weaken the state government. However, the party failed. Unfortunately, even the Election Commission of India (ECI) came under much criticism during elections held in various states recently. Before the assembly elections and after the BJP’s lose in the West Bengal elections, we saw the Centre-state face-off at its peak. The recent recall of the chief secretary of West Bengal is unprecedented in India’s administrative history as per a former special secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. He called it not just unprecedented but also a vindictive move in his quote to a newspaper.

The four pillars of democracy — the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, and the media — are supposed to function independent of each other but are now appearing to be subservient to an all-powerful central executive. Indian Constitution calls India a Union of States; this term categorically defines India as a federation of states though it has given the central government a more superior role in comparison to the states. This has led to every loophole in the Constitution being used to reassert the Centre’s authority over the states since the past seven years and has resulted in many acrimonious exchanges between the Centre and the states, especially those led by non-BJP parties.

The era of multi-party democracy started to become popular when Congress hegemony started to wane in various states and the party split into various regional political units. The influential state leaders felt their state’s interests were being undermined and their own role reduced as all decisions concerning them came from an increasingly centralised leadership. It is said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it and now a similar centralisation of power is being seen today in the BJP. All that it opposed and accused Congress of is being followed, if not bettered, by them — by contesting state elections on the national agenda, winning states on the back of the prime minister’s charisma, and deciding chief ministers from Delhi or dislodging non-BJP governments citing constitutional norms. Congress is accused of Emergency but subversion of all constitutional authorities is India’s undeclared emergency in LK Advani’s words.

The first signs of a weakening democracy come when decisions are taken unilaterally without seeking support or a creating a robust feedback mechanism with the Opposition. Denying the Leader of Opposition post was an indication of that. It not just went against long-held parliamentary traditions but also effectively denied the Opposition a role in important committees that would ensure government accountability. Whether it was the U-turn on GST, the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, demonetisation, implementing the CAA, and, most recently, ignoring that agriculture was a state subject to pass the Farm Bills despite massive protests.

The BJP has totally ignored the Opposition, which is an equally important part of any parliamentary democracy and has even repeatedly mocked them. Any expectations of accountability or transparency are shrugged off, any question asked is laughed off. This reeks of an autocratic approach to governance that holds in contempt anyone who criticises the government and is equated to criticism of the country.
The advent of unchecked social media platforms that are used as tools to spread fake news and manipulated narratives has further created schisms in the federal structure and undermined our democratic principles. While there is an absolute need to rein in these platforms, we need to bring accountability rather than control that the central government through its new rules has done. The party that benefited the most out of these platforms that helped build its narrative today finds itself being exposed by the very same medium.

Ever since the first Covid case was reported in India, the Epidemic Act was put in place. Hence, treatment protocols, medication, vaccination became the primary responsibility of the Centre despite health being a state subject. However, the country was witness such instances: when it came to taking credit, the central government was at the forefront. And, when it was time for brickbats, the finger was pointed at the state governments. The response by the Cabinet ministers to any constructive feedback by the opposition was responded to politically — whether it was the shortage of oxygen, vaccination, ICU beds, or ventilators.
As confrontation between the centre-state becomes more frequent it is time to rethink the balance of power. The autonomy of states and national integration should coexist, the balance of centralisation and decentralisation has to prevail. Extremes of either will further lead us away from our cherished ideals of the nation. In the words of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “governments will come and go, but this nation should stand tall.” In its new avatar the BJP has clearly forgotten its long-held values and principles.

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