India‘s obsession with a “strong centre” has led to the alienation of its provinces, and to the emergence of a “cancerous” class that feeds off the center’s riches. Garga Chatterjee takes a hard look at the origins and subsequent development of this Delhi-based India,in Friday Times, Pakistan’s First Independent Weekly Paper
The 1946 Indian elections showed that though the Indian National Congress was the largest force in the British-governed territories in the Indian subcontinent, there were others with considerable support, including the All India Muslim League, Communist Party of India and Scheduled Caste Federation, who won nearly 40% of the seats. The Congress sweep in Madras was largely due to the election boycott by Dravidar Kazhagam, a continuation of the Justice Party current. This was similar to the 1937 elections – a Congressite dominance in most provinces, but its marginality in populous provinces like Punjab and Bengal. The All Indian Muslim League (AIML) in the 1937 election had received a serious drubbing virtually everywhere it contested. Though compromised by the factor that these elections, 1937 or 1946, were far from representative in the absence of universal adult franchise (a point often forgotten when discussing the events of 1946-47), one thing is clear – significant sectors were not with the INC, for whatever reason.
A section of the Congress leadership always harboured ‘strong-centre’ ideas, though their inspirations were varied. It ranged from the necessity of a strong policy-driving centre congruent with ideas of command economy in vogue, the need of a tutelary centre that would provide the right lessons of modern citizenship so that a ‘sack of potatoes’ become ‘Frenchmen’, to the outright fantastic one that wanted a strong centre that would make sons of Bharatmata out of the wayward multitude that practiced ‘non-classical’ and plural Indic religions. Given the Congress’s clear marginality in more than one province at that point, the future of India was envisaged as a liberal union of provinces, where the centre would administer a few things and the provinces would have pre-eminence in most matters.
Centralizing hawks of the INC were kept in check, albeit briefly, by political realities and power equations. It was against this backdrop that the Cabinet Mission proposed its plan of a future self-governing Indian Union.
The ‘centre’ would be in charge of defence, communications and foreign affairs; everything else fell within the ambit of provincial rights. The centre would be the meeting ground of the provinces, not the imperial powerhouse from where the provinces would be governed. The latter was the British model of colonial domination – such systems do facilitate smooth extraction of resources from far-flung areas. They are hardly models of welfare where democratic aspirations of the people for self-governance have the priority. In the political class, there was briefly a sense of resignation (not necessarily agreement) to the basic thrust of the Cabinet Mission Plan as a way to contain the diverse aspirations that India constituted. The destruction of this thrust is a serious issue that goes largely undebated in post-partition India.
In 1946, when the Cabinet Mission Plan was proposed, the India that was conceived in it had provinces with powers that would put today’s Kashmir’s moth-eaten ‘special status’ to shame. Senior Congressites like Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabh-bhai Patel and numerous other mandarins of the party publicly and privately were more than prepared to give this dispensation a shot. The problematic idea of a sectarian grouping notwithstanding, the plan was overtaken by a breakdown of agreements between the Congress and Muslim League. The intense ground-level hostility in ‘mixed’ provinces in 1946 no doubt seriously undercut the chances of a grand federal Indian union, in the immediate context of prevailing circumstances. Whether the League’s motive on a sectarian grouping of people was holy or cynical, anti-people or liberating, is a question I will not visit here. But what is true is that the exit of the League due to the partition of India in 1947 suddenly changed the Indian political scenario. Till then, the field was a contested one. Now, one opposing side had left. Virtually unchallenged in the legislature, the Congress centralizers started scoring goal after goal in the unguarded field. These goals for the Indian centre turned out to be disastrous same-side goals as far as a democratic federal union of India was concerned.
Post-partition India was hardly any less heterogenous. Provincial autonomy with a federal non-imperious centre still made democratic sense. But without serious political opposition, the centralizing proponents of the Congress, smelling blood, took the strong-centre idea to the extreme. The lists that divide power between the union centre and the states in India are a stark testimony to this process by which states were reduced to dignified municipal corporations. They would thereafter be found forever standing with begging bowls, making depositions and cases in front of central government bureaucrats and ministers. The idea of a strong centre appealed to the elites of that generation: it provided an excuse for them to ‘shape the masses’ into what was the elite’s definition of an ‘Indian’, a presentable citizen of a new nation state.
The erosion of provincial rights in the post-partition Indian Union has seen a concomitant development of an army of carrion-feeders who have mastered the art of carrying the spoils from the length and breadth of the land to pad their Delhi nests. They are no different from Hindustan’s emperors and their hangers-on, who beautified capitals by squeezing the country. The earlier forms of ferocious extraction, of explicit carriage of loot to Delhi, are now replaced by the fine art of legislative injustice. The process has been honed to near perfection over the decades, now designed and lubricated to work smoothly without making a sound. Delhi and its surrounds are showered with money that Delhi does not produce. It is peppered with infrastructure that India’s provinces have toiled hard to pay for. It is lavished with highly funded universities, art and cultural centres, museums that are designed to sap talent from India’s provinces and handicap the development of autonomous trajectories of excellence beyond Delhi.
Of late, there is the perverse politics of infrastructure development. Who could oppose a cow as holy as infrastructure? In essence what infrastructure development in Delhi has become is the following – a method by which revenues extracted from India’s provinces are lavished in and around Delhi by making good roads, snazzy flyovers, water supply infrastructure, urban beautification projects, new institutes and universities, big budget rapid transport systems like the metro and numerous other things that India’s impoverished wastelands as well as other towns and cities can only dream of. This is the new ‘expansion’ of Delhi in which Delhi’s political class has major stakes. Essentially this is cash transfer of a very sophisticated kind. Delhi’s richer classes acquire nearly uninhabited land or rural farmland. The ‘centre’ chips in by ensuring the areas get ‘developed’ from scratch. This ensures that these areas become quickly habitable or investable by Delhi’s perfumed classes, thus pushing up real estate prices, making the rich of Delhi richer. This is backed up by real infrastructure that is backed up by real cold cash from India’s central government. The other real thing is the pauperization of India’s provinces, of the great cities of Chennai, Kolkata and Bhopal, which have been systematically decimated by this distributive injustice – more insidious, though equally corrosive. Delhi’s bevy of highly funded institutions, lavish research funds, impeccable infrastructure, creation of a semblance of high culture by governmental khairati, has made Delhi the centre of aspiration for the brightest in India’s provinces – an internal brain drain. Delhi poaches on the intellectual capitals of Kolkata and Chennai by the way it knows best, the baniya method.
The largesse that Delhi gets touches other sectors too. The large concentration of central government jobs in and around Delhi ensures that those who live there or are from those areas are more likely to get them, especially the jobs in the lower rung. This artificial support to a certain geographical area with ties to the national capital goes against all principles of natural justice, let alone those of a federal union based on equality. The Delhi-based political class uses various excuses of ‘national pride’ like the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games to bestow on Delhi’s residents, and in effect themselves and their families, better infrastructure, inflated asset values, a better life, so to say – underwritten, as always, by India’s parochial and provincial masses. And the rest – the provinces, West Bengal, (East) Punjab – continue to pay for partition by paying for Delhi.
Even the media is a part of this process. A summary look at newspapers in Kolkata and Delhi will show that Delhi-based newspapers have page after page of central government advertisements – while the population of the two cities are not too different. The media is an integral part of that Delhi-based illuminati, also comprising of policy wonks, security apparatchiks, immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, bureaucrats, professors, defence folks, hangers-on, civil society wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and all the thread that connects them. This network of self-servers is curiously termed simply ‘Indians’ – largely devoid of the visceral rootedness that this large land provides to its people. Their regional identity is hidden shamefully, displayed diplomatically, cashed in cynically and forgotten immediately. This is a window to the mind of the deep state at Delhi. This deep state – eating away at our plural fabric, creaming at the thought of the Delhi-Mumbai urban corridor, holds a disproportionate sway over the billion who are not simply Indian. Their diversity is still a robust one, not a browbeaten domesticated version fit for the India International Centre’s consumption.
The preference for things Delhi-based or things ‘Indian’ and not ‘provincial’ has resulted not only in cash transfer of epic proportions, but has surreptitiously helped to develop the ideology that the roots of success in India go through Delhi, by denying one’s own rooted identities, clinging onto some rung of a ladder to Delhi, moving away from one’s origins. In short, this distributive injustice serves to disincentivize aspirations that don’t hold ‘Indianism’ as the ideology, Delhi as the location. In the era of long indoctrination, Delhi has been built up as an imperial zoo, where provincial rustics have to come to gawk, to be awed, and expunge ourselves of our ‘parochial-ness’.
States, provinces, nations – none are designed to contain the aspirational trajectories of the plural multitudes in the Indian Union. Increasing democratization, transfer of the locus of power away from the centre, is a way of deepening democracy. There have been very few attempts to do this. The Sarkaria Commission of 1983 was a positive step in this direction with clear recommendations of making a more inclusive, federal and democratic union of India by transferring certain rights from the central list to the state list. Predictably, the commission’s report remains unimplemented. All too cynically, the centre has often tried to bypass the provinces by speaking over the heads of the state governments through its army of central bureaucrats and law enforcers posted as imperial minders in every district. This friction between the different levels, between the local bodies and the state governments, assures the centre’s stability. It has also withheld real grassroots empowerment by denying local bodies any power to veto top-down decisions and proposals that affect their own futures. The blatant disregard of these institutions when ‘higher authorities’ push a project through in the face of massive opposition to loss of livelihood, destruction of homestead and displacement shows what lofty catch-words peddled by the higher level of administration like ‘local empowerment’ or ‘deepening democratic institutions’ really mean, when push comes to shove.
Some ‘states’ in India are entities that vaguely existed before the modern idea of India was conceived, and will probably outlive the idea too. They are repositories of plural cultures that the myopic Delhi-based circus called Dilli-haat cannot even fathom, much less domesticate, package and consume. The union of India exists, but it is and never was an inevitable union. To take that myth seriously, for that matter to take foundational myths of any nation-state seriously, is a dangerous error – realities are glossed over by textbook-manufactured pride. The past of the constituents of the Indian Union were partially intertwined and largely not. To change this balance decisively, so that a Delhi-prescribed and Delhi-centric path to the future becomes a pan-Indian obsession, is the dream of a million or two and a nightmare for a billion.