The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in India is the most powerful institution. Same is the case of Chief Minister’s office (CMO). It started with Indira Gandhi and is continuing under the leadership of Narendra Modi with more vigor and centralization. Mamata Banerjee who has been fighting for federal spirit has also been centralizing power in her CMO just as Jayalalithaa did. A new champion of federalism K. Chandrasekhar Rao of Telangana State does not believe in devolution of powers to districts and mandals. Naveen Patnaik who has been winning elections continuously is obsessed with his CMO being the single window under his tight leash. YS Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh does not even pretend to consult the concerned before imposing his decisions on districts. Same is the case with leader of every single regional party. Control over patronage necessitates the accumulation of power in the office of PMO/CMO. The successful leader of a political party or a government is one who can distribute patronage at will. For that the leaders should have access to the funds and resources of the state. Patronage is necessary to win elections and to build a political party by way of organizing social groups and coalition of local leaders who have access to the chief minister of prime minister.
Congress party is weak today because of lack of federal spirit in running the party. Indira Gandhi’s political centralization unified the opposition parties and weakened the Congress. The way strong local satraps were demoted and ‘yes men’ were promoted played havoc with the party. We were witness to jokers coming from Delhi to Hyderabad with a sealed cover in their pockets to select chief minister after chief minister. A chief minister selected by an observer was replaced by another chief minister selected by the same observer after six months or one year. This manipulation helped NTR in 1983 to demolish the Congress at one go. There were four Congress chief ministers between 1978 and 1983.
Doing away with Planning Commission was the first step
Abolishing Planning Commission by Modi government was the first step, by a non-Congress government, in the process of weakening the States which are now at the mercy of ministries for funds. Niti Ayog, replacing Planning Commission, led to concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister. States are denied of their share of funds which are often delayed.
In the first two decades after Independence, the ruling Congress had internal pluralism and competitive democracy while Modi’s BJP is still dominated by Upper Castes and amenable to influence by Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) which cannot be characterized as a democratic organization. When BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee was leading the government he had to follow consensus since it was a coalition. Modi during his first term was less autocratic compared to the second term because of coalition compulsions during 2014-19.
More autocratic in second innings
After winning the second term, Modi has enhaced the speed with which he centralized power in his own hands, PMO. The very essence of the Hindutva project is mainstreaming of ideas and centralization of decision making power establishing the majoritarian ethos. By broadening the base of the BJP, the majoritarian concept has been largely accepted as the Congress was known as a party of consensus during Nehru era.
Swachhata App is an innocuous and small example of centralization. The front end of the App is simple. Any citizen can lodge a complaint regarding anything, say, the clearing of the garbage before their house. The App was intended to help the common people. But what is not known to the people is that all the complaints they lodge would be routed through Union Urban and Housing Ministry whose officials would get in touch with the municipal officers and get the work done. Sanitation is in the domain of the State governments according to the constitution. But the union government is involving in it.
Governors giving tough time to CMs
Governors of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and other non-BJP States tour their respective States and collect petitions from the people for redressal of their problems. Mamata Banerjee and Stalin have running battles with their honourable governors. Prime Minister holds meeting of district magistrates without the involvement of the chief ministers or chief secretaries. The GST (Goods and Services Tax) made the State governments dependent on the Centre for funds. The state governments are not allowed to collect taxes. Prime Minister Modi declared at a public meeting in October 2017that his government would not release funds to the State governments which are anti-development, whatever he meant by that. Modi talks of cooperative federalism and asks, in the same breath, States to follow Central government’s diktat.
Taking over projects on Krishna and Godavari rivers
The most glaring in this process of anti-federal moves was the Gazette Notification issued on 15 July 2021 by the Jal Shakti Ministry taking over irrigation projects on Godavari and Krishna Rivers. This sudden, unexpected and unprecedented move caught both AP and TS governments unaware. Both AP and TS were at loggerheads in case of sharing of river waters among themselves. Instead of resolving issue through mediation, the Union Government chose to take away the irrigation project from the purview of State governments. The governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana will have no powers on their irrigation projects to construct which they borrowed from several funding agencies and which have been serviced by the State governments. The Gazette Notification taking over 107 projects over Godavari and Krishna rivers came into effect on 14 October 2021.
Telangana as a region could not represent at River Water Tribunal meetings as only States have the right to represent. Water, beside jobs and funds, was the main issue that mobilized people in Telanagana statehood movement. Since Telangana State was formed in 2014, Telangana State government has been requesting the union government to appoint a new tribunal. The present tribunal headed by Brijesh Kumar refused to take congnizance of the existence of Telangana and has been advising to share the water allocated to undivided Andhra Pradesh by Bachawat Tribunal long ago. The plea that in the wake of Telangana State coming into being the rivers waters have to be allocated afresh calculating on the basis of four riparian states has been ignored by the Brijesh Tribunal and Union Government does not interfere. The very purpose of fighting for a separate State has been defeated as far as river waters are concerned.
Blatant, provocative action
The most important part of the thoughtless, blatant and provocative action on the part of the Union Government was that when there are four riparian States, the Centre would take over irrigation projects on the two rivers only in the two Telugu States without touching the projects in Karnataka or Maharashtra in case of Krishna and Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha in case of Godavari. The discrimination against AP and TS is glaring. But the State governments are not doing enough for their own reasons. While AP government agreed to abide by the Gezette Notification, Telangana government opposed the notification but did not contest it in the court of law for whatever reason. Krishna River Management Board (KRMB) and the Godavari River Management Board (GRMB) have been conducting meeting with officials of AP and TS to take over the irrigation projects. Pedavagu project on Godavari in Bhadrachalam district of Telangana is being handed over to the GRMB. Moreover, the Gezette Notification mandates the State governments to pay the Boards Rs. 200 crore each in order to maintain the projects. And the loans raised for constructing the projects have to be repaid by the respective States. Can there be any more arbitrary way of dealing with the State governments? Is it cooperative federalism that the PM has been talking of?
Telangana Development Forum to rescue
With Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao busy challenging the prime minister in order to fight at national level, the civil society in Telangana is left with no alternative but to take up the issue in right earnest. Telangana Development Forum (US and India) came forward to help mobilize public opinion. Some Telangana intellectuals have been confabulating for weeks preparing to sensitize the concerned. A memorandum has been submitted to the President of India, Prime Minister, Central Ministers and Chief Minister. Two booklets-in English and Telugu- were published by TDF. A press conference was held and round table meeting is being planned. While Gade Gopal Reddy from the US, founder of TDF, has been monitoring the course of action, intellectuals from Telangana such as Prof. Kodandaram, Prof Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu of Mahendra University, M Shyam Prasad Reddy of Telangana Retired Engineers Association, K. Ramachandra Murthy, senior editor, K. Srinivasa Reddy, leader of journalists and editor of Praja Paksham, R. Chandrasekhar Reddy, political leader from Mahaboobnagar district, Senior Supreme Court Advocate Shravan, NRI Ram Kakulawaram, D. P. Reddy and Ranadheer Reddy of the TDF and others have been participating in a zoom meeting every Sunday evening to discuss the action taken and steps to be taken. The idea is to build up public opinion and bring pressure on State and Union Governments so that the controversial Gezette Notification is annulled and a new Tribunal is appointed without loss of any more time. The demand that the river waters should be allocated based on the division among four riparian States is just and reasonable. The Union Government has no business to take over the irrigation and power projects on Krishna and Godavari or any river in the country for that matter.