Chief Minister Siddaramaiah symbolically hoisting Karnataka’s unique identity in the form of the state flag is not just his pre-election flirting with federalism, but what the constitution itself prescribes.
This is not a nouveau concept leaning towards radical secessionism, it is a fundamental attribute that both founding fathers, Gandhi and Ambedkar recognised as imperative, as India was assembled from various entities.
That is the very reason Gandhi propounded swaraj. He knew all too well that with India having been assembled from a plural and motley collection of communities, each so distinct, nothing but self rule could possibly work. How could a central authority govern the diversity of India with its varied physical, social, cultural and economic characteristics and exigencies?
Swaraj. Governed not by the centre but by the states, that were themselves meant to be decentralised into local communities. A centre enough to hold the assemblage together. The Americans would call this federalism.
The other prime mover metaphorically wrote in the book, “… provisions make the Indian Constitution both Unitary as well as Federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances. In normal times, it is framed to work as a federal system. But in times of war, it is so designed as to make it work as though it was a unitary system.” By default then, India is meant to be federal.
Any nation is a convenience of a single currency, market and security for its states, not a vehicle to deliver services. Simply because it cannot deliver it remotely – be it water or jobs. That vehicle would be the state government.
That said, since every country has extraordinary provisions for war times, why call India unitary at all?
This was extensively debated in the Constituent Assembly, and to quote a then Assemblyman, Mr. N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, “the problem .. to integrate and bring areas which were under the British Crown under one Federation.” Simply put, the pressure of unity, the threat of disintegration drove some unitary features into the constitution.
That is the story of how it came to be, but not the story of how it is now — evolved away from what it was meant to be.
The nation-state has unfortunately and repeatedly seized states’ powers and brought them into the central fold, diminishing the will and vote of the people. When an Indian state goes to the polls, it votes in a government to ensure itself everything from food and water, education and healthcare, jobs and public services like infrastructure and amenities, to law and order, and the justice of that state government.
Nothing, but nothing in the every day life of a citizen depends on the central government as envisaged by the Constitution. Nothing at all.
And yet the “evolution” of this federation through amendments and blatant transgressions of the central government has transported it further and further away from devolution of power and instead morphed it into a centralised entity.
By moving subjects from state to concurrent list, like education, and now perhaps sports, and never ever the other way; through misuse of central powers to mandate intra-state issues such as the language to be used for exams in local co-operative banks and local transportation; by dismissing duly elected state governments; by superseding state law enforcement and overriding the State Police via the National Counter Terrorism Centre etc.
Partly responsible for this dilution of swaraj are the states themselves. A state government’s main task is to deliver services to its citizens as an autonomous entity. Be it water, electricity, schooling, distribution of food rations, or policing. A non-local government cannot deliver these. So the state’s autonomy over these can be compromised only when national integration or security is under threat.
Otherwise, if a state still allows a free run over its autonomy, it fails to deliver on its promises to its people. For example, if law and order is owned by the state government, it is wholly responsible, and it can be held accountable for any failures. When that exclusive ownership is compromised, both state and centre can wriggle through the cracks in the event of breaches, and it is citizens alone who suffer.
When the union government attempts to violate the autonomy of states, states that do not vigorously object and reject it are failing their people.
So while triflers may get their proverbial knickers in a knot over the Karnataka flag, states with strong sub-national identities and autonomous regional governments have historically outperformed the others. And remember, that a nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.