When in 2004, the Union Government decided to shift the Defined Benefit Pension Scheme in respect of its employees to Defined Contribution Pension Scheme, it was accepted by most of the States and UTs, with occasional hiccups, except Left-ruled West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. Now, even Tripura and UDF-ruled Kerala have agreed to fall in line.
The West Bengal government continues to pursue its earlier path despite a change of dispensation in 2011. Similarly, the resistance of this state to the adoption of the SEZ policy as well as abolition of the Urban Land Ceiling Act 1976 continues despite the fact that most states have agreed to follow the lead of the Union government in this respect.
While Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and even one of the so-called BIMARU states like Madhya Pradesh have moved miles ahead, West Bengal is languishing in its own self-created mess with no visible sign of industrial progress.
Whatever development has taken place in the sphere of IT and ITES industries in the state has happened in the pre-parivartan era.
The promised expansion of TCS, Infosys, Wipro and even the much-maligned Satyam, now Tech Mahindra, has remained a dream. People of this state have been surviving on a diet of publicity without any tangible evidence that the industrial resurgence, which was the bedrock of the pre-poll manifesto of the new regime, has attained fruition.
It was promised that every district of the state would have a software park. We are still waiting for these parks to come up. There is a palpable reluctance on the part of the state to actively participate in the activities mandated by the Union government. Bengal has stayed away from NITI meetings.
The plea advanced is that since the Planning Commission was a monument to Subhas Chandra Bose&’s economic philosophy, its demise was an affront to his memory. Nothing could be more outrageous and historically incorrect.
The state has reservations even about the non-partisan plans and programmes devised by the Centre. The Centre has refused to waive the debts and grant a moratorium on the interest payments.
The issue raises a fundamental question. If such remissions as demanded by the state are conceded, then the very concept of Constitutional governance becomes vulnerable.
The country has consciously agreed to be governed by democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution which envisage a continuity of contracts and property rights irrespective of the fact as to which party&’s government was responsible.
In a democratic polity like India, governments can periodically change, depending on the choice of the electorate. If a successor government belonging to a party other than the earlier one moves to repudiate the contracts entered into by the earlier government, the whole financial architecture of statecraft will be demolished.
Even in Hindu shastric law, an heir has to honour the debts of his father irrespective of the reason for which the debt was incurred. The insistence of the state government on a debt-waiver is a singularly inappropriate demand. The remedy is to follow austerity in expenditure till such time as finances are stabilised. There is a persistent cavil about the country being governed by the principles of federalism. Two expressions have gained significant traction in political discourse — cooperative federalism and competitive federalism.
West Bengal is in the vanguard of the campaign. In the Constitution, there is no direct and explicit mention of this issue except in Article 1, which states that India is a Union of States. This is in stark contrast to what was provided in the Government of India Act 1935, which provided the theoretical and structural framework of the Constitution, specifically that India was a federal state with a federal government, federal assembly, federal court and various federal authorities.
The classical philosophy of a federal polity, however, does not apply to post-independence India because it was not born with the same principles that underpin a federal state. Constitutional experts have always accepted that though India has adopted the principles of a federal structure, there is always a visible bias of a strong Union in the Constitution.
It needs to be stressed that unless this bias is removed, India cannot be classified as a truly federal country. Different states tend to interpret federalism differently. For a state like West Bengal, it means that while an everincreasing demand for central financial subvention is justified, there is also a concomitant demand for administrative freedom to splurge.
And most particularly on popular programmes which enhance the personal image of the rulers and boost their electoral prospects disregarding the norms of financial propriety and economic viability. Such sectoral, partisan and ethically indefensible considerations can drive the state to ultimate disaster.
The sooner this warning is realised the better for the people of the state and its future generations. A state cannot exist in isolation till such time it is able to achieve political and economic dis-aggregation from the Centre and snaps its umbilical cord with the Union.
The Constitution does not provide for any such contingency. That brings us to the concept of cooperative federalism. In order to survive as an integral part of the country, there has to be an absolute and clear understanding between the states and the Centre. It would be unwise and impractical to proceed at cross-purposes.
Also, it would be imperative for any state to discard the “us-they” conflict and shun the idea that there is any enmity between the states and the Centre. It would be instructive to look at the US political system where the central legislature and the state legislatures may belong to different parties, but the inbuilt mechanism of checks and balances and clear demarcation of authority and powers do not lead to any conflicting situation.
Similarly in India, the areas demarcating the authorities and powers of the Centre and the states are precisely laid down. It would thus be indefensible to visualise a hypothetical situation where a state accuses the Union of stepmotherly treatment and if such a situation comes to pass, the earliest it is resolved the better for the overall health of the country. Notably, there have been instances of strong and acerbic remonstration on some specific issues between this state and the Union. Some of these relate to international obligations and concerns.
Lack of coordination and consultation are matters that can be easily tackled if wisdom wins over cheap and partisan posturing. International riparian disputes are one such area. If the Union and a constituent state think and move at cross-purposes, the ultimate loser is the country. Similarly, consider a situation where the Union wants to set up an establishment in the state to confront cross-border terrorism and the state declines to come on board due to its stated land policy.
The damage will be to the country as a whole and not confined to the state. We have witnessed such instances in the past. It would be worth recalling the poem, The Second Coming written by WB Yeats after the end of the First World War — Turning and turning in the widening gyre/the Falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosened upon the world/…The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. And then, Surely some revelation is at hand/Surely the Second Coming is at hand.