The issue of distribution of responsibilities and powers in federal political systems is generally contentious. India, for instance, is a quasi-federal democracy where the federal dialogue with the states is more often than not predicated by the Union Government's administrative/policy-level decisons; i.e. the Centre decides on a particular course and only thereafter seeks input from the states. In today's coalition politics, regional powerbrokers are able to chip away at this imblanace. As a result, Centre-State relations are often marked by confrontation, and efforts to create a more cooperative process are needed.

Recently, state governments reached a consensus with the Government of India with regard to imposition of President's Rule in the states - vide Article 356 of the Constitution of India related to emergency provisions. During a meeting of the Inter-State Council at Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir it was decided that checks and balances would be exercised vis-a-vis Article 356, made infamous during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's one-party rule, as follows:

  • The Union Government will henceforth impose Article 356 as a weapon of last resort to dislodge the elected government in a state following breakdown of constitutional machinery therein when all the possible avenues of federal dynamics have been explored and resources of federal solutions to set up an alternative administration exhausted.

  • Aricle 356 will not be imposed in an indiscriminate manner. Its use shall be rule-bound and guided by constitutional conventions in order to safeguard India's federal democratic ethos.

  • The concerned state government will have to be duly notified / alerted well in advance that such a contingent situation may arise in the near future so that corrective steps may be taken and remedial measures adopted.

  • The notification of President's Rule will be subject to prior approval / ratification by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha of the Union Parliament. This was earlier suggested by the Supreme Court of India in one of its judgments.

  • The notification of President's Rule will be subject to prior ratification by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, as recommended by the Supreme Court. The state must also be given fair warning of the likelihood of this imposition.
    The Government of India will explain the rationale of President's Rule in its notification issued in this connection by the the President of India.

  • The reasons behind imposition of President's Rule will also be expalined in detail in the concerned Governor's recommendation report submitted to the Union Government.

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani commented during a press conference in the presence of Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley that resolution of federal differences of opinion with regard to the Sarkaria Commission's recommendations impacting on issues and concerns of distribution of responsibilities and powers in India was itself a historic event. That this consensus was arrived at in J&K against an international backdrop of crossborder terrorism added to its significance, added Advani.

West Bengal chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) perceived that it was a major victory for his state government to persuade the Union Government to amend the Constitution in this regard. The Left Front Government, since it came to power in 1977, has regarded distribution of powers between the Centre and the states as one of its topmost priorities. Bhattacharya, however, could not manage to repeal Article 365* due to resistance from Advani. The Deputy Prime Minister conceded that the final decision with regard to Article 365 will be taken in consultation with the states.

The states also arrived at a unanimous decision with regard to introduction of contractual employment in the public sector that has been necessitated by India's second generation of economic reforms. This contentious issue was raised by Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu of Telugu Desam. Bhattacharya, although committed to the socialist values of Marxism-Leninism, supported Naidu on the grounds of practical considerations / compulsions. He even added that his cash-strapped government was up against severe difficulties to pay its employees, and contingent measures need to be adopted without delay for the sake of financial good governance. A standing committee under the chairmanship of a chief minister will be set up to review the logistics of approval-related issues concerning state governments prepared to enter the controversial domain of contractual government service.

This would help state governments to amend labour legislations according to their respective policy priorities. Naidu said his state administration should be allowed to pursue its policy of economic reforms. He argued with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and Union Labour Minister Sahib Singh Verma that the Andhra Pradesh Government was prepared to introduce contractual employment unlike most other Indian states and should be permitted to continue with its agenda of reforms. Naidu was supported by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in this connection. Naidu subsequently demanded that the Department of Labour should be transferred from the jurisdiction of the Union Government to that of the state governments.

However, Sahib Singh Verma crossed swords with Naidu in this regard and did not agree to delegate the labour department to the state governments. Uttaranchal chief minister Narayan Dutt Tewari suggested that the matter should be referred to the International Labour Organization. Arun Jaitley disagreed, arguing that the ILO may have been important when Tewari was the Union Finance Minister but it was no longer so. Jaitley's suggestion that the Center would issue necessary clearance within 60 days to state governments inclined to introduce contractual employment was accepted at the meeting.

Whether as political partners of the ruling NDA, or as opponents, state governments are beginning to demand greater powers for themselves. These developments, although slow in taking hold, will bring both authority and accountability closer to the people they represent.