In her speech to the Congress Parliamentary Party on Wednesday, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that the party and its government were “fully committed” to strengthening federalism. This comes after the United Progressive Alliance-controlled government organised a meeting with state chief ministers on May 5 that saw CM after CM berating the Centre for the design of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, or NCTC. Many of their speeches recognised the need for some sort of a body to share intelligence and to co-ordinate country-wide action against the Maoists or terrorist organisations. However, it was clear that state leaders cutting across party lines were uncomfortable with the Centre’s approach. Even some Congress chief ministers – such as Assam’s Tarun Gogoi – made it clear that aspects of the law were problematic. Most saw the NCTC as a dangerous assault on basic federal principles. If this is the uniform view that India’s CMs express then how, precisely, is the UPA strengthening federalism, as Ms Gandhi claims?
Not all the CMs’ objections are valid or unpartisan, but many of them are. First, the point that the NCTC has been placed under the Intelligence Bureau (IB) – of which the courts or Parliament have no oversight, and which has been misused in the past for political reasons – is worrisome. The home ministry, which has mooted the idea, blames this on a 2001 decision to make the IB the “nodal agency” for counter-terrorism. Why, then, was the NCTC sold as a new agency to solve the problems of counter-terrorism inherited from the previous regime? It seems nobody in the UPA can take responsibility for difficult decisions. Much concern was also justifiably expressed about the NCTC’s proposed ability to carry out independent operations in states. This seems a straightforward violation of a basic constitutional principle: law and order is a state subject. A central co-ordination agency can support, advise, and help share information. It cannot be a replacement for responsibilities that are primarily the states’.
The NCTC episode illustrates an unfortunate truth about the UPA government. Far from strengthening federalism, as Ms Gandhi claims, it has allowed under its watch a gradual worsening of relations between the Centre and states. In the process, important reforms have stalled — such as the goods and services tax, or GST. This is a product of a lack of trust, and of the sort of arrogance on display in the NCTC draft. Either the home ministry was unaware that its new law was unacceptable to the states whose powers it impinged on, or it did not care. If it was unaware, it shows a truly awesome degree of incompetence, which calls for accountability at the highest level. If it knew and did not care, then it shows a careless disregard for Centre-state relations, the very opposite of how the Congress president desires the government to operate. The actual best-practice approach – of meeting extensively with state-level leaders in advance of drafting the law, to thrash out a common, acceptable approach to co-ordination – seems beyond the UPA’s abilities.