Why Siddaramaiah should be careful speaking of federal autonomy

Whatever be the geographical location or the economic status of a State, we live today in a deeply interconnected world where it doesn’t help to speak the language of Trumpian exclusion

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah recently wrote a piece on federal autonomy and linguistic identity, which appeared on his social media accounts, and has also been reproduced on some digital platforms. It has been widely reported in the mainstream press as well. To write is a rare form of expression for him – his favoured mode of communication being extended speeches where he works the crowds brilliantly.

Perhaps this new structured expression of thought, and that too in English with a quasi-academic bearing, was a first not only in his tenure as chief minister but in his entire political career. I hope my memory is serving me right as I make this claim. In my view, instead of pasting his written outpourings on social media, the CM’s media managers could perhaps have sought space in the Op-Ed pages of English dailies. But that would have been the strategy employed by advisers of politicians who have deep and defined Lutyens’ Delhi ambition. Siddaramaiah isn’t that kind of politician.

That aside, his piece in question appeared in the backdrop of the `backlash’ in ‘Delhi’s TV studios’ that questioned his government’s move to adopt an independent flag for Karnataka. On his part, Siddaramaiah, through his article, attempted to reconcile the national and the regional, yet tried to counter Modi’s variety of nationalism with the ‘settled’ idea of sub-nationalism and linguistic re-organisation.

There is nothing new in the sub-nationalism argument that he presented. It is an old rhetoric, borrowed from the 1950s and 60s when Indian states were being rearranged, and Mysore/Karnataka too was in the very middle of piecing together its diverse parts. During those decades, in the excitement generated by the historic exercise, a flat narrative that was spun made every linguistic state a ‘daughter’ of ‘Mother’ India. It appears there were two big reasons for this: This was the emotional glue to preserve a newly independent, but extremely plural republic. And, this was the only way to get richly distinct cultural, ethnic identities and dialects even within a region, to merge with a larger and more dominant linguistic identity that was being forged, like say a Karnataka or an Andhra Pradesh or a Tamil Nadu.

But, there was a little twist in the CM’s argument to defend the cause of the state flag that he had just unfurled. Siddaramaiah intelligently harped on a seemingly unconnected idea, which is the economic prosperity of some of the linguistic states below the Vindhyas. Pitching the rich Southern states against the poor Hindi ones, he put across a statistic that formed the fulcrum of his entire piece: He said, for every rupee that Karnataka contributes to the Central purse, it gets back only Rs 0.47. But for every rupee Uttar Pradesh contributes, it gets back Rs 1.79. He implied ‘they’ are being subsidised by ‘us’.

Siddaramaiah continued by stating that the Centre’s tax distribution formula is flawed as it uses population levels as the sole criteria, while performance of states like Karnataka had gone unrecognized and undervalued. The Chief Minister also noted that population growth has gone unchecked in the North while it is at replacement levels in the educated South. He followed up his piece with a series of tweets where he argued that the 15th Finance Commission should not use 2011 census data but should continue with the 1971 data for devolution of taxes.

The encrypted message conveyed through his article and the tweets is not difficult to decipher. Crudely put, it would run something like this: ‘We are being wronged. You live on our charity. We subsidise you. Since we are prosperous and progressive, we’d like to do our own thing. We’ll have our own flag and fly it as high as we want. Who are you to question this in distant Delhi?’

While this was all about cocking a snook at the rest of the world, within Karnataka it predictably stirred machismo emotions, which may be electorally beneficial for Siddaramaiah. It was similar to an image that Modi had created for himself as Gujarat’s chief minister which he took with him to Delhi in 2014. This is something about which the PM remains nostalgic to this very day.

Besides flaunting regional pride, there was a larger political affront to Modi in Siddaramaiah’s statistic-based thesis. Each time the Prime Minister was in Karnataka or for that matter in any other state ruled by the Opposition, he has tried to push a narrative which endeavours to establish that the Centre gives enough funds but the states under-utilise them. Or, whatever welfare the state does, it is thanks to monies released by the Centre.

By raising the tax devolution issue, and in the same breath speaking about the poverty of Uttar Pradesh, the Karnataka CM was trying to fact check, and drive home the point that it is the reverse that’s true. His implicit message: ‘Forget you are giving us money, in fact it is we who are allowing you your indulgences at the Centre where you are Prime Minister, and in UP, where your constituency is located. So, don’t talk of funds allocated to us as charity doled out by the Centre.’

There is also another subtext: Remember the Prime Minister fashions himself after Sardar Patel, the unifier of India. So, given that, if the South repeatedly challenges his wisdom and hubris, and as a result, if he is seen as not being able to take them along, then there will be cracks in his a la Sardar image. After Siddaramaiah raised the issue, we have seen Chandrababu Naidu, Jaganmohan Reddy, K Chandrashekar Rao and MK Stalin joining the chorus. Below the Vindhyas, Balasaheb Thackarey’s inheritors in Maharashtra, the richest state in India, have also begun to chant this line.

Siddaramaiah may have had enough political justification to push his argument. However, he must proceed with caution because it is fraught with ideological inconsistencies and contradictions. It may serve well as convenient election rhetoric but it can also put the Chief Minister in a spot for the following reasons:

  1. To base one’s economic argument on population alone is to replicate, in a different context though, the argument of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who use it to target alleged preferential treatment to Muslims and other minorities to create panic among Hindus.
  2. The argument for greater federal autonomy should not echo the meritocracy argument of anti-Mandalites and anti-reservationists. This may badly damage the social justice plank on which Siddaramaiah has stood all through his political career.
  3. To speak of North Indians the way the Thackerays and the Shiv Sena speak will translate at the ground level into violence which has been witnessed in Karnataka in the past. For example, towards the end of the BJP regime in the state, in 2012, the drummed up fear of a violent backlash against North Easterners led to their panic exodus.
  4. If Siddaramaiah extends the economic logic to regions within Karnataka, then the richest are the Old Mysore districts (from where the CM hails) and the poorest are the Hyderabad-Karnataka districts. Can he discriminate between the two regions in the allocation of resources? Holding back special grants to the poorer regions may not only be imprudent but it would be politically suicidal. There are already demands for a separate North Karnataka. Historically, Old Mysore leaders resisted poor Northern districts coming together to form a unified Karnataka. To this day, it is the Old Mysore region that is culturally dominant.
  5. Further, Bangalore, the State capital, contributes the most to the state’s GDP. What if the citizens of the metro argue they should get preferential treatment over the rest of the state? What if there is a mischievous suggestion to make it a Union Territory?
  6. The demographic composition of Bangalore is cosmopolitan. It is common knowledge that Kannadigas are outnumbered in Karnataka’s capital. People from different states work and reside here. They also contribute hugely to its thriving economy. Somebody has to rejig the CM’s memory that Bangalore’s growth was originally spurred by establishment of public sector organisations like HAL, ITI, BEL, HMT, BEML, ISRO etc, which were funded by the Centre. Over the decades, people have come from across India and settled down in the city to work in these establishments. The software industry harvested the scientific and technological culture established by these organisations. Now, where does one ideally begin to separate the state and the Centre’s contribution here?
  7. Nearly 63 % of the State’s revenue comes from the services sector, industry contributes 24 %, and agriculture another 13 %. But the maximum subsidy is offered to farming. Can this be altered or support to the least of the contributing sectors drastically trimmed?
  8. We have seen that maximum revenues pour in from the services industry. What if tomorrow the software service jobs migrate to another country or city that offers a competitive labour price advantage and there is a sudden dip in Karnataka and Bangalore’s fortunes? Irrespective of which government is at the Centre, will not the state look for assistance?
  9. When Siddaramaiah launched his biggest social welfare programme ‘Annabhagya’ (rice and other staple grains at one rupee a kg), the argument against it was this: ‘Why are you rendering the workforce lethargic? Why are you making them lazy dependents on state subsidy? Let them earn their two square meals.’ But that sounded both cruel and irrational. In fact, I was the only editor in the mainstream press who had then favoured the policy. My editorial line was that it was not merely a hunger eradication dole but was sound economics.
  10. The CM should also reckon with this fact: Only 1.5 % of India’s population pay Income Tax. What if they argue, like they have often done, that they must be given preferential treatment? Can such an argument hold? In which case, what happens to people who pay indirect taxes?
  11. Finally, Siddaramaiah should not forget that the constituencies of his political bosses Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi are in Uttar Pradesh. People from those constituencies also benefit from a higher devolution of tax revenues to their state.
  12. The CM’s idea is not consistent with the Nehruvian idea of India. After all it was the Congress that evolved the tax devolution formula. Would Siddaramaiah have protested so much were it to be a Congress or UPA government at the Centre?

In the final analysis, this much can be said, whatever be the geographical location or the economic status of a state, we live today in a deeply interconnected world where it doesn’t help to speak the language of Trumpian exclusion. Federal autonomy, no doubt, is a very valid argument. But one needs to temper it carefully so that it does not become a divisive instrument that pits one region against the other.

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