From the ramparts of the Red Fort, this Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that with the end of Article 370 and 35A, every Indian could now be proud of having “One nation, One Constitution”. The underlying logic was straightforward. These provisions had given Jammu and Kashmir a special status, its residents special privileges, and restricted the applicability of the Indian Constitution and laws made in Parliament. This situation no longer held. There was, in law, on paper, and in terms of statecraft, complete integration of the state-turned-Union Territory into India. India, the PM was suggesting, was finally united.
But it did not end there. Modi linked this with other governance themes that have dominated his approach. He referred to the creation of systems of one nation-one tax; one nation one grid; one nation-one mobility card; and the fact that there are now discussions happening around one nation-one election.
Some of these measures are indeed desirable. The Goods and Services Tax may have had teething implementation issues and dislocated businesses, but the fact that the country needed a common framework of taxation, as an important step to creating a unified market, cannot be doubted. Aadhaar may have triggered privacy concerns, but as a common identity card, which helped citizens access services, and enabled better delivery of state services, it has served a useful function. The moves on Kashmir could open the way for closer integration with the rest of the country, and could possibly improve the security situation – though there are legitimate concerns about the process through which the changed were brought about; the curtailment of civil liberties in the Valley; and possible spike in alienation.
But there are two important questions that spring up. The first – what is driving the prime minister’s approach? And the second – what are the possible consequences of this push?
There are two motivations at play.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long felt that the nation-building project in India is incomplete, with too many fragments. This is why it has always had a strong self-definition as a “nationalist party”. There has been, at some level, unease with the regional, linguistic, cultural and religious distinctiveness that marks India. Inspired by the classical European nation-State model, which prioritises homogeneity, there is now a concerted effort by the party to “unify” the nation in the way it deems desirable. India is finally becoming a uniform, singular, united country, believe those who have this world view.
The second motivation is the desire for a strong State. The BJP, as a party of the Right, has often thought of the Indian State as weak, unable to confront its internal and external adversaries, and battle challenges with the required will. A more united nation, this view believes, is also a stronger nation, a stronger State. This State can then exercise authority. A look at the pattern of legislations in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha also substantiates this view. The government expanded the powers of its investigative and law enforcement arms, while seeking to reduce the checks that operate on the executive.
But there are clear consequences, and possible dangers, in these moves which deserve more careful consideration. Two stand out.
India is remarkably diverse, and any attempt to impose one solution across specific sub-regions and communities with their history could lead to a degree of disaffection. India, of course, must have one Constitution – for this is what binds citizens together. But within the constitutional framework, there is room for diversity. This includes asymmetric federalism, where different states have a different relationship with the Centre given their different histories; it includes affirmative action and reservations for the marginalised; it includes recognition of linguistic and religious heterogeneity. It is important that the “one nation” push by the PM does not seek to suppress these diversities which make India unique. In fact, it is the recognition of this diversity which has helped India remain united.
These steps could also lead to more centralisation of power in both Delhi, and within Delhi, in the hands of the political executive. As Yamini Aiyar argued recently, this has the danger of undermining the Centre-state compact, as it was both envisaged in the Constitution, but, more importantly, as it has evolved over the past three decades. In this period, states become more assertive and powerful, and regional parties gained a stronger voice. As a former chief minister, Modi recognises this and has spoken of cooperative federalism. The government’s actions must reflect it and not reverse the course.
As Modi continues to push his ideological world view through policies, laws and actions, it must be done within a democratic framework, and in close consultation with all political stakeholders and citizens at large.