05 July 2000

Autonomy issue just won't go away

5 July 2000
The Times of India

Autonomy issue just won't go away

Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

New Delhi: Having summarily rejected the autonomy resolution adopted by the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government will find it much harder to satisfy the aspirations of Kashmir - and of other states - with its anodyne promise of ''devolution of more financial and administrative powers''.

On Wednesday, home minister LK Advani promised ''suitable steps...to ensure harmonious Centre-state relations in the light of the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission''.

Justice Sarkaria submitted his report in 1988 but his recommendations have yet to see the light of day. Curiously, the Vajpayee government has not thought it fit to expedite the suggestions the BJP itself made to the Commission, such as on financial autonomy and the appointment of governors ''from a panel prepared by the Inter-State council'' and ''in consultation with the concerned state''.

The BJP may consider the autonomy resolution secessionist but for several constituents of the NDA - notably the DMK, MDMK, PMK and the Akalis - what the Kashmir assembly is demanding is not that different from what they themselves asked for in the past.

The three Tamil parties are still officially committed to the Rajamannar committee recommendations, as endorsed by the Tamil Nadu assembly in 1974. The resolution was moved by M Karunanidhi, then, as now, chief minister of the state. Its content was the same as the Kashmir resolution: ''The federal government should have only powers relating to defence, foreign affairs, inter-state communication and currency.''

Like the Kashmir assembly, the Rajamannar committee wanted the Supreme Court limited to constitutional cases and the Election Commission to conducting national and not state elections. But in politics, context is everything. There was no insurgency, no cry for separation. The Union cabinet did not rush to reject the Tamil Nadu resolution. Indira Gandhi simply ignored it, as she had the equally radical 1973 Anandpur Sahib resolution sponsored by the Akali Dal.

It was only in the early 1980s - with the shattering of the Congress hold on the south - that Centre-state problems became important. When the four southern chief ministers met in Bangalore in 1983 to demand equitable sharing of fiscal revenues, Indira Gandhi''s reaction was to appoint the Sarkaria Commission.

Since then, the salience of regionalism has dramatically increased. What has changed, also, is that the BJP has supplanted the Congress as the main defender of a centralised polity. The irony is that the BJP is forced to rule in alliance with regional parties, all of whom, to a greater or lesser extent, want a radical overhaul of Centre-state relations. Economic reform further complicates the picture. Liberalisation is leading to uneven growth with some regions stagnating and others surging ahead. This unevenness will generate political strains which, in turn, will require new flexibility in Centre-state relations. Another potential source of strain is population. Demographic changes are being swept under the carpet by postponing the reallocation of Lok Sabha seats on the basis of population.

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