Modi-Nitish friendship: Civility surprises us because Centre-state animosity is the new normal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's "bonhomie" over booze ban has seen political pulses racing, tongues wagging and media dive headlong into furious speculation. Does this signify a new axis? Is there more to the schmoozing than meets the eye? Locked in an alliance with an unreliable partner in Lalu Yadav, is it an attempt by the Bihar chief minister to hedge against future uncertainty? Is the Prime Minister scouting for help to tide over demonetisation crisis?

Not to discount any of the possibilities because there are no permanent friends or foes in politics, some of the speculation do seem a little far-fetched. A simpler and more obvious explanation remains painfully ignored. Why should it surprise us to see a semblance of concord between two mature, seasoned politicians while they go about interacting on a public platform, even if they are rival forces? If the country's Prime Minister and the chief minister of a state find common ground over a policy decision, why should we rush to float expansive theories or suggest that they have buried all past differences and have become overnight BFFs?

The answer isn't difficult to arrive at. We have taken Centre-state animosity as the new normal. The language of politics has become so debased, so vicious, the bar so low that even polite interaction between two rival political leaders and mild mutual praise take us by surprise as we hurry to unearth hidden meanings. Behind our struggle to explain the Modi-Nitish interaction lies an unease that stems from an inability to accept responsible behavior from even leaders holding Constitutional posts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during 350th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh at Gandhi Maidan in Patna on Thursday. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during 350th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh at Gandhi Maidan in Patna on Thursday. PTI

There has been a lot of talk about cooperative federalism in Centre-state relationship. The Constitution describes India as a Union of States and has put a federal system by delegating identifiable powers between the Centre and states. There have been arguments about a strong unitary bias since Delhi enjoys primacy in areas such as legislative and administrative. In practice, however, this federalism has been further undermined through the institutionalization of a Congress culture that made India into a quasi-federal state. The Centre would run the country from Delhi and the states would be allocated doles and emoluments based on their obeisance.

One of the first policy decisions that Modi took was to introduce greater federalism in the structure and work towards making the states an equal stakeholder in the India story. The Planning Commission was junked in favour of Niti Aayog where the states had a greater say in achieving national targets and a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Their share went up from 32 percent to 42 percent.

But this did not result in an improvement in relationship. On the contrary, a confrontationist attitude from NDA government secure in its numbers in the Lower House and an increasingly panicked opposition alarmed by the rise of Modi's popularity resulted in a complete breakdown of "cooperative federalism".

This has been followed by an unprecedented defilement of language. When the mode of communication becomes corrupted, it drags down the entire political discourse. Each day, the bar is set lower. This isn't a difference of opinion, policy or ideas but a deep, personal, palpable animosity.

We find Arvind Kejriwal calling the Prime Minister a "coward" and a "psychopath', Mamata Banerjee referring to him as a "donkey" and "danga babu", Sonia Gandhi calling him "maut ka saudagar" and her son Rahul Gandhi using "khoon ki dalali" to describe the government's surgical strikes against Pakistan.

The fall in political discourse has been followed by a complete breakdown in relationship resulting in irreparable damage to the federal structure. This is more worrying. The hostility runs so deep that it threatens to derail legislative process which calls for discharge of collective duties and responsibilities. The GST has already missed the 1 April deadline. Going by the way Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra walked out of a pre-budget meeting crying "financial emergency" and calling the budget a "meaningless exercise", it is anybody's guess when GST will finally see the light of day.

The irony is that while Mitra calls the budget "meaningless", his party colleague Derek O'Brien joins hands with Congress to rush to the Election Commission and demands a postponement of the budget because it is too close to the Assembly polls in five states.

Between this surreal drama of ridiculousness, the sane behavior of Nitish and Modi naturally strikes us as unusual. It speaks volumes about the state of our polity.

Published Date: Jan 06, 2017 18:34 PM | Updated Date: Jan 06, 2017 18:34 PM

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