Why Jayalalithaa is important for India’s federalism and political craft

In many ways, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa is the impact player that India needs to keep the autonomy of the states intact and to keep  "national parties" at bay from having a free run in Delhi.

Time and again she has told Delhi to keep off from meddling in  subjects that the state ought to have complete control over, and to exercise restraint on subjects that the state and the Centre have joint stakes on.

J Jayalalithaa. AFP

J Jayalalithaa. AFP

In terms of politics, she continues to keep playing her cards close to her chest, betraying absolutely no emotions. The national parties and other allies have to keep guessing and waiting.

Altogether, she becomes a force that is more or less inaccessible until she relents. At times, when a misguided Delhi seeks to go back to the centralist era of planning and governance, her stoicism reminds the government and its institutions such as the Planning Commission that their role is limited to what the constitution has outlined.

And that India is not a centrally administered province.

While in Delhi this week, her skills at domination on these spheres were on display yet again — in no unequivocal terms she told the Planning Commission that it was overstepping its advisory and allocation mandate and was taking up an executive role by issuing directives.

On the political front, she said she was happy for Narendra Modi assuming his new role, but said nothing about the BJP. In addition, she told CPI leaders who were desperately trying to get her support to send one of their men to the Rajya Sabha that she didn’t have any seats to give them. Earlier, it was almost given that her party would support a CPI candidate.

Jayalalithaa has been perfectly right in ticking off the Centre and telling them that she doesn’t need their vertical schemes to mess up the better running programmes in her state. The direct cash transfer scheme was a case in point. She said she strongly opposed any move to monetise the food and fertiliser subsidies.

"Not just the quantum of subsidy, but the access to and timely availability of commodities are the main concerns," she said. She added that food and energy security cannot be compromised.

Her opinion against the cash-transfer didn’t stem from any ideology, but was informed by the state’s experience of the universal PDS and food security schemes for several years. As the UPA and cash-transfer apostles waxed eloquent on the speculated merits of cash over kind, her government even intervened in the market by offloading one lack metric tonnes of rice when the prices were rising. She was clear that her state didn’t need to listen to the hypothesis of the benefits of cash in lieu of PDS or essential subsidies.

Another critical point she made was about the strain that the state administration was put under by the Government of India schemes and their threat to decentralised governance. "State governments are expected to place their field machinery at the disposal of the Government of India and are reduced to becoming mere bystanders."

Instead of the centrally sponsored schemes, states such as Tamil Nadu, should get its rightful demand for plan expenditure. Vertical programmes, like the recent NRHM scam in UP showed, is a waste of resources and a disempowering influence on the state administration. Needless to say, it’s also against the principle of federalism and decentralisation.

In fact, if there is a need for cash transfer, its the transfer of the money, as money, to its rightful claimants, namely the states.

In a country as diverse and complex as India, devising and pushing centrally planned schemes is certainly as foolish as looking for one size that fits a billion plus people, and asynchronous with the global trends in good governance. World over, decentralised planning is unarguably a vital ingredient for good and democratic governance.

Jayalalithaa had never minced words when it came to the states’ autonomy and the efforts of the Centre to step on her feet. She refused to participate in last week’s chief ministers’ meeting on internal security, which incidentally shot down the Centre’s efforts at a national counter terrorism centre (NCTC); had walked out of the national development council meeting for not getting enough time to speak; and making it abundantly clear through her finance minister that her government is totally opposed to the UPA’s pet cash transfer scheme.

She took a tough stand against the Centre’s ambivalence on Sri Lankan Tamil issue, particularly in getting the perpetrators of war crimes punished; and refused to let Sri Lankans participate in sports and games, including the IPL, in the state.

Her consistent message has been that as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, she is the master. Undoubtedly, for India’s democracy and federalism to flourish, this is the model that other states ought to emulate. But, not without establishing an efficient administration.

Jayalalithaa displayed the same practical resoluteness in electoral politics too. Although she never hid the fact that she likes Modi, she hadn’t extended the affinity towards his party or mentioned that she wanted to see him as the Prime Minister. While the general impression was that she was likely to tie up with BJP for 2014, her plan was to go it alone and try to sweep all the seats, not just in TN, but also in Pondicherry.

She knows that BJP’s political value, if at all any, begins only after the elections, because  its vote-share is negligible in Tamil Nadu. Sharing seats with the BJP will earn them practically nothing, but might dissuade some Muslim votes that might have gravitated to the party courtesy its assembly alliance and continued proximity with Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, a Muslim party. Her decision to keep all options open will work also with an eminently possible third front.

Lastly, by choosing to field five candidates from her own party, and not giving one slot to the CPI, she has made it clear that she doesn’t want to lose any opportunity of consolidating the AIADMK’s presence in Delhi. Her move will now force the DMK and DMDK to make their plans clear as this The Hindu report indicates.

In the end, it’s not the big UP that will decide the BJP’s (or anybody else’s) future in Delhi, but a smart and compact Tamil Nadu too.

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