Is Federalism a Victim of Tragedy of Commons?

Politicians of a certain ilk have a certain campaign method. This ilk is made of those who are right of centre or those who imagine a middle class constituency or both. Their stock method is to talk in terms of projects or project ideas. Classic examples of this kind include Narendra Modi and J Jayalalitha: they go to a given constituency and discuss what they can bring as heads of government to that constituency. In other democracies, this’d be called pork barrel and the fiscal conservatives will be outraged at such promises. In India, rarely is any attempt made to even camouflage it.

The use of fiscal powers in the future to buy votes in the present has two major methods in Indian elections. However, these two are viewed very differently. If the campaign makes a promise of delivering welfare schemes, it’s considered fiscally profligate. But if it offers a project of some sort to locals — such as promising a bridge or a factory — it passes for development.

The two approaches apart from being rooted in different economic philosophies, have a crucial political dichotomy that is overlooked by those belonging to the former ilk. Typically everyone but the INC in India hold to federalism as a plank. Some do so as a matter of core principle — like the DMK and the SAD — and others simply because the INC has been in power most often in Delhi and they find federalism a political necessity to seek space for themselves. The BJP belongs more to the latter category than the former.

Whatever the motivations of a philosophical position, what matters to voters is an element of internal consistency. Let’s consider the AIADMK for instance — their manifesto does make significant points on the subject such as rejecting the Raghuram Rajan Committee Report and seeking central grants be shared equally under Article 275. The BJP manifesto on the other hand mentions federalism only once; its commitment to it is without any concrete plans to strengthen it. But the real issue is how does a commitment to federalism square with the constituency level pork barrel promises? What if those domains that the promises are being made under happen to be state subjects? Or, ought to be?

The flagship programs of UPA, such as NRHM, RTE, NREGA are all serious usurpations of state powers; especially in areas where state governments should be investing and concentrating the most. That’s of course expected from the INC which sees itself as a party of government in the Delhi; it doesn’t see itself as a champion of federalism. The INC however doesn’t promise as much constituency level pork barrel and instead makes a sweeping capture of states’ rights. But what do challengers whose base is in the states, but are seeking power at the centre, do? For example, Narendra Modi’s mention of cow slaughter as a Prime Ministerial candidate in makes it absurd for the BJP to call itself a champion of states’ rights. After all, slaughter of cattle is strictly a state subject and any attempt to make it a national subject because one disagrees with what the state has done insults the given state’s political dignity. But he does it anyway because it’s a cleavage between his party and the incumbents in the state he’s campaigning in. Is a larger welfarist usurpation any better or worse compared to these targeted attempts? Is there a difference? And shouldn’t state Chief Ministers, especially those belonging to regional parties, know better than to co-opt the same techniques?

The entire campaign rhetoric of many candidates contesting Lok Sabha elections revolve around local issues such as a bridge, a flyover, water scarcity, garbage disposal and similar things that one’d expect in the manifesto of a Mayor. There is of course the MPLADS which may be utilised for smaller projects. But for most cases an MP lacks the ability to deliver outcomes. When a leader of a Party, such as say Narendra Modi, promises such local outcomes it may carry better achievability. But the question, should he? What does the voter in a poor country do? Gobble up whatever may be the promise, given outcomes are rare, however distorted the source may be? Or, seek propriety in sources because that’s in the long term local interest? It appears there is a strange sort of tragedy of commons that forces less and not more federalism at least when it comes to campaigning.