The Congress has always had a centralised view of India's federal structure. When Jawaharlal Nehru was elected to power in a largely illiterate country, he believed it was his duty to tap a more educated — read Western-educated — elite for policymaking. He then used his vast political capital to push these policies through Parliament. No other Congress Prime Minister had that kind of political clout. Mrs Gandhi worked her way out of that predicament by taking the populist route of ‘Garibi Hatao'.
Mr Rajiv Gandhi tried to protect the right of the elite to make policy by distancing the policymakers from the elected representatives. Policymaking was to take the form of independent missions, led by individual icons like Mr Sam Pitroda. At the same time, the anti-defection law was brought in to ensure that once a directive was issued by the party leadership on a particular policy initiative, the MPs had to vote for it. While the rhetoric of the anti-defection law was to prevent destabilisation of governments, it was used to issue directives on specific policy initiatives.
Mr Narasimha Rao took this institutional structure forward by further distancing the elected representatives from policymaking. The entire process of economic reform was designed by Dr Manmohan Singh and some other economists, and pushed through Parliament with the stated or implicit help of the anti-defection law. In order to ease pressure from the MPs, the Local Area Development Fund was created to provide each Member of Parliament with resources that were to be spent on her constituency. With the MPs having no meaningful role in policymaking, their re-election depended primarily on what they did in their constituencies, and not really on any view that they had on policy.
This political and policy dualism worked very well, as long as the policy initiatives didn't directly affect the MPs constituents. Economic reform that led to high growth rates was all very well, as long as it provided the resources needed for programmes, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (MNREGA), which the local politicians could associate with. It also helped that the reforms in, say, foreign exchange legislation, weren't a major part of the political debate in remote constituencies.
NEW POWER EQUATIONS
But two decades after the initiation of economic reform, this dualism is coming under severe pressure. The low-hanging fruits of reform have been plucked, and the government is being forced to move into territory that directly affects the political debate in local constituencies. FDI in multi-brand retail has been, rightly or wrongly, effectively projected as a measure that will hurt the small retailer. And since there are a large number of people from vegetable vendors to small shopkeepers who can be told their livelihood is at stake, it will be difficult to push through this measure without risking a major, even devastating, political fallout.