In a federal structure, states cannot question the authority of Parliament and central government to legislate on most issues barring a few. In the Indian context, Supreme Court has upheld this principle while holding up the West Bengal government’s petition challenging the centre’s decision to link Aadhaar and mobile numbers.
Supreme Court’s constitutional bench though will take a final call in a few months on government’s decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for availing the social and monetary benefits, financial transactions, etc. But, the court’s observation on centre–states relations in matters relating to governance has huge importance. Barring a list of items under states ambit, Union government has the final word. Centre also enjoys overriding powers on issues bracketed under concurrent list though it reserves the right to consult states.
For instance, central government and states have different powers in taxes and revenue collections hence the protracted negotiations that took place to actualise the Goods and Services Tax (GST). On water sharing disputes between different states, centre has a definitive mediation role. On the other hand, central government enjoys sole powers in matters like external and internal security. West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee has been shown her place and told how far she can and cannot go as an elected chief minister. Unless popular leaders in states and centre realise their arc of power, rights and responsibilities, a federal polity like ours cannot work in harmony.
Highest court’s unambiguous stand will put to rest some state chief ministers seeking to take legal recourse in fighting political battles from the precincts of the courts. This seems to be the case with Banerjee itching to carve out a niche for herself on the national scene. It’s not the first time that Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has expressed its apprehensions on linking Aadhaar with socio-economic schemes run by the centre. Within the Parliament and outside, Banerjee’s West Bengal centric party has strongly opposed the move with its reservations.
Interestingly enough, Banerjee in her capacity as chief minister backed out after the Supreme Court rap. But known for her slippery way of political posturing, her party general secretary Mahua Moitra has now been fielded to take on the centre in her individual capacity.
Larger question was whether states and centre can make things happen if they do not budge from adversarial positions? For instance, devolution of 44 per cent taxes share to states would not happened if centre had remained inflexible and adamant. States like West Bengal would have been the loser if the central government under Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi did not offer advances to tide over the tight fiscal situation.
Both states and centre will have to work in the spirit of partnership, give and take rather than hardening positions without Rhyme or genuine reason. Case in point is Odisha’s Naveen Pattanaik where political rivalry between Biju Janata Dal and the ruling BJP did not spill over to centre–state working relations. Similarly, extreme political ideologies laced with immense animus between communists and BJP–RSS should not come in the way of Kerala state and centre’s relations.
With regards to Aadhaar as an intrusive arrangement violating the basic right to privacy, Supreme Court has already taken a position. The highest court’s constitutional bench has rightly stated that right to privacy was not absolute and comes with riders given the social responsibilities of the state.
Even most liberal democracies have not allowed supremacy of individual’s rights over obligations of the state. In fact, in communist ruled countries, most individuals did not have even basic rights to procreate or live a honourable private life.