Stalin’s letter on Inter-State Council, and what it means to federalism

The Tamil Nadu CM's letter to the Prime Minister has put the spotlight on the importance of Inter-State Council in deciding federal issues and why it should meet at least three times in a year

Stalin Modi meeting
MK Stalin’s letter assumes importance in the light of the controversy over his raising three key demands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month. Pic: Twitter

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting him to hold meetings of the Inter-State Council (ISC) at least thrice a year. Further, he wants Bills of national importance to be placed before the ISC ahead of their introduction in Parliament.

“I strongly suggest that every Bill of national importance that is likely to affect one or more states should be placed before the Council before it is introduced into Parliament, and the views of the Council are also tabled before the Parliament at the time of introduction of such a Bill,” he said in his letter.

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Stalin’s letter assumes importance in the light of the controversy over his raising three key demands during the inauguration of infrastructure plants in Tamil Nadu by Modi last month. His detractors had said that raising those demands at that forum was insulting to the Prime Minister.

How the ISC helps

The perfect forum for that would have been the ISC, a key part of the federal set-up. It provides a common platform for Chief Ministers to put forth their views on the policies and legislative actions of the Union government. But, for it to function well, meetings need to be held. It was in the absence of such meetings – Stalin made it obvious –  that he had to use another forum to share his thoughts with the PM.

“Since the purpose of the Council is to strengthen, advance and support the spirit of cooperative federalism, I urge that the meetings are organised regularly,” he wrote to the PM. 

The ISC, which was established to enhance the coordination between the Centre and states, has met only once in the last six years. This means that the ‘appropriate’ platform where the states and the Centre can discuss issues has not been given due importance. “Over the last six years, this meeting was conducted only once, i.e. on 16-7-2016 in New Delhi,” Stalin reminded Modi.

The background

The ISC was set up in 1990 through a presidential ordinance as per the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission under the Ministry of Home Affairs and was mandated to meet thrice a year. But, in 26 years, it has met only 11 times, supporting the oft-repeated observation that the Congress at the Centre was as little invested in cooperative federalism as the BJP is at present.

The Prime Minister acts as the chairman of the ISC. Its other members include Union ministers of cabinet rank, council of ministers nominated by the Prime Minister, chief ministers of all states, chief ministers of Union Territories (UTs) having a legislative assembly, administrators of UTs not having a Legislative Assembly, and governors of the states being administered under President’s rule.

Article 263 of the Constitution has the provision for the establishment of an ISC and as such, it is a platform to discuss policies, strengthen the Centre-state relations and act as a bridge to reduce the trust deficit between the Centre and the states. 

What made Stalin emphasise on the meets

Stalin’s letter puts the spotlight back on the ISC and its intermittent working. He requested that the agenda for the next ISC meeting include matters such as placing proposed Bills for discussion to strengthen the spirit of cooperative federalism. Without such a platform, there is no scope for effective and interactive communication between the Union and states on issues of common interest, he observed.

“We have seen instances where many Bills affecting the rights and interest of the states are passed in Parliament without proper opportunity being given to the opposition to debate its merits and voice the concern of the states,” he pointed out, adding that as a consequence, the views, concerns and constructive suggestions of states are not properly heard by the Union during the process of decision-making for the nation as a whole.

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“What could be settled amicably among the executive branches is often taken to the doorsteps of the judicial branch. Many a time, this leads to unpleasant and vexatious litigation involving states and Union that are easily avoidable. Therefore, if the council meets regularly, I am sure that it would serve as a bridge between the Union and the states and would be mutually beneficial to all its members.”

Stalin went on to appreciate the reconstitution of the Council, which was carried out last month. It now has 10 Union ministers as permanent invitees. Its standing committee has been reconstituted with Union Home Minister Amit Shah as Chairman. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and the chief ministers of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are among the other standing committee members.

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