Who draws the Lakshman Rekha? How the political slugfest is derailing center-state and interstate cooperation

In recent days, there have been frequent references to the “Lakshman Rekha” and the need to respect the limits of his authority. Yet the debate continues over who draws the Lakshman Rekha? Can it be a line of convenience, a constantly shifting line according to his needs and interests? Do those in power often quote the Lakshman Rekha at separate times with drastically different perceptions and to suit what is practical at any given time? In today’s reflections on politics, such an episode is brought to light.

Rising tensions within the federal framework involving Union and state governments over issues related to the civil service and the functioning of government is not a new phenomenon. The recent fiasco involving the Punjab Police, Haryana Police and Delhi Police has drawn attention to the need to uphold the ‘Lakshman Rekha’, to ensure that the fundamental principles of federal governance are adhered to. The episode also raises the question of how power should be exercised with discretion in order to serve the public interest and not to pursue a partisan and often personal political agenda. Over time, it has been noticed that, regardless of the party in power, there is a tendency to broaden the interpretation of the rules and set aside well-established norms to serve the immediate political interests of the party in power.

Just think about the “theater of the absurd” represented by the episode “Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga”. A politician makes a series of comments about the leader of a rival political party. For many of us, this is routine news. The game of politics becomes manifestly visible, when comments and counter-comments erupt with ferocious aggression and complaints are lodged in the police stations. Is it a coincidence that the police stations where complaints are filed are located in states where the ruling party wants to take revenge for the comments made against its leaders?

In this case, the case is filed against Bagga – a BJP leader from Delhi, for the remarks he made against Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the AAP and the chief minister of Delhi. The police station where said complaint is lodged is in Punjab, where the AAP recently took power. The Punjab Police decided to pursue the case and secure Bagga’s arrest. There is no secure binding directive, allowing for arrest and the said action is taken by the Punjab police well outside their state jurisdiction in Delhi. A complaint for kidnapping is filed by Bagga’s father in a Delhi police station. Delhi Police (under the administrative control of the Union Home Ministry) informs Haryana Police of the “alleged abduction”. Haryana Police quickly stopped the Punjab Police vehicle carrying Bagga as it was crossing Haryana, en route to Punjab. Bagga is handed over to Delhi Police and returned to Delhi. Even as the political struggle against the slugs continues, the court shields Bagga from arrest.

What are the key points to keep in mind in the story above? Although “law and order” is essentially a matter of the state and falls within the purview of state governments, there are clear standards that must be followed by state governments exercising authority in this area. Police authority is largely limited to state borders. Any action to be taken by the state police across state lines would require a series of clearances as well as maintaining the state where the arrest is made, in the loop. The debate still rages on whether all these steps were scrupulously followed in the Bagga case. What added to the complexity of the issue was the involvement of the courts and the need for specific court instructions to effect an arrest. In this case, the matter becomes even more complex as the Delhi Police is under the control of the Union Home Ministry and not the Delhi State Government.

It is important to emphasize that the relationship between states and central states revolves around both effective coordination and meaningful cooperation. In the case under discussion, both became serious victims and were replaced by bitter political competition. The needle of the controversy does not involve any question of vital citizen interest or even of public interest but a visibly partisan political fight. It is a messy political game in which the rules of the game are constantly violated, liberally interpreted and selectively cited.

Scoring political points seems to be the goal rather than ensuring justice or fair play. When different levels of government get involved in settling political scores according to the political colors they represent, the administration of justice becomes the first and main victim. When federalism, rooted in the principle of collaboration and coordination between states, becomes a site of political competition, the principles of federal equity are the first to be set aside.

What each of these episodes reminds us of is the need to ensure that administrative processes are not used as tools to settle political scores with rivals. Leaders across the political spectrum must persuade their party cadres to adhere to the “rules of the game” in letter and spirit. The temptation to leverage power for partisan political gain must be strictly avoided.

In a federal system, different levels of government are elected to power on a specific term. This mandate does not include the manipulation of power to settle scores with political rivals. The temptation to do so can come up very frequently. Can leaders rise above these short-term gains and keep the greater social good in mind? Centre-state and inter-state relations should focus on collaboration and cooperation for the common good rather than becoming a tool of partisan political competition.

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