Scottish referendum

Devolution in democracies

The last two weeks have been fairly hectic with following the Scottish referendum and visits to the British and Scottish parliaments in the aftermath of the referendum. The King’s Chevening programme organised a wonderful interaction with current researchers at the University of Edinburgh on contemporary India and current politics in Scotland. Through the discussion and various readings that were provided, there are several global trends that come to light, which obviously have implications for all,irrespective of the field of specialisation/expertise.

Trend 1: As global citizens, we all have multiple and complex identities, which shape how we want decisions to be taken

This was also brought out by Michael Keating,┬áProfessor of Politics, University of Aberdeen and Director of ESRC Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change, when he explained that the understanding of the welfare state as we understand it has shifted, and that sovereignty has two aspects to it: a) the functional capacity to control things and b) the normative understanding i.e. who is the ultimate authority? Both these aspects have a role to play in what one’s identity is and who takes decisions for that identity.

Trend 2: The age of democracy is past: devolution is the new buzz word

There is a global move seen in Africa, Middle East and Europe, where groups of people have been clamouring for greater autonomy to make their own decisions and move away from the legacy that they inherited. While some of these movements are a consequence of ethnic identities, some have also been shaped by newer forces like population distribution, struggle for natural resources and climate change.

At the basis is the understanding that local/provincial governments have a better sense of the immediate needs and can plan better, making decisions that contribute to culture, education and economic development of the province. Scotland, as a nation, was lobbying to be able to make decisions on access to free education, free healthcare, to stay out of being a nuclear state and the ability to allow immigration as opposed to the UK’s stringent immigration policy that was dissuading students from applying to institutes of higher education.

My own understanding is that Scotland was seeking devolution and greater autonomy and not quite complete independence from the UK. One of the biggest reasons for the tipping of the vote in favour of a ‘no’, might have been that the economic independence and currency issue was never quite completely resolved. Also becoming an independent nation state might have created additional expenses in terms of creating a separate military to guard borders, separate central bank and possibly, in the long run, an independent currency.

In the Indian context, one can see similar conflicts, one of which resulted in the recently formed Telengana. There is, however, a stark difference in the manner in which the state was formed. Unlike other states that were formed in the past, Telengana was formed as a part of election lobbying, where the people’s opinion was not sought in a systematic manner. The other point to consider is that India is far too complex to divide in any systematic manner. The current division and formation of states has loosely been on the basis of language, but there are many more identities that exist: that of communities, cuisine, local culture. In such a melting pot, the ability for devolved powers to take decisions on matters like education might result in further divisions.

Given the trends of devolution that are sweeping through the world, India is likely to face similar pressures. The one thing that works in our favour is a written constitution that clearly outlines the powers of the centre vs. states. However, it would merit current policy makers to clearly outline what is required at the level of the local governments to ensure that they function in a manner that it aids democracy than act as a hindrance. Local self governments that lack resources or ability to deal with their powers can be a greater threat than aid.