From Nehru to Manipur’s civil war: A short history of double-engine sarkars

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Double-engine sarkar. Coined by the BJP, the Hinglish term refers to the fact that the saffron party often sells the idea to voters that having the same party in the state and the Centre will turbocharge development.

How true is it? Manipur currently offers a stark example of its working. The state is currently in a state of civil war, as two of its ethnicities attack each other in alternating waves of communal rioting and, in some cases, action by armed militant groups. It is clear that the state government has completely failed in its most important job: maintaining the peace. In fact, critics claim it is openly partisan, supporting one side of the conflict.

Oddly enough, the state government has come in for very little public censure from Delhi. The Indian Constitution has provisions to dismiss a state government in the case of a breakdown in constitutional machinery. However, the idea has never been discussed since Manipur is a “ double-engine sarkar”. The BJP rules the state.

Unpopular engine

Take the other example that was recently in the news: Karnataka. The state went to polls in May with a “double engine sarkar” in place. However, as I reported for a previous India Fix, the twin engine was actually incredibly unpopular. As a result, the people of the state actually voted out the BJP and put in place a single-engine sarkar.

Clearly, while the BJP might be pushing the idea hard, Manipur and Karnataka show that double engine sarkars are not necessarily very effective and, as a consequence, very popular.

In fact, a Scroll analysis showed that only 45% of Indians are ruled by a double-engine sarkar. The number of Indians who voted for one are even fewer, since some of these BJP state governments were formed by using defections. Once we remove these states, the number of Indians who actually voted to be in a double-engine sarkar falls to only 30%.

Age of hegemony

Oddly enough for its unpopularity today, double-engine sarkars were actually the dominant political model at the time of India’s independence. At the time of transfer of power from the British in 1947, all provinces – as states were called then – were ruled by the Congress which also ruled at the Centre. The Nehruvian period is therefore the heyday of the double-engine sarkar – so hegemonic that it didn’t even require a name. It was simply the standard model for Indian politics.

Ironically, the period also explains why double-engine sarkars have so little popularity now. Indians saw how patchily they performed. Take the case of West Bengal. While Bengal had a Muslim League government till 1947, after Partition, the Congress took power in the newly created western half of the province. From this point to Nehru’s death, the state was ruled by the Congress. Yet, the state saw an incredible free fall under this double engine sarkar.

In the 1971 book Agony of West Bengal, a thorough examination of the state’s economic decline since 1947, a veteran Ananda Bazar Patrika journalist, Ranajit Roy, detailed how West Bengal’s gross industrial output fell from 27% of India’s in 1947 to only 17% by 1961. Contrary to popular belief, much of the industrial decline of the state took place during the Congress’ “double-engine sarkar”. The rise of the Left in the state was a result of this fall, as industrial decline led to a rise in labour unrest, rather than its primary cause.

Losing to win

Roy blames much of this decline on Delhi. The Centre cut Bengal’s taxes at will. It also went on to implement massive centralised schemes such as freight equalisation which subsidised rail transport for critical industrial inputs such as coal, steel and cement, so that these would be available at constant prices across the country. This massively hurt Bengal, close to the source of these raw materials, and boosted industry in the South. All this kept happening, even as West Bengal had near-constant Congress rule right till 1977.

Ironically, one of the main beneficiaries of Central policies at this time was Tamil Nadu, a state famous for being fiercely federal. By the 1960s, the state was in ferment, with violent agitations against Hindi. By 1967, the Congress had lost power. From then till the present, national parties not only did not rule in the state, they barely had any presence. The entire political space, government and opposition, was occupied by state parties.

However, the loss of this double-engine actually turbocharged development and the state is one of India’s most developed today in spite of being a laggard at the time of independence. In 1960, Tamil Nadu had a state domestic product that was only two fifths of Uttar Pradesh – a state that has seen constant rule by national parties. Today Tamil Nadu has an economy which is larger than Uttar Pradesh.

That said, exceptions exist. Maharashtra and Gujarat have been ruled for a long period by national parties and have also done well economically. Clearly, having a double engine sarkar is not a good predictor to whether a state will become richer and is, at best, a meaningless factor.

Public pressure v internal mechanisms

At first glance, this would seem counterintuitive. Having the same party at the state and Centre should, in theory, as the BJP claims, lead to smoother governance. Apart from the standard bureaucratic channels, the ruling party itself should be able to liaise between Delhi and the state. However, in practice, this can also work the other way round: a party high command might want to, for political reasons, stifle genuine demands from a state. Moreover, were this to happen, a “double-engine” state would even be unable to protest given it would have to adhere to internal party discipline.

Bengal under its second chief minister, BC Roy, is actually a great example of this. Roy, whose term overlapped almost completely with the Nehrvian era, actually strongly protested against Central police which were clearly harming West Bengal. But being a party man, this was always done in private. In fact, often informally with Nehru, since the two shared a personal relationship. Maharashtra had more luck with this internal channel. However, states like Tamil Nadu were able to successfully put pressure on Delhi using external challenges and public pressure.

This dynamic exists even today. For example, Tamil Nadu is able to much more strongly protest what it sees as unfair distribution of taxes. Maharashtra and Gujarat – also industrialised states like Tamil Nadu – are unable to protest similarly since they must adhere to the BJP’s internal party discipline.

Clearly, at some level, the Indian voter has realised this and trusts the public process better than the internal mechanisms that the BJP today and the Congress earlier promised using “double-engine sarkars”.

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