This piece is part of the series, India @75: Assessing Key Institutions of Indian Democracy.
India’s famed federal system has witnessed relentless transformations under ever-changing political and socio-economic dynamics in a deeply diverse country. As the Indian republic completes 75 years of its existence, it is imperative to delve into the nature and workings of India’s federal system and assess its impact on India’s democratic politics and governance.
A unique federal design
Originally, India had adopted a federal political system that had two tiers of government: The national level and the state level. A crucial third
tier (at the level of panchayats and municipalities) was added post the enactment of the 73rd
Amendments in 1992. The Constitution makers adopted a unique model of a federal structure for independent India which is often called ‘centralised federalism’. This is because unlike classical federalism like the United States (US) or Canada, the Constitution is mandatory for a structurally more powerful Union government in many key areas. The decision of the founding fathers to create a stronger Centre is attributed
to their fear of growing secessionist tendencies in a country which had suffered from the traumatic legacy of partition during independence.
The Union government enjoys superior powers vis-à-vis the states in crucial matters such as the discretion to reconstruct the boundaries of the states. The Union list contains more subjects than the State list and its law prevails over states even on the subjects
in the Concurrent list. Also, the Parliament can legislate on any state subject under extraordinary circumstances, importantly, the Centre enjoys massive control over economic resources and most controversially, the Centre has the power to appoint governors in the states and can dissolve state governments by proclaiming the president’s rule if the Centre deems fit. However, it would be erroneous to assume that India’s federal system is entirely tilted toward the Centre. India’s political system has some major strong
federal features like dual polity and demarcated jurisdiction of powers between the Centre and the states provided in a written Constitution. Also, the amending procedure of the federal provisions of the Constitution is rigid which is possible only with the consent of the majority of the states. Institutional safeguards such as an independent judiciary stand as an arbiter in any dispute between the Centre and the states.
Evolving federal relations
The relationship between the Centre and the states has evolved with the changing times and has been largely contingent upon the transformation of political discourse in different periods. India’s federalism has, right from the outset, been shaped by the complex interaction between the political actors at the Centre and the state level based on overlapping determinants such as political partisanship as well as politics of identity and resources. The dynamics of Indian federalism can be temporally categorised into four phases
from independence to the present time which is One-party Federalism (1952-1967); Expressive Federalism (1967-1989); Multi-party Federalism (1989-2014); and the return of the Dominant Party Federalism (2014 to present).
India’s federalism has, right from the outset, been shaped by the complex interaction between the political actors at the Centre and the state level based on overlapping determinants such as political partisanship as well as politics of identity and resources.
In the first phase, as the party of freedom, the Congress party enjoyed absolute political hegemony, both at the Centre as well as the states, which prompted political scientist Rajni Kothari to call it the ‘Congress System’
. During this period, though national politics was dominated by the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the regional leaders and chief ministers of the Congress also had considerable political clout and support base in the states. Major differences between the Centre and states were resolved in Congress party forums preventing any major federal conflict, creating a consensual model
of ‘inner-party federalism’. Some major exceptions were the controversial decision of the Nehru government to dismiss the Communist party-led state government in Kerala in 1959 which is an early sign of the Centre’s assertion of power over states. However, in this period, the popular regional demands that compelled the Centre to create
linguistic states and the strong opposition from the non-Hindi speaking states against the Union government’s proposal to declare Hindi as the national language are manifestations of regional assertion for cultural and political autonomy that challenged attempts of the centralised and homogenous model of nation-building.
In the second phase from 1967 onwards
, the Congress party was still in power at the Centre but lost power in many states where many regional party-led and anti-Congress coalition governments were formed. This phase marked the emergence of an era of “expressive” and more direct conflictual federal dynamics between the Congress-led Centre and the opposition parties-led state governments. Also, the Congress party became extremely centralised and authoritarian under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after the party split in 1969 and the party’s regional leaders and organisation structures considerably lost their autonomy. Though Congress won the national elections riding on Mrs Gandhi’s popularity during this period (except for the 1977 national election), its social base started eroding due to organisational weakness at the lower level. As a result, the Centre used its discretionary powers to dismiss Opposition-ruled state governments. Even when the Janata government came to power at the Centre in 1977 after defeating Congress, it continued with such coercive techniques to destabilise Opposition-ruled states. Strong regional leaders in Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and West Bengal emerged to resist the Centre’s assertion of power leading to conflictual federalism during this era. The late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed an escalation of massive political crises in states like Assam, Punjab, Kashmir, and Mizoram, partly due to the centralising tendencies of the Centre. However, the Rajiv Gandhi government at the Centre, though practised a centralised model of functioning, ceded some political space to adopt
a reconciliatory approach for finding solutions to the regional identarian demands and political conflicts in Assam, Punjab, and Mizoram.
During the third phase
called the ‘multi-party federalism’ period, a ‘reconfiguration of Indian politics’ took place creating conditions for the regionalisation of national politics. First, as the Congress party’s dominance in national politics considerably declined and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was yet to emerge as a sole national alternative, it created political space for many powerful regional parties and leaders to play a national role in coalition governments and impact the national polity. This period allowed many regional leaders to share national power as no national party was able to garner an absolute parliamentary majority. As the regional actors played a national political role at the Centre by joining either of the national coalitions led by Congress (UPA) and BJP (NDA), acrimonious Centre-state conflicts declined in this era and the Centre’s indiscriminate use of Article 356 to topple state government became rare partly due to changing political dynamics and to Supreme Court ruling
(S.R. Bommai vs Union of India case judgement, 1994) against its arbitrary use by the Centre. Also, this period saw the liberalisation of the Indian economy which gave considerable autonomy to the state governments and the chief ministers to initiate business endeavours and bring in foreign investments to their respective states, in turn, creating their own political imprimatur premised on growth and development. The passing of the 73rd
Amendment Act in 1992 strengthened the grassroot level, by bolstering the local self-government. In a true sense, the third phase opened the doors for genuine federalism via Centre-state contestations and bargaining.
In the current phase, since 2014, the ‘dominant party’ federalism has returned
with the rise of the BJP party. Ending three decades of coalition governments, BJP garnered a comfortable parliamentary majority in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. At the same time, the party has captured power in several states establishing the party’s hegemony
almost similar to the ‘Congress System’.
Though BJP remains an extremely powerful force at the national level, with the considerable political weakening of the Congress, it is mostly the regional parties that have challenged
BJP’s inroads in the state elections to some extent. This period witnessed some major federal discords between the Centre and the Opposition-ruled states as the latter accused
the national ruling party of engineering defections and using the Governor’s office and central investigative agencies to intimidate opposition leaders and destabilise the state governments. Regarding questions of governance, there was initial federal consensus on decisions like passing of GST law, formation of NITI Aayog and GST Council, and acceptance of the Finance Commission’s proposal to increase states’ share of funds. But eventually, the non-BJP ruled states remained at loggerheads with the Centre on several policy issues such as CAA, farm laws, the jurisdiction
of BSF in states, GST compensation and assistance during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, the Centre has also been able to co-opt some Opposition-ruled states on contentious issues such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and CAA built on nationalistic plank, termed
‘national federalism’. However, during the later stages of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, the Centre recognised
the importance of decentralised and localised governance in such a health emergency and gave the states autonomy to deal with the crisis with the Centre playing the crucial coordinating role. In short, while the second
dominant party system has arrived with the hegemonic rise of the BJP, the states led by several regional leaders are resisting the rising trends of centralised federalism.
Though India’s federal system has an inherent central bias, the diverse and localised demands and aspirations of identity, autonomy, and development from different regions have compelled the polity to be accommodative in many ways. In all four phases, the attempts of centralisation and homogenisation have been resisted by regional actors safeguarding the original federal design. The addition of third-tier local-self-government has also effectively emerged as the strong pillar of Indian federalism by decentralising power at the lowest level of governance. However, two major challenges inhibit greater federal cooperation. First, federal relations in India remains heavily marred by concerns of political partisanship as mutual distrust and electoral competition amongst rival parties at the Centre and the states obfuscates chances of political dialogue and consensus-making. Second, due to such festering political divide and suspicion, the inter-governmental institutions like Inter-State Council, GST Council, NITI Aayog, and Zonal Council remain largely under-utilised for resolving Centre-state and inter-state differences over vital issues of governance. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic as recently acknowledged
by Prime Minister Modi has once again reinforced
the undeniable need for a robust federal architecture to deliver effective governance and development in a country as diverse as India.
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