Federalism in India

India’s form of federalism is uniquely Indian. Ours is not completely federal because there is a strong unitary tilt in our polity; it is not unitary because the structure of our polity, on all counts, is federal in form. Professor Whe are (Modern Constitutions) describes India as a quasi-federal system: a unitary state with federal features while K. Santhanam points out two strong unitary features: one, the Union government has, as compared to the States, more financial power s; two, the Union government controls the states in developmental projects through the Planning Commission. Paul Appleby (Public Administration) characterizes the Indian system as extremely ‘federal’ while Jennings (Some Characteristics of the Indian Constitution) refers to India’s polity as ‘mainly’ federal with unique safeguards for enforcing national unity and growth. Alexandro wicz (Constitutional Developments in India) is of the opinion that India’s federal case is unique in character while Granville Austin (The Indian Constitution—Cornerstone of a Nation) describes India as a ‘cooperative’ federation. The Courts in India too have almost similar views. In cases such as State of West Bengal v. Union of India (1963), State of Rajasthan v. Union of India (1977), State of Karnataka v. Union of India (1977), S.R. Bommai: v. Union of India (1994), the Supreme Court has highlighted one or the other federal feature of India, admitting, at the same time, the fact of the strong Centre.

Federal Features of India’s Constitution

India’s polity, structurally, is federal and has, in it, all the characteristics which we and in any federation:

(a) As in every federation, India too has a written Constitution, a fairly lengthy one (395 Article in 1950), covering the Union and the States and local Governments ‘in a single frame, from which neither can get out and within which they must work’ (Ambedkar: Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VII).

(b) The other essential feature of every federal constitution, including that of India, is the distribution of powers: Union List with 97 items (1950) on which the Union government has the power to make laws; the State List with 66 items (1950) on which the States governments have the power to make laws; the Con concurrent List with 47 items (1950) on which, both the Union and State governments can make laws with a provision that the Union law will prevail in case of clash between the Union Law and the State Law on the concurrent item; the Residuary powers are under the control of the Union government, i.e., the Union Parliament has the power to make laws on the residuary items (See Seventh Schedule of the Constitution).

(c) The Constitution of India, like any other constitution of the federal country, is supreme—the supreme law of the land; all the governments, at any levels work within the provisions of the Constitution—any law contrary to the Constitution is declared void by the Supreme Court of India. (d) The Constitution of India provides, as is true of an y other federal system, an amendment procedure which is rigid to the extent it should be: Article 368 prescribes the amending method (special majority of the two Houses of Parliament to be ratified by at least one-half of the States and somewhere, only special majority of the two Houses of the Parliament) on subjects relating to either the power of the Union government or those of the governments of the States),

(e) The authority of the courts, in every federal system is always significant. This is true of India’s Supreme court too. Despite the country has adopted single integrated judicial system, the Supreme Court, with its power of judicial review, is the custodian of the Constitution in general and of the basic structures of the Constitution in particular (Kesavananda case, 1973).

(f) The upper chamber, i.e., the Council of States (the Rajya Sabha), as in any other federation, represents the units, i.e., the federating units (Schedule Fourth of the Constitution), though on the basis of population.

And yet, India’s federal scheme is not like that of either the United States of America or that of Switzerland; it is relatively more close to that of Canada. Despite the references of ‘autonomous units’ and the repository of ‘residuary’ powers to be given to the state, as were made in Nehru’s 1946 Objectives Resolution, the framers of the Constitution settled for the use of the word ‘union’ and not ‘federation’ in the Draft Constitution and in the 1950 Constitution. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had explained himself: “…

What is important is that the use of the word “Union” is deliberate … Though the country and the people may be divided into different States for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people, a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source.” Our federal scheme is the holding together form of federation and is not one of the coming together form type. Our provinces were created, historically, by the Centre, i.e., from the central polity, different units have been formed. It is not like that of the USA or Switzerland where independent and sovereign states came together to form the central government.


Leave a Reply