What is Federalism in India?
Federalism is a mode of governance wherein several distinct and separate states or administrative units come together to form one political union in such a way that the constituent units reserve powers with themselves in a certain respect. There is centralization of administration and legislation in specific areas and decentralization in others. A balance is sought between nationalism and localism, unity and diversity. Federalism comprises of dual polity i.e. two levels of government – on one hand at the national level and on the other, at regional levels. In the United States, the Constitution divides power between the federal government and the state governments and gives certain powers to both. Similarly, India’s Constitution is federal in nature, but with novel features. This leads to the academic question, which has been raised time and again, that whether the Indian Constitution is federal or not.
Federal System In India
K.C. Where, a constitutional expert, called India’s political structure as “quasi-federal” i.e. it is not “strictly federal”. Scholars term it as “federal with unitary features” or “unitary with federal features”. The federal characteristic of India’s Constitution includes the fact –
- that the State governments derive their powers from the Constitution of India and not the Central government itself;
- the States enjoy immense autonomy in normal times, other than during emergency, and
- the federal portion of the constitution cannot be amended by the Centre alone, it needs to be done with the States’ support and approval.
Elements of federalism in the Indian Constitution.
But what stands apart in the Indian federalism is that within the federal structure, there are provisions for centralization. A unitary form of government is where the local units of the government are under the Central government. The Central government decides and allocates power to these regional governmental units. The Constitution framers tried to strike a balance between this form of system and the federal system thus, giving India a federal structure with a strong center.
The makers of the Indian Constitution, while drafting the Constitution, had a great advantage – they learned a great deal from other countries and their constitutions. The fact that the Indian Constitution was being drafted in the modern era, with accounts of various developments, advancements, problems, and victories of the Federations of the USA, Canada, and Australia, helped shape it. The difficulties faced by these countries helped India adopt some innovative provisions. B.N Rau, who was the Constitutional Adviser to the Constituent Assembly, compiled the initial draft with inputs from experts not only at home but also abroad. He traveled around the world to assess the global situation and how each lesson learned can be tailored for India. Thus, India’s Constitution is not only well-debated but also well-researched.
Instead of using the word “federation”, the Drafting Committees of the Assembly adopted the “Union of States” (Article 1). This goes to show that, unlike the USA, the Indian States didn’t unite as a result of an agreement, and they can’t secede from the Union. The country is one integral whole. The different states can’t draft their own constitutions in India like they can in the US. India has one supreme authority, the grundnorm of India’s legal system – the Constitution of India. Likewise, India has only single citizenship as opposed to dual citizenship in the USA. This means that there is no separate State citizenship but only Indian citizenship. This prevents the States from discriminating against citizens from outside their own States, allowing all citizens of the country to enjoy the same political and civil rights and to be treated equally. The emergency provisions in the Constitution allow the Centre to take up full control, giving a unitary character to the Indian political organization. Thus, the makers tried to incorporate the advantages of federalism, while trying to avoid its weaknesses of rigidity and lack of uniformity.
Reasons why the Centre was made more powerful in India’s federal structure
In other federations, different units came together to form one bigger unit and the Centre acquired little power vis-à-vis the States. As mentioned above, the US Constitution started with a weak Centre, so did the Australian Constitution. They were termed as true federations. Gradually, the Centre gained more power in these countries as the socio-economic scenario changed, technological advancements took place and international tension and wars increased. India took note of these developments while drafting its own Constitution.
The UK, on the other hand, has a unitary system of government. Till 1935, British India was governed in a unitary form of structure. When in 1935 the unitary structure transitioned to the federal system, there was a heavy reliance on the previous unitary style. Further, the partition of the country strengthened the Constitution-framers’ belief that without a strong Centre, India might disintegrate. Moreover, it was felt that India being highly underdeveloped could progress faster under a strong Centre.
How has the judiciary interpreted the Constitution
The judiciary has shown an inclination towards a strong center, which can be seen in the State of West Bengal v. Union of India, 1963 where the Court rejected the State’s claim of shared sovereignty with the Centre and took note of India’s movement from unitarism to federalism as opposed to what happened in other countries, where separate entities came together. Further in State of Rajasthan v. UOI, Beg, CJ characterized the Constitution as –
“A conspectus of the provisions of our Constitution will indicate that, whatever appearance of a federal structure our Constitution may have, its operations are certainly, judged both by the contents of power which a number of its provisions carry with them and the use that has been made of them, more unitary than federal.”
Again in Karnataka v. UOI, Beg, CJ reiterated the same idea – that our Constitution has strong unitary features. In SR Bommai v. UOI, a nine-judge bench gave seven opinions stating that the concept of Federalism cannot be followed in the strict sense in India. But, the judges have also observed that “States are not mere appendages of the Centre, within the sphere allotted to them, States are supreme. The center cannot tamper with their powers.”
Further, in Hinsa Virodhak Sangh v. Mirzapur Moti Kuresh Jamat, the Court observed that- “The federation is a union because it is indestructible. 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. The Americans had to wage a civil war to establish that the States have no right of secession and that their federation was indestructible. The Drafting Committee thought that it was better to make it clear at the outset rather than to leave it to speculation or to dispute.”
Federalism has seen transformations all over the world- from competitive to co-operative federalism, further to organic federalism, the concept of federalism has never been static, but dynamic. India’s novel balance between unitarism and federalism was brought about by the vision of our Constitution-framers and it is necessary to make sure that neither system becomes more dominant – the federal structures don’t become unitary and vice-versa. To make India’s Federalism more robust and effective, constant negotiations need to be there between the Centre and the States. Inter-governmental cooperation and coordination can help improve the Indian Federalism.
 State of Rajasthan v Union of India  SC 1361
 State of Karnataka v Union of India  AIR 68
 S.R. Bommai v Union of India  AIR 1918
 Hinsa Virodhak Sangh v Mirzapur Moti Kuresh Jamat  5 SCC 33