- Introduction stating about Indian federalism.
- Mention briefly the nature of Indian federation.
- Elaborately explain how federalism has democratised the political process and strengthened the Union.
The Indian system of government is not strictly federal, with subnational units coming together to form a federation like the US. Rather, India has a ‘holding together’ model (quasi-federal) that ensures autonomy to the subnational units so as to ensure efficient governance and representation of regional diversity. The issue of regional representation is particularly important in a culturally diverse country like India. The argument that strong subnational governments can undermine the strength of the Centre is, therefore, untenable.
Nature of Indian federation : Cognisant of the need to accommodate Indian diversity, the Indian Constitution, however, has vested more powers in the Union government. It was conceived in the context of the partition and the demand for independent nationhood by Princely States. A political consensus was arrived within the Congress that a strong central authority is essential for ‘holding together’ the Indian ‘Union’ to thwart future secessionist trends. B.R. Ambedkar had, however, assured that the Constitution is federal in that the Union and the States derive their respective powers from the Constitution and that the State governments are not subnational agents of the Union, but are governments in their own right. Nevertheless, the relations are asymmetrical b/w Union and State governments by design – a term also referred to as ‘asymmetrical federalism’. Apart from the list of domains clearly demarcated between them, the 7th Schedule has placed overriding powers under the Concurrent List in the Union government, which also wields primary control in the residual domains.
Role of federalism : Despite such power asymmetry, political practice in India has ensured that such powers are kept in check. Federal relations have improved over the years due to this practice. For e.g., the Union conceded the demand for a linguistic reorganisation of States in 1950s. Similarly, in 1960s, it agreed to postpone the declaration of Hindi as the sole official language until all states reach a consensus. Rather than weakening the Union, such moves actually strengthened it. On the contrary, efforts to centralise power in 1970s & 80s generated pressures on the Union across several regions. The series of Centre-State conflicts were resolved not through more centralisation but through recognition of rights & demands of regions. The emergence of coalition governments since 1989 facilitated this. Contrary to popular perceptions, coalition governments were responsible for landmark decisions, defining the trajectory of Indian development. The V.P Singh government not only implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations for Backward classes but also established Inter-State Council to address inter-state conflicts on federal principles. Subsequent federal governments oversaw the implementation of major economic reforms (1990), Right to Employment, Right to Information, Right to Education and the Right to Food Acts, which created democratisation & social inclusion.
While coalition governments gave space to regional voices in the Union government, policy innovations by State governments have inspired development initiatives by the Union government. The MGNREGA is inspired from a similar scheme in Maharashtra launched in 1970s. The ICDS is modelled after the pioneering mid-day meal programme in Tamil Nadu. Ayushman Bharat is inspired from health-insurance programmes of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi mimics the Rythu Bandhu scheme of Telangana. Apart from specific policy innovations, inter-state diversity in development trajectories allow mobilising models for learning. For e.g., when growth-centric interventions in Gujarat were showcased as a path to development under neo-liberal conditions, Tamil Nadu & Kerala suggested otherwise by prioritising investments in human development and democratising opportunities for more inclusive growth. Driven by democratic pressures, such policy has helped counter the dominant development naratives – a hallmark of India’s welfare architecture. A federal polity also ensures plurality of identities, helping resist the majoritarian mobilisation based on singular-exclusionary identity.
Thus, strengthening of federal polity and recognition of diversity have contributed to the vibrancy of Indian democracy. In the spirit of Cooperative federalism, the States have contributed substantially to sustain the commitment to India’s plural traditions & ethos. Efforts to learn from such diverse traditions rather than homogenisation have sustained democracy thus far.