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Editorials/Opinions Analyses for UPSC – 7 July 2021


  1. Fresh stirrings on federalism as a new politics

Fresh stirrings on federalism as a new politics


Between vaccine wars, heated debates over the Goods and Services Tax (GST), personnel battles like the fracas over West Bengal’s Chief Secretary, and the pushback against controversial regulations in Lakshadweep there is an increased focus on federal structure in India.


GS-II: Polity and Governance (Constitutional Provisions, Basic structure of the Constitution, Federal Structure)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Understanding Unitary System and Federal System
  2. India’s system of Federalism with Unitary Bias
  3. Driving forces of federalism in India
  4. Issues with Indian Federalism

Understanding Unitary System and Federal System

  • Nations are described as ‘federal’ or ‘unitary’, depending on the way in which governance is organised.
  • In a unitary set-up, the Centre has plenary powers of administration and legislation, with its constituent units having little autonomy.
  • In a federal arrangement, the constituent units are identified on the basis of region or ethnicity, and conferred varying forms of autonomy or some level of administrative and legislative powers.
  • In Federal governments such as India, powers are vividly divided between central and regional governments as enshrined in Article 246 & Schedule 7 of the Indian Constitution.

Federalism (Example: U.S.A.)

  • Federalism is a system of government in which powers have been divided between the center and its constituent parts such as states or provinces.
  • In a federation system, there are two seats of power that are autonomous in their own spheres.
  • A federal system is different from a unitary system in that sovereignty is constitutionally split between two territorial levels so that each level can act independently of each other in some areas.
  • State Government has powers of its own for which it is not answerable to the central government.

Unitary System (Example: Britain)

  • In a Unitary Form of Government there is only one level of government or the sub-units are subordinate to the Central Government.
  • The Central Government is supreme, and the administrative divisions exercise only powers that the central government has delegated to them.
  • The powers of the sub-ordinate governments like ‘State Government’ may be broadened and narrowed by the central government.
Unitary countries 
Central government 
Federal countries 
Deconcentration Delegation 
Decentralisation I 

India’s system of Federalism with Unitary Bias

  • India is a federal system with a tilt towards unitary form of government.
  • It is sometimes considered a quasi-federal system as it has features of both a federal and a unitary system.
  • Article 1 of the Indian Constitution states, ‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of States’.
  • The word federation is not mentioned in the constitution.
  • The Drafting Committee chose the word “Union” instead of “Federation” due to various reasons:
    1. The Union of India is not the outcome of an agreement among the old provinces (like in the American Federation).
    2. It is not up to the States to secede from the union or alter their boundaries on their own free will.
  • The Indian Federation is a Union because it is indestructible. Ambedkar justified the usage of ‘Union of States’ saying that the Drafting Committee wanted to make it clear that though India was to be a federation, it was not the result of an agreement and that therefore, no State has the right to secede from it. “The federation is a Union because it is indestructible,” Ambedkar said.
  • Though the country and the people can be divided into different States for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people living under a single imperium derived from a single source.

Driving forces of federalism in India

  • As BR Ambedkar had put it, “India’s Draft Constitution can be both unitary as well as federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances.”
  • The imperatives of security, state building, and economic development are always allowed to trump federal pieties. Following Four things sustain federalism:
  • The first was a genuine concern about whether a centralised state could accommodate India’s linguistic and cultural diversity. The States Reorganisation Act and the compromises on the issue of languages was a victory for federalism. It allowed India to use federalism to accommodate linguistic diversity.
  • The second underpinning of federalism is actual distribution of political power. The rise of coalition governments, economic liberalisation, regional parties, seemed to provide propitious ground for political federalism. Political federalism is quite compatible with financial, and administrative centralisation.
  • The third thing that sustains federalism is the political and institutional culture. Because of the increasing presidentialisation of national politics, a single-party dominance with powerful messaging power, and change in forms of communication, the attribution of policy successes or failures might change, diminishing the stature of chief ministers considerably.
  • The fourth thing that sustained federalism was what Louise Tillin has brilliantly analysed as “asymmetrical federalism” — special exemptions given to various states. But asymmetrical federalism has always been subject to three pressures. For Kashmir, asymmetrical federalism came to be seen as the source, not the resolution, of the security threat. Even in the North-east, local conflicts within the scheme of asymmetrical federalism and a discourse of security allowed the Centre to step in.

Issues with Indian Federalism

  • Coalition Politics yielded little results for federalism: Fiscal and administrative centralisation persisted despite nearly two decades of coalition governments. Ex: Aadhar, NFSA, GST, MGNREGA.
  • Electoral Pragmatism undermining Federalism: The contingencies of electoral politics have created significant impediments to creating a political consensus for genuine federalism. Ex: Toppling coalition government by misusing Governor & Central agencies
  • Federalism diluted under garb of Nationalism: Union governments have diluted with federalism in the grammar of development and nationalism. Ex: One nation – one market, one ration card, one grid’.
  • Misreading Federalism: In present context, federalism risks being equated with regionalism and a narrow parochialism that is anti-development and anti-national.
  • Centralisation at State Level: Also, most regional parties have failed to uphold principles of decentralisation in their own backyard. This shows that States themselves are not following the spirit of Federalism.
  • Silence of States on other State’s Federal issues: For ex: downgrading J&K status, NCT of Delhi (Amendment) Act, 2021 that undermined Federalism hardly witnessed protest by parties that were not directly affected by these.
  • Divergence among States: Growing divergence between richer (Southern & Western) and poorer States (Northern & Eastern), remains an important source of tension in inter-State relations that has become a real impediment to collective action amongst States.
  • Dilution of Fiscal Federalism: The Union’s response, in the wake of fiscal crisis unleased by Pandemic, has been to squeeze revenue from States by increasing cesses (not shareable with States) that is against federal spirit.

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024