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Quasi-Federalism in India

Context

The contemporary discourse on federalism in India is moving on a discursive across multiple dimensions, be it economic, political and cultural. It is argued that India is at an inflection point vis-a-vis Centre-State relations owing to increasing asymmetry.

Relevance

GS-II: Functions and Responsibilities of the Union and the States, Issues and Challenges Pertaining to the Federal Structure, Devolution of Powers and Finances up to Local Levels and Challenges Therein.

Dimensions of the Article

  • What is Federalism?
  • Indian case: Federal, quasi-federal or hybrid?
  • Reasons for a centralized federal structure
  • Way Forward

What is Federalism?

  • Federalism is a system of government in which the power is divided between a central authority and various constituent units of the country.
  • This vertical division of power among different levels of governments is referred to as federalism.
  • Federalism is one of the major forms of power-sharing in modem democracies.

Indian case: Federal, quasi-federal or hybrid?

  • India consciously adopted a version of federalism that made the Union government and State governments interdependent on each other (latter more vis-a-vis the former).

The federal features of the Constitution of India are:

  • Written Constitution: Features of the Indian Constitution is not only a written document but also the longest constitution in the world. Originally, it included a Preamble, 395 articles (22 parts), and 8 schedules.
  • Dual Polity: The constitution establishes a dual polity that includes the union at the periphery. Each is endowed with sovereign powers to be exercised in the field assigned to them respectively by the Constitution.
  • Bicameralism: The constitution provides for a bicameral legislature in which an upper house (Rajya Sabha) and a lower house (Lok Sabha). Rajya Sabha represents the states of the Indian Union, whereas The Lok Sabha represents the people of India as a whole.
  • Division of Powers: The Constitution divided the powers between the Center and the states in terms of the Union List, State List, and Concurrent List in the Seventh Schedule.
  • Supremacy of the Constitution: The Constitution is the supreme law of the country. The laws made by the Center and the states should be in conformity with Provision. Otherwise, they may be declared invalid by the Supreme or High Court through its power of judicial review.
  • Rigid Constitution: The division of powers established by the Constitution as well as supremacy of the constitution can be maintained only if the method of its amendment is rigid. It is necessary for both houses to agree to amend the constitution.
  • Independent judiciary: The constitution establishes an independent judiciary headed by the Supreme Court for two purposes: one, to protect the supremacy of the constitution, and two, to settle the disputes between the Centre and states or between the states.

Besides the above federal features, the Indian constitution also possesses the following unitary features:

  • Strong Centre: The division of powers is in favour of the center and unequal from a federal point of view. Firstly, the Union list contains more subjects than the state list, secondly, the more important subjects have been included in the union list and the Centre has overriding authority over the concurrent list.
  • Single constitution: The constitution of India embodies not only the constitution of the Centre but also those of the states. Both the Centre and the States must operate within this single frame.
  • Destructible nature of states: Unlike in other federations, the states in India have no right to territorial integrity. The parliament can change the area, boundaries, or name of any state.
  • Emergency provisions: The emergency provisions are contained in Part XVIII of the Constitution of India, from Articles 352 to 360. In the emergency provisions, the central government becomes all-powerful and the states go into total control of the Centre.
  • Single citizenship: Single citizenship means one person is the citizenship of the whole country. The constitution deals with citizenship from Articles 5 and 11 under Part 2.
  • All India services: In India, there are all India services (IAS, IPS and IFS) which are common to both the Centre and the states. These services violate the principle of federalism under the constitution.
  • Appointment of governor: The governor is appointed by the president. He also acts as an agent of the Centre. Through him, the Centre exercises control over the states.
  • Integrated election machinery: The election commission conducts elections for central and state legislatures. But the Election commission is constituted by the president and the states have no say in this matter.
  • Equality (= Equity) of representation: The states are given representation in the upper house on the basis of population. Hence, the membership varies from 1 to 31.
  • Integrated Judiciary: The term Integrated Judiciary refers to the fact that rulings made by higher courts bind lower courts. The Supreme Court of India incorporates all lower courts, from the Gram Panchayat to the High Courts. The Supreme Court is at the very top.
  • Union veto over State Bills:  The governor has the authority to hold certain sorts of laws passed by the state legislature for presidential consideration. The President has the authority to refuse to sign such bills not only in the first instance but also in the second.

Reasons for a centralized federal structure

There are at following reasons that informed India’s choice of a centralised federal structure.

  1. Partition of India and the concomitant concerns: The 1946 Objectives Resolution introduced by Nehru in the Assembly were inclined towards a decentralized federal structure wherein States would wield residuary powers.
  2. Reconstitution of social relations in a highly hierarchical and discriminatory society: The centralized structure would unsettle prevalent trends of social dominance, help fight poverty better and therefore yield liberating outcomes.
  3. Building of a welfare state: In a decentralized federal setup, redistributive policies could be structurally thwarted by organized (small and dominant) groups. Instead, a centralized federal set-up can prevent such issues and further a universal rights-based system.
  4. Alleviation of inter-regional economic inequality: Provincial interventions seemed to exacerbate inequalities. India’s membership in the International Labour Organization, the Nehru Report (1928), and the Bombay Plan (1944) pushed for a centralized system to foster socio-economic rights and safeguards for the working and entrepreneurial classes.
  5. Linguistic reorganization: It would not have been possible if India followed a rigid or conventional federal system. In other words, the current form of federalism in the Indian context is largely a function of the intent of the government of the day and the objectives it seeks to achieve.
  • From the above, it is clear that India has deviated from the traditional federal systems like the USA   and incorporated a large number of unitary features, tilting the balance of power in favor of the Centre.
  • Hence K C Wheare described the constitution of India as “quasi-federal”.

Way Forward

  • The majoritarian tendencies sometimes are subverting the unique and indigenised set-up into an asymmetrical one.
  • Inter alia, delayed disbursal of resources and tax proceeds, bias towards electorally unfavourable States, evasion of accountability, imposition of language, weakening institutions, proliferation of political ideologies all signal towards the diminishing of India’s plurality or regionalisation of the nation.
  • While it would be safe to argue that our federal set-up is a conscious choice, its furthering or undoing, will depend on the collective will of the citizenry and the representatives they vote to power.

Source – The Hindu

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September 2022
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