What Makes India a Federal Country

Article 1 listed in Part 1 of the Indian Constitution explicitly states that “India, that is Bharat shall be a Union of States”. Moreover, the term federation is nowhere used in the constitution of India. This brings us to the question of what makes India a federal country. 

The idea of federation was for the first time used in the Nehru Report of 1928. Before deeper analysis, it is pertinent to explore the idea of federalism. Federalism is a structure in which powers are divided between the Union government and the state or regional government. The powers are well divided and defined by the constitution itself. Examples of countries having federal government arrangements are- the USA, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Russia etc. The Union government is also known as the Central government or Federal government and the state governments are also known as regional or provincial management. The Latin term ‘Foedus’ is the root of the word ‘Federalism’ and it implies a treaty or an agreement. There are two ways in which a federation is formed I.e. by method of integration or disintegration. The United States of America is an example of the integration of constituents to form a federation. On the other hand, Canada is an example of a disintegration form of federalism a the power is divided among provinces. 

Despite mentioning the word ‘Union’ in Article 1 of the Indian Constitution, India is a federal country. Dr Ambedkar noted two reasons for preserving the word union over federal I.e 1. The federalism in India is not a consequence of an agreement among States 2. The states cannot secede from the union. 

The Indian constitution is based on the disintegration model of federalism and as said the word ‘Union’ is chosen. Moreover, it has a centralizing tendency. All this seems to be an inspiration from the Canadian model of federalism rather than the USA’s model. 

Elements in the Indian constitution that reflect federal spirit are – 

  1. The division of powers between the centre and the states is visible. The seventh schedule of the Indian Constitution divides the responsibilities in the form of three lists I.e. Union List, State List and Concurrent List. The subjects under the Union list can only be brought to effect by the Central Government and the state government have exclusive jurisdiction over the items under the state list (barring a few extraordinary situations). In matters of the concurrent list, the Central government and the state government both can make laws. But, in case of conflict between the two, the central government’s decision will be final. Furthermore, the subjects that are nowhere mentioned in the lists are contained in the residuary list and the central government has exclusive authority over the items mentioned in it. 
  2. Indian constitution is written in nature. It took around 2 years 11 months and 18 days to create this voluminous document. It comprises around 470 articles listed in 25 parts and has 12 schedules. The constitution is meticulously elaborated and has guaranteed provisions regarding structure, distribution of powers and functions among the centre and the units. This further helps in discarding the ambiguity concerning power distribution and also avoids disagreement.
  3. Dual government i.e. one at the centre and the other in states. The central or union government is taken to look into matters that have wider repercussions like defence, national security, external affairs etc. The state government takes note of regional developments at the state level. This type of arrangement helps in having proper coordination and diligent execution at all levels. 
  4. The procedure to amend the provisions of the Constitution is not very easy. It is rigorous. It ensures that the federal nature of the constitution is not easily modified at the whims and fancies of one power. Moreover, it is an assurance to the regional governments about their existence. The federal provisions that impact both the centre and states need the agreement of both the central and the state governments. Article 368 of the constitution is invoked to bring in a special majority to amend these provisions. 
  5. The Constitution is supreme. It is the bedrock of our democracy and the highest law of the land. The temple of democracy I.e. The Parliament too derives authority from the provisions enshrined in the constitution of India. Moreover, the Supreme Court also maintains the legality of laws made by the parliament or state legislature after reading the provision of the constitution. Hence, the Constitution sets the boundary line for the central and the state governments to operate. 
  6. The independence of the judiciary symbolizes the presence of checks and balances per the arbitrary legislation of either the central or the state government. It also assists in resolving disputes between the centre and states. The independence of judges is maintained due to the stringent selection and removal process, charge of salaries, set service conditions etc. 
  7. There is also a provision for the Bicameral legislature to have a house of elders and a house of people. The Lok Sabha represents the whole of India and the Rajya Sabha depicts the states of India. Some States too have the same bicameral structure. 

There is also a concept of ‘Asymmetric Federalism’ in India. As per it, special powers have been entrusted to certain sections of the country. For illustration, Article 371 A grants special power to Nagaland etc. It is useful in maintaining unity in diversity, ensuring social justice, and providing for regional inequities among others. 

Additionally, there are concepts of cooperative and competitive federalism. Cooperative federalism implies that the centre and state cooperate in operations and have a horizontal relationship. It is reflected in the Indian context in the form of Schedule 7, NITI Aayog, Zonal Councils, etc. On the other hand, competitive federalism signifies that centre and state have a vertical relationship. There is competition between the states and the centre and even amongst the states as to who will tap the maximum benefits. For example, there is competition among States to attract more FDIs. India needs to stress both types of federalism to ensure quick and sustained progress. 

Sarkaria Commission’s 1988 report also suggests some key recommendations in terms of furthering the idea of federalism in India, as- 

  • Rajya Sabha should be empowered to play a larger role and that can be done by altering the rule of business of the house.
  • Progressive use of Article 258, which entrusts the Union the power to grant certain powers to states. 
  • More power should be decentralized to local bodies. 
  • Residuary powers other than taxation should be transferred to the concurrent list.
  • It asserted that Article 356 (President’s rule) should be used in extreme cases only. The concept of federalism in India should have the dual responsibility of maintaining national unity on one hand and regional autonomy on the other. 

KC Wheare defines Indian Federalism as ‘quasi-federal’ I.e. while the power is divided between both the centre and the states, the central government is accorded more powers. The Supreme Court in the SR Bommai case held that federalism is a part of the Basic Structure of the Indian constitution. Hence, it is beyond the amending power of the Indian Constitution.

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