The Indian Union and its bedrock of federalism

It is the strengthening of federal polity and recognition of diversity that has contributed to the uniqueness and vibrancy of Indian democracy

Published - August 15, 2021 03:47 am IST

The Union government conceded the demand for a linguistic reorganisation of States in the 1950s when the demands became hard to ignore. Picture is of a conference, in 1955, of Chief Ministers to discuss the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission.

The Union government conceded the demand for a linguistic reorganisation of States in the 1950s when the demands became hard to ignore. Picture is of a conference, in 1955, of Chief Ministers to discuss the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission.

A few weeks ago, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu took offence when the State government referred to the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government as a Union government. By a strange semantic twist, they argued that calling it a Union rather than Central government smacks of divisive politics! The debates that ensued, and subsequent clarifications by legal experts on the constitutional sanctity of the term ‘Union’, highlight a key but less acknowledged feature of post-independent Indian polity. It is the critical role of federalism in democratising political processes and strengthening the Union.

A ‘holding together’ model

To be sure, the Indian government is not strictly federal, with subnational units coming together to form a federation as in the U.S. Rather, it approximates a ‘holding together’ model that ensures autonomy to subnational units so as to ensure efficiency in governance and to represent regional diversity. In fact, scholars contend that the issue of regional representation is particularly important in culturally diverse countries such as India. Noted political scientist Ashutosh Varshney points out that this becomes even more compelling when cultural diversities are mapped on to distinct territories such as in India, Canada, Belgium or Nigeria. As the tragic and bitter experience of Sri Lanka shows, a failure to do this can end up actually weakening the country. The argument that strong subnational governments can undermine the strength of the Centre is, therefore, not tenable.


Though cognisant of the need to accommodate India’s diversity, the Indian Constitution does give more powers to the Union government. Conceived as it was in the context of Partition and demand for independent nationhood by princely States such as Travancore and Hyderabad, there was a political consensus within the Congress that a strong central authority is essential for ‘holding together’. B.R. Ambedkar, chairman of the Drafting Committee, however, assured that the Constitution is indeed federal, with the Union and the States deriving their respective powers and authority from the Constitution. State governments are not subnational agents of the Union government but are governments in their own right, with a specific set of powers and responsibilities guaranteed by the Constitution. The Union government cannot, therefore, intervene in the domain of State governments. Nevertheless, the relations are indeed asymmetrical between the Union government and the States by design. Apart from the list of domains clearly demarcated between the Union and State governments, the Union government has overriding powers in the subjects listed under the Concurrent List, and also has primary control in the residual domains.

Despite such asymmetry of power and significant lapses, political practice in India has ensured that such powers and lapses have been kept in check. Federal relations had in fact improved over the years through such practice. The Union government, for example, conceded the demand for a linguistic reorganisation of States in the 1950s when the demands became hard to ignore. Similarly, in the 1960s, it agreed to postpone the declaration of Hindi as the sole official language until there was consensus among all States. Rather than weakening, such moves actually strengthened the Union. On the contrary, efforts to centralise power by the Union government in the 1970s and 1980s generated centrifugal pressures across several regions. The series of Centre-State conflicts that followed were resolved not through more centralisation but through recognition of the rights and demands of regions. The emergence of coalition governments since 1989 played an important role in this. Contrary to popular perceptions that they cannot be decisive, coalition governments were in fact responsible for landmark decisions that have defined the trajectory of Indian development. The government headed by Mr. V.P Singh not only implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission to initiate affirmative action policies for Backward Classes but also established the Inter-State Council as a constitutional body to address inter-State conflicts based on federal principles. Subsequent coalition governments oversaw the implementation of major economic reforms in the 1990s apart from passing the Right to Employment, the Right to Information, the Right to Education and the Right to Food Acts that opened up spaces for democratisation and social inclusion.

Inspiring initiatives

While coalition governments provided space for regional voices within the Union government, policy innovations by State governments have inspired several developmental initiatives by the Union government. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is inspired by a similar scheme in Maharashtra launched in the 1970s. The Integrated Child Development Services Scheme that simultaneously addresses schooling and nutrition by providing nutritious meals in schools is modelled after the pioneering mid-day meals programme launched in Tamil Nadu. Ayushman Bharat is based on health insurance programmes launched by State governments such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The Pradhan Mantri-Kisan Samman Nidhi that supports small farmers through cash transfers mimics the Rythu Bandhu scheme of Telangana. Importantly, responding to regional political demands, States such as Tamil Nadu have refrained from adopting targeted Public Distribution System policies despite pressure from the Union government and multilateral agencies. Living through a pandemic, we now know the pitfalls of targeting in a transitioning economy such as India, where economic vulnerabilities can easily push people into poverty.

Apart from specific policy innovations, inter-State diversity in development trajectories also allows for mobilising alternate historical models for learning. For example, when growth-centric interventions in States such as Gujarat were showcased as the way to ensure development under neoliberalising conditions, Tamil Nadu and Kerala suggested otherwise — that prioritising investments in human development and democratising opportunities can deliver more inclusive development. Driven by democratic pressures, such policy emphasis has also helped counter the power of dominant development narratives diffused by technocratic elites and policy think tanks. Schemes often derided as a waste of resources in such policy circles have subsequently become the hallmark of India’s welfare architecture.

A federal polity also ensures plurality of identities and hence helps resist majoritarian mobilisation based on a singular and exclusionary identity. Amartya Sen, in fact, makes a strong case for a multiplicity of identities as key to expanding human freedoms. Identity-based majoritarian mobilisation, however, requires the erasure of such plural identities. As a result, despite conditions being more conducive for federating and a promise to usher in cooperative federalism by the NDA government, processes have actually worsened in recent years. The reduction of the State of Jammu and Kashmir to Union Territories, squeezing taxation powers of State governments, a New Education Policy that denies a role for State governments, arbitrary levy of cess that is not shared with States, and flexing of financial and political muscle to direct policy-making by State governments have assumed a more systemic tenor. This shift also appears to be inspired by a belief that a strong Centre is required to make India powerful. History, however, tells us otherwise. As we enter into the 75th year of Independence, it is worth recalling that it is the strengthening of the federal polity and a recognition of diversity that has contributed to the vibrancy of Indian democracy. In fact, States that have made the most principled demands for subnational autonomy have contributed substantially to sustain the Constitutional commitment to India’s plural traditions and ethos. Efforts to learn from such diverse traditions rather than homogenisation have sustained our democracy thus far.

M. Vijayabaskar is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and a member of the State Development Policy Council, Government of Tamil Nadu. Views are personal

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