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“Federalism is political contravene among those who desire unity without uniformity”-A.V.Dicey

Federalism is a form of political structure that binds distinct polities together within a larger political framework while allowing each to retain its integrity. It is a term that refers to the constitutionally mandated division of powers between two or more levels of government in the modern nation-state system—one at the national level and another at the provincial, state, or local level.

Constituent Assembly Debates

For a strong union:

India is the indestructible union of destructible states.

During the Constituent Assembly debates, the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru cautioned that “it would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak central authority which would be incapable of ensuring peace, of coordinating vital matters of common concern and of speaking effectively for the whole country in the international sphere.” Other notable members of the parliament also argued for a stronger Union government, arguing that it is necessary for India's survival and political stability, given the country's enormous diversity of religion, language, caste, and ethnicity. The agony of partition and the dread of separatist tendencies among newly constituted states re-established the imperative for strong unification.

In the wording of the Constitution, India does not designate itself as a federal state. India, that is Bharat is proclaimed as a union of states. The spirit behind the use of this term was made clear by Dr BR Ambedkar, he said, the use of the term union is deliberate because the federation was not the result of an agreement by the states to join a federation and as the Federation not been the result of an agreement, no state has the right to secede from the Centre.

For greater state autonomy:

However, it is wrong to assume that India's constitutional framework is fully skewed in favour of the Union government's empowerment over the states. The Indian Constitution has several critical federal provisions. "The Constitution is a Federal Constitution," Dr B R Ambedkar assured the Constituent Assembly.

The Union is not a confederation of states, nor are the state's agents of the Union, receiving their authority from it. The Constitution establishes both the Union and the states, and each draws their respective authority from the Constitution." To rule such a heterogeneous polity, an "asymmetrical federalism" framework was chosen. There are Constitutional provisions that safeguard states’ interest any amendment that hampers the federal framework need the state’s approval.

Federalism's defining characteristics under the Indian Constitution are as follows:

1. Division of powers:

It is a necessary characteristic of the federal constitution, and the Constitution itself establishes the separation of powers. The Constitution clearly delineates and defines the Union's and States' powers. According to the Indian constitution, national-level issues such as defence, foreign affairs, and currency are the responsibility of the central government, while local-level issues such as land, water, and agriculture are the responsibility of the states. 

2. Constitutional supremacy:

The Constitution is the primary source of all executive, legislative, and judicial authority. All institutions operate under the Constitution's auspices; they draw their existence from it. Supremacy is necessary for the smooth working of the federal government according to K.C. where.

3. Written constitution:

Federal constitutions should be precise and well-documented. Without a codified constitution, the division of powers between the Centre and the State would never be clearly demarcated. Additionally, without a written constitution, it would be impossible to sustain the constitution's supremacy. The establishment of federal polity is quite complex and therefore clarity must be in their constitution.

4. Rigid constitution:

It is not easily amendable, which serves to preserve the constitution's supremacy. Amendments, for example, can be made by simple majority, special majority, or special majority plus state ratification. Amendments, for example, can be made by simple majority, special majority, or special majority plus state ratification.

5. Judicial power:

In federal states, it is natural that disputes may arise between the centre and the state regarding the interpretation of the Constitution according to them. In this case, an institution or authority capable of properly interpreting the Constitution and adjudicating the disagreement is required. Thus, the judiciary's function becomes critical, and the judiciary's interpretation of the Constitution is binding on all authorities.

6. Bi-Cameral Legislature:

India's legislature is bi-cameral, which is a necessary element of federalism. In India, the legislature is bicameral, consisting of two houses, the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) and the Lower House( Lok Sabha). Any alteration should be enacted into law through the passage of a bill in both houses. Few states in India also have a bicameral legislature; Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, and Uttar Pradesh all have two houses, with the Upper House being the Vidhan Sabha and the Lower House being the Vidhan Parishad. The remaining states, on the other hand, have unicameral legislatures.

Legislative Relations

The Constitution divides legislative authority between the union and the states, the seventh schedule provides three lists namely the union list state list and the concurrent list. The residuary powers are vested with the union. The central government can also legislate on the subject matter of state list under certain circumstances:

  • When Rajya Sabha passes a resolution

  • During national emergency

  • When two or more states make a request through legislation

  • To implement an international agreement

  • When president’s rule is imposed in a state

Administrative Relations

The powers relating to administrative functions have been mainly provided in articles 256 to 263 of part XI of the constitution. The union state administrative relations are organized to enable the union government to exercise considerable control over the state administrative machinery. It is provided at the executive power of every state shall be so exercised to ensure compliance with the laws made by the Parliament, any deviation can lead to the imposition of President rule.

Fiscal Relations

Article 268 to 281 lay down principles for the centre and states to work in coordination for levying and collection of taxes through systematic arrangements. In giving recommendations with regards to the distribution of funds between the centre and state, the Finance commission mentioned under Article 280 plays a very important role.GST Regime-(101st amendment)the introduction of GST in the Indian Economy has significantly changed the landscape of financial relations between the centre and states.

Challenges To India Federalism

  • lack of democracy within the party system

  • International treaties and lack of representation of state governments in them

  • Environmental challenges that respect no boundaries

  • Terrorism, militancy

  • Internal as well as external migration

  • Separatist movements and secessionist tendencies

  • Regionalism, communalism

  • Misuse of the office of governor

  • Centralized planning, one size fits all approach

  • Interstate water issues and land boundary disputes


The changing dynamics and diverse experiences of the Indian State, such as one-party rule, the rise of regional parties, the formation of coalition governments, and the active role of the judiciary, have shaped the trajectory of federalism by swinging the pendulum from cooperative to confrontationist to the other way around.

Throughout Indian political history, the cooperative framework has functioned extremely successfully as long as the national and state governments were ruled by the same political party. However, when different political parties are in control at the federal and state levels, as well as more lately when coalition governments are in power, there are indicators of strains and tensions in intergovernmental relations between the federal and state levels.

India's federalism is founded on goals of nationhood, acknowledgement of state-based cultural diversity and a commitment to the greater Indian political community. Numerous political skirmishes have arisen between the states and the central government, but few came dangerously close to destroying nationhood. While embracing diversity, the centre strives to accommodate the numerous identities of Indian residents, regions, or states.

Unlike the U.S.A which is an example of dual polity federalism, India is an example of cooperative federalism. Also, with the advent of institutions like Niti Ayog and the vision of ‘Team India’, the elements of competitive federalism have also been encompassed. The present philosophy of the regime is to make the centre a friend, philosopher and guide. As Alfred Stepan puts it India's asymmetrical model is demos enabling instead of demos constraining.


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