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This article is written by Kalhan Safaya, student of Hidayatullah National Law University.

Comprehending the postulate of federalism

The phrase “federalism” is the lawfully mandated separation within authority among the levels of govt of a democratic nation; at the national level and the provincial level. The most noticeable feature of a federal form of government is that the govs at both levels operate independently in their particular regions. 

These are some of the world’s noteworthy federal republics. 

The Indian Constitution established a federal political structure, which means that there are two federal agencies: national and state. Nevertheless, the Constitution Of India has made the Central government institutionally more impactful than the states, giving rise to the obvious contradiction of “centralised federalism.” Nevertheless, it is erroneous to deduce that India’s constitutional structure is completely geared to enabling the National government over the regions. The Indian Constitution contains some critically important federal provisions. 

“The Constitution is a Federal Constitution.”

During the debates of the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar opined: 

“the Union is not a league of States, united in a loose relationship; nor are the States the agencies of the Union, deriving powers from it. Both the Union and the States are created by the Constitution, both derive their respective authority from the Constitution”.

To regulate a very multicultural nation-state, an “asymmetrical federalism” framework was embraced. The whole article traces the origins of Indian federalism and assesses how, since the conception of the Dominion of India, imperialistic tendencies and different ideological interplay of state-level actors have constantly tested the highly centralized essence of the Political system.

During the Constituent Assembly debates, there were many differing opinions with respect to the Indian federal structure. The most prominent of those are mentioned below:

“I am opposed to federalism because I fear that with the setting up of semi-sovereign part-States, centrifugal tendencies will break up Indian unity. Provincial autonomy led to the vivisection of the country. Federalism will lead to the establishment of innumerable Pakistans in this sub-continent.”

~ Shri Brajeshwar Prasad (Member; Bihar: General)


“An attempt has been made in this Draft Constitution to put in the best experience of the various democratic constitutions in the world, both unitary and federal. Of course, no Constitution can be perfect and even our Constitution will have to undergo some modifications before it finally emerges from this House.” 

~ Shri S.V. Krishnamurthy Rao (Member; Mysore)


“Two points which I should like to refer to in this connection. One is this: when any federal constitution is in the process of making, there are always two views: the views of those who want to make the Centre strong and the views of those who would plead for the utmost extent of State autonomy. The provisions of the Draft Constitution are necessarily a compromise, tentatively suggested, of these opposing views. My own feeling is that the scales have been tilted a little towards the Centre. If this feeling is shared by any large section of the House, it should be possible to adjust the balance in the direction desired. The second point, Sir, is that the provisions relating to the accession of States are meagre. There have been so many different kinds of mergers of late and the final pattern, so far as we know, has not yet emerged. The exact procedure by which the States will accede to the Union has to be determined at an early date so that the names of the acceding States may be mentioned in the appropriate Schedule and other relevant parts of the Constitution finalised.”

~ Shri N. Madhava Rau

The Indian Constitution has a prejudice for the the Central government, which pervades India’s polity: the national government has an upper hand over the provinces in a variety of ways. Matter of fact, the expression “federation” is not mentioned in the basic legal system. Article 1 refers to India as a “Union of States,” rather than a “Federation of States,” for two reasons, as expressed by Ambedkar. First, owing to an arrangement between the federating states, India’s federation was not established at the time; and second, Indian states did not have the right to secession. As a result, the federation in India is known as the “Union” because it is impenetrable. It is very vivid from certain statutes that there’s an underlying sense of partiality towards the Central government in the federal policy of India:

“The union parliament has been given the unilateral discretion to reconstruct the boundaries of the states.”

“Single Constitution for both Union and State governments.”

“The Union list contains more subjects than the State list.”

“Single citizenship.”

“In case of a deadlock between the Union and states over subjects in the concurrent list, the Union law prevails.”

“Institutions of governance like single system of courts, all-India public services and integrated audit machinery and the integrated election machinery.”

“The union parliament can also legislate on any state subjects under extraordinary circumstances.”


“The union government also has sweeping economic superiority in terms of resources as well as in its discretion in allocating resources to the states.”


“Union Government’s power of appointing governors in the states and dissolving state governments by proclaiming president rule if the Centre deems fit.”


It is for these statutes that it becomes so vivid that the Federalism installed in India has a predominant centre.

Aspirations of the states giants the preeminence of the centre

Even though Indian federalism favors the Central government, states have endeavored to affirm their preferences and impact, be it through one-party supremacy or inter alliance politics. The below-mentioned paragraphs will delve into the various incidents that have marked the existence of assertions put forth by various regions and states in India in order to get their fair share in the Indian federal politics. These assertions and demands can be categorized in four phases; these four phases can also act as an acceptable encapsulation of the evolution of the Indian federal structure over these years.

PHASE NUMBER 1 (’47 – ’67)

The impact of state leaders within the “Congress System” and the emergence of the semantic sovereignty progression labelled the territorial insinuation over national political discourse during this stage of development, which centralized the federal essence right from the moment of Independent India. 

Following the general elections in 1952, Congress (INC) emerged as the biggest faction at both the federal and regional levels. From then on, the Congress party would totally dominate the Political landscape, until the 1967 polls, when it experienced a devastating election slowdown. The federal setup was such that the country’s political picture was reined over by Congress’s political leadership, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, while provincial Congress leaders had their own mass base and wielded significant power and authority in their respective areas. 

The symbiosis of national and state governments in their corresponding empires was a negotiated framework of internal party federalism that characterized the period of congressional supremacy. Even after Nehru’s demise in 1964, regional leaders proceeded to play a significant role in national politics. After their inevitable victory in the 1967 general elections and their power struggle with Indira Gandhi, these remarkable local leaders of Congress would eventually succumb to a partisan downturn. 

The disintegration of Kerala’s Communist regime, headed by E. M. S. Namboodiripad, who was appointed by the Centre under Nehru’s monitor in 1959, was an extreme outlier in federal ties. It demonstrated indications of how Indian federalism can degrade when states are ruled by parties contrary to the nation-wide party in power at the core. As a result, the constraints of negotiated federalism and the start of a more confrontationist federal interplay had surfaced, albeit in a limited way, during this period of one-party supremacy. 

This tussle between the Centre and state in order to have their foot-in-the-door with respect to the federal structure was seen in several incidents but out of them, the Linguistic agitation was the one that was the most verbose. Post-independence, there was a majority consensus for the establishment of lexical states, signalling the triumph of a provincial line of thinking over the centralized design of nation-building. Having to fear strife, the central government decided against constructing lexically structured provinces. Nevertheless, the force was generated by a prolonged regional movement in pursuit of lexical states, which resulted in the restructuring of states based on language. It was the first claim of regionalism that obligated the National assembly to embrace the states’ demands. Whilst the National government had the ability to establish, uncreate, and reshape political borders, the propel for regionalisation in the pattern of territorial autonomy from numerous big ethnic groups later, tribal cultures as well-compelled the Centre to embrace a codified agreement of rearranging India’s federating nations.

PHASE NUMBER 2 (’67 – ’89)

The Congress party’s supremacy was beginning to wane in many provinces, although that remained firmly entrenched in nation-wide politics. The 1967 election results were significant for Indian federalism because the preponderant Congress party endured a significant election misstep in both the national and state election processes. Many minor parties and anti-Congress alliances established state and local governments, ushering in an age of “expressive” and more effective and explicitly fractious federal intricacies seen between Congress-led centres and resistance party-led state and local governments. A whole other important advancement was the political fight within the Congress, which resulted in the group’s divide in 1969 and the consolidation of power at the top of Congress leader Indira Gandhi following her big win in the 1971 general elections.

The Congress started facing hurdles: the upsurge of provincial political parties in states such as Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir, and the Congress provincial elements’ dwindling strategic objective. By imposing Article 356, PM Indira Gandhi disintegrated local councils headed by opposition leaders and assembled Congress governments in those regions. When the Janata government assumed power at the Core in 1977, it also disbanded the Congress-ruled governments in order to replace Janata-led regimes in the provinces. During this time, the federal power roles were inhabited by opposing groups, resulting in a dialogue of dispute between the centre and the states. 

The upheaval in Assam, Kashmir, Mizoram, and, most importantly, Punjab erupted in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of the Union government’s highly centralized motives during the period. This fueled provincial opinions in various stakeholder groups against Central government, resulting in mighty and brutal manoeuvres. In 1983, at a time of heightened federal unrest, the Union government established the Sarkaria Commission to investigate the national laws governing Centre-state interactions. 

Through 1984, Rajiv Gandhi’s recently appointed Government had to incorporate provincial pressures for independence and de-centralisation in the provinces. These pragmatic endeavours to regain the trust of provincial influences bolstered the federal essence.

PHASE NUMBER 3 (’89 – 2014)

The Congress party’s landslide destruction in the 1989 general elections altered the nation’s political environment. To commence to, really no political group had been able to secure a convenient parliamentary majority in order to establish the centeral govt. The partisan shrinkage of the Congress party, combined with the incapability of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to arise as the domestic substitute (notwithstanding the BJP’s political legitimacy emergence), resulted in a country’s political void. This laid the groundwork for an alliance of non-Congress stakeholders, including some minor parties, to form the Federal Government at the Centre, with the BJP and Communist Party of India (Marxist) providing external backing.

The whole period of federalization of politics was also reflected in the three major institutional and regulatory events that happened during this time span:

Financial independence

Market policies that heralded a new era of economic liberalisation aided in the abolition of India’s infamous licence, permit, and quota raj. The accessible economic system privatised previously tightly controlled monetary interplay by the Central government. As a result of the policy changes, state and local governments now have more freedom to introduce commercial activities and attract investment to their individual provinces. This provided province chief ministers with a potential advantage to position themself as “drivers of growth and development.”

Judicial protection

Throughout this time, there were organisational reforms that bolstered India’s federal essence. In the case of “S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India”, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that intensified the federal layout of Indian society. The decision granted state legislatures protection from the Union administration’s ambiguous use of Article 356. Having followed this decision, the President of India raised concerns about proclaiming president rule under certain regions. This created significant opposition to the central government’s highly centralized authority.

Institutionalized local governments

The 73rd and 74th Amendments were passed in 1992 to reinforce the operating of the third division of Indian federalism at the city and county and panchayat levels. This paved the way for individuals to be empowered at the grassroots.

PHASE NUMBER 4 (2014 – Present)

2014 was a watershed moment in the history of coalitions. BJP established the central government after gaining a large proportion by itself. This period signalled the commencement of what has been known as the “renationalisation of Indian politics.” Following its triumph, the BJP came on to assume power in 21 Indian states, be it by itself or in collaboration with a strong local adversary. The BJP’s more recent achievement in the 2019 general elections cemented its stance as India’s new “dominant party.” Nevertheless, the BJP is by far the most prevailing country’s political force among several other groups, but it faces significant political dissent at the state and local level from the national opposing party (the Congress party) and so many minor parties.


On meticulous we can therefore grab hold of the Indian federal structure over these years.

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