This article was written by Uzzair and further updated by Arnisha Das. It talks about federalism at length under the Indian Constitution, drawing important instances from its roots in colonial legislation and consecutive development balancing intergovernmental disputes. It also establishes cooperative federalism as an effective methodology in the governance of a diverse nation.

Table of Contents


India’s federal system is about 76 years old, as compared to the federal systems in other countries like the United States, Switzerland or Canada, which are more than two centuries old. Yet, it is recognised as the most complex of a kind for a critically diverse population in a federal framework. The national government specifically deals with vast issues like national defence, foreign relations, commerce, and currency. The state governments, on the other hand, have more roles than the federal government, encompassing aspects such as education, public safety, standards and fixing the infrastructure.  

The federalism in India is notable for its quasi-federal nature of government. A quasi-federal government is often characterised by a division of power between the centre and the states, where the centre is relatively more powerful than the states. Basically, there is a combination of a central and state government of a country, but unlike the federal government, the central government has more influence over the state government. The state government can make decisions. However, the central government has the authority to intervene within it. In this article, we will shed light on the implications of this power distribution and how it affects decision-making, regional autonomy, and the overall balance of power within the country.

Download Now

What is Federalism

Federalism is the structure of government, where the powers are shared between two kinds of governments. One is the Central government, and the other is smaller regional governments. It indicates the agreement between different levels of government to work together while still maintaining independence in their own spheres. In a federation, the national government and the regional government each have their own areas of authority as outlined in the Constitution.

Evolution of Federalism

Originating from the Latin word ‘foedus’ meaning ‘treaty’ or ‘covenant’ impacting the sovereign existence of different constituents of a union, the term federalism was nationalised in the late eighteenth century in the ‘Greek city-states’ of classical Greece. Earlier states used the confederacy agreement to tie up between the most powerful state and other smaller or localised states to create a balance between the power, authority and mutual dependence between the sovereign states. 

Renowned academicians like K.C Wheare and A.V Dicey ascribe the meaning of federalism in their testaments as a way in which powers are bifurcated between central government and regional government for employing their powers within their own independent spheres. Also, in a completely developed federal system, powers are distributed among different governmental bodies, each with limited but equal powers. In the constitutional premise, the courts have the supreme authority to uphold and interpret the values of the Constitution in a federation. 

From the late 1700s to 1860s, the power struggle between the national government and the states in the United States prevailed at large. The first American Union, formed in 1781, was a confederation with a weak central government. However, the second American Union, established in 1789, created a stronger federal government, preserving state sovereignty. The system evolved through various constitutional amendments during the Civil War period (1861-65), solidifying modern federalism.

The key conflict between federal authority and sovereign states came up in the creation of the National Bank, where the states came up as resistance. The decision of Alexander Hamilton, one of the prominent secretaries of the Congress federal government, to set up the first federal bank of the United States faced opposition from the Republicans. Subsequently, in the McCulloch vs. Maryland (1819) case, the institution of the ‘Second Bank of the United States received massive objections for imposing tax on the federal bank encroaching on state jurisdiction. 

The Supreme Court bench of Sir John Marshall ruled that the authority to create the National Bank was within the powers of the national government, and the state’s tax protocol could not be enforced on the federal government. This asserted the central government’s supremacy over state interference in federal activities. Further, in Gibbons vs. Ogden (1824), the Supreme Court reinforced federal authority over state laws, particularly in matters of commerce, emphasising the national government’s power over the states. Overall, the scope of encroachment of national powers began after the Civil War, as it instigated the state to turn away from powers to save their own interests. 

Gradually, federal principles were implemented in the Indian Constitution to maintain a balance of power so that each tier of government operates within its designated domain. Through many trials and errors, India has now evolved through many amendments altogether to escalate intergovernmental relations.

Classification of Federalism 

Federalism can be divided into the following  categories:-

Dual Federalism

In this kind of federalism, the national government and the state governments can exist with distinct powers to operate independently from each other. This demonstrates that certain responsibilities and decision-making freedoms are bestowed upon the federal government, such as managing foreign affairs, national defence, and trade. Meanwhile, states with sovereign power have more authority over other areas of the state’s internal matters, such as education, licensing, and public policy. 

Cooperative Federalism 

Cooperative federalism refers to a system where the federal government and state governments cooperate and work together towards achieving common goals. This approach allows for greater flexibility and innovation at the state level while still working towards overarching national objectives.

Holding Together Federalism 

Holding Together Federalism is a political system in which a group of federal states come together to form a single federal entity. In that case, each member of the federation retains a significant degree of autonomy and authority. It aims to maintain units while maintaining diversity and is characterised by centralised power or decentralised governance. For example, India, Spain and Belgium have ‘holding together federalism’ in their political system.

New Federalism

In this concept of New federalism, it is possible to identify the concept that focuses on the decentralisation of powers of the federal government and the states and municipalities. It enhances a culture of devolution that supports the policymaking of a state instead of the federal government. The main proponents of this approach show that the results are more responsive in this governance since solutions to any issue can be made from the level closest to the people.

Difference between Federalism, Confederalism and Quasi-Federalism 

In a federal political system, power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units (states or provinces). The U.S. is a federal republic where the Constitution divides powers between the federal government and the states. Both have their own jurisdictions and own set of powers and functions.

In Confederalism, a group of sovereign states came together to form a union to promote defence, foreign policy, and resources. A pure confederation has these features, but the member states have the right to retain their sovereignty or secede from the union. The EU is not a pure confederation but has limited powers delegated by member states. 

In a quasi-federal government, the central government retains substantial powers over the states and provinces. The constitution allows the centre for intervention in state-related matters. India is an example of a quasi-federal country. 

Indian federalism : brief facts and history 

India has a federal system of governance that has emerged from the ancient, mediaeval, and colonial past. It thus has its roots in the federal structure long before the adoption of the Constitution in 1950.

India’s ancient history reveals a form of quasi-federalism at its core. The Mauryan and Gupta Empires, for instance, showcased a central authority with considerable autonomy granted to provinces and local regions. The Mauryan Empire (321-185 BCE), under the rule of Ashoka, had witnessed significant control of local governors in their territory. Similarly, in the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE), a strong central government existed while recognising the autonomy of the local rulers and administrative units.

The mediaeval period saw the rise of several regional kingdoms and empires, such as Cholas, Rajputs, and later Mughals. The Chola administration (9th to 13th centuries) was notable for its village autonomy and local self-government. The Mughal Empire (1526-1857) also implemented a centralised system with provincial governors (subahdars) but allowed considerable autonomy in local governance. These all worked as a precursor to the adoption of the federal principles.

The colonial period introduced a more formalised federal structure under the rule of the British. The ‘Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms’, incorporated in the Government of India Act, 1919, introduced the concept of dyarchy, which divided provincial subjects into reserved and transferred categories, thereby sharing power between the British-appointed governors and Indian ministers.

The Government of India Act, 1935 was a significant milestone that proposed a federation of British Indian provinces and princely states, though a full federation never materialised due to various political complexities. Overall, the Act laid the ground for introducing provincial autonomy and federal principles.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, being the chairman of the Drafting Committee post-independence, advocated for a ‘Union of States’ while giving strong power to the centre to maintain the unity and integrity of a diverse nation, such as India, with varied linguistic, cultural, and regional perspectives. 

Finally, the Indian Constitution delineated powers between the centre and the states through three distinct lists: the Union list, the State list, and the Concurrent list, as outlined in Article 246 and the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. This division of power is aimed at balancing integrity and autonomy between the central government and the state governments. The legislative link between the state and the centre is delineated from Articles 245255 in Part XI of the Constitution. Article 245 lays down that Parliament can make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India, while the state legislature has the similar power in the whole or any part of the state. On the other hand, Article 254 sets forth that the central legislation enacted by the Parliament would prevail over the state legislation in case of difference. In addition, provisions such as Article 356 allow the President’s rule in the states in case of failure of constitutional machinery, which indicates the inclination towards unitary power in the federal structure.

Nature of federalism in India

India has a federal structure with a single Constitution that applies to both the central and state governments. This is different from the federal systems of other countries, such as the United States, where each state possesses its own constitution. The Indian Constitution provides the nation with an intricate nature of law that makes it possible for states to address local matters while maintaining and upholding national standards. 

Federalism in India was adopted mainly because of India’s colonial past and the need to embody the diversity in the nation. The Government of India Act,1935, among other things, spearheaded federalism through provincial autonomy. The drafting of the Indian Constitution after independence, as well as the findings of the Constitutional framers, strived to achieve a balance between the centre and the states. These, as a result, have enabled the limited scope of establishment of federalism in India. 

The structure of federalism in India becomes distinguished and dynamic because it is tilted to the power-sharing nature between the centre and states. It embraces certain features of both federal and unitary systems of governance to accommodate the unpredicted and diverse requirements of the nation. This hybrid model of the federal system evidenced the pluralistic nature of the Indian political and constitutional framework. Thus, it enables India to face the problems of administration in a large and complex ambit and develop a standard of living through cooperative federalism.

Decentralisation of powers and the role of regional players make the centre and states’ relationship through coalition governments or other alliances of political parties more sustainable. While political devolution has its vices causing problems in governance, it has also given enhanced regional political representation and authority.                                                                                   

Federal features of the Indian Constitution

1. Binary Government

India has a dual government polity, which has both central government and state government operating in a parliamentary democracy. The union government works at the centre, and the state governments operate at a regional level. While the central government implements laws made by the parliament, state governments have the autonomy to make laws and policies tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.

2. Division of Powers

The Seventh Schedule of the Constitution delineates the powers and responsibilities of the central government and the state government through the following comprehensive three lists:-

Union List

  • The Seventh Schedule includes a list of subjects that are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the central legislature, known as the union list. It has a total of 97 subjects. For example – defence, foreign affairs, banking, and railways.

State List

  • It includes the subjects that are responsibilities of the state legislatures. It consists of a total of 66 subjects. For example – public health, election to State legislative assemblies, agriculture, and local governance.

Concurrent List

  • The concurrent list consists of subjects on which both the central and state governments have jurisdiction. It has a total of 47 subjects. For example – forests, wild animals, marriage, and adoption.

3. Written Constitution

India has one of the largest constitutions in the world, which consists of 448 articles, 25 parts and 12 schedules. The Constitution must be written without vagueness to clearly establish a distinction between the states’ and central powers.

4. Bicameral-legislation

In India, the legislature is bicameral. It has two houses, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The upper house of the parliament, which represents the states is the Rajya Sabha, and the lower house of the parliament, which represents the people in general, is Lok Sabha.

5. Rigidity with Flexibility 

The Constitution contains some relatively rigid provisions while giving the leeway to amendment by a special majority under Article 368. It makes the provisions flexible in rigidity.

Non-federal features of the Indian Constitution

1. Division of power is not equal

In India, the central government has been given more power than the state government. Usually, in the federal government, powers are divided equally between the two governments.

2. Single Constitution

Another non-federal feature of the Indian constitution is that it only has a single Constitution. There are no separate constitutions for the states in India and it is applicable to both the union as a whole and the states. In a true federal system, there are separate constitutions for the state and union.

3. The constitution is not strictly rigid

Another non-federal feature of the Indian constitution is that it can be amended by the Indian parliament. Parliament, on many subject matters, does not need the approval of the state legislature to amend the constitution. As per Article 368(2), an amendment is introduced in the form of a bill in the House of Parliament, which is passed after getting a majority (two-thirds of the members present and voting) votes. However, in the true federal government, both state and central governments take part in the amendment of the constitution with respect to all matters. Therefore, those constitutions are rigid and not easy to amend.

4. Central control over states

Another non-federal feature of the Indian constitution is that the central government has control over the state government. This means that any law made by the central government has to be followed by the state government, and the state government cannot interfere in the matters of the central government.

5. Judicial Independence 

India has a single & integrated judiciary, with the Supreme Court at the apex. Whenever any dispute arises between the centre and the states, the Supreme Court has the authority to resolve these disputes and ensure both levels of government function within their own constitutional boundaries.

6. Single Citizenship

In India, citizens only have a single citizenship of the whole country. However, in the true federal government, citizens are allotted dual citizenship. First, they are the citizens of their respective provinces or states, and then they are the citizens of their country.

7. Parliament does not represent the states equally

In India, the upper house (Rajya Sabha) and lower house (Lok Sabha) do not have equal representation in states. The state which is more populous has more representatives in the Rajya Sabha than the state which is less populous. However, in a true federal government, the upper house of the legislature has equal representation to the constituting states.    

8. Proclamation of emergency

The President of India has been given emergency powers by the Constitution of India. However, he can exercise such powers and declare an emergency in the country under three conditions. Once the emergency is declared by the president, the central government becomes dominant, and the state governments come under the total control of it. The state governments lose their liberty, and this is against the principles of a federal government.

Relation between Union and States

While the Constitution provides a framework for cooperation between the centre and states, continuous negotiation and adjustment are required to make it practical. In recent years, the concept of cooperative federalism has gained prominence, emphasising collaboration between the union and the states. NITI Aayog, replacing the Planning Commission, fosters cooperative federalism by involving state governments in the formulation and implementation of national policies. 

Article 245 demarcates the legislative powers to make laws between the centre and states with respect to the territory. However, the jurisdiction of the states is limited, for example, in the case of special jurisdiction bestowed on the Parliament to deal with the Union Territories like the Andaman & Lakshadweep group of islands. In addition, there are some residuary powers, as per Article 248 of the Constitution, entrusted upon the Parliament to create laws not included in the subject matters in one of the three lists. Notwithstanding that, the discretion of whether a specific matter falls within residuary powers or not is finally decided by the Supreme Court of India. 

Federalism vis-a-vis GST Scheme 

The GST (Goods and Service Tax) regime was introduced in 2017 with the intent of tax-gaining equivalence for both the centre and the states. Creating a unified national tax market, replacing the old regime of indirect taxes levied by the central and the state governments, the scheme resorts to maintaining the economic balance and well-being of the country. However, the implementation of GST has also raised concerns about its impact on the federal structure of the country.  

One of the key concerns is that GST reduced the autonomy of states in taxation. Prior to GST, states had the power to levy a variety of indirect taxes such as sales tax, value-added tax, octroi and excise duty. They gained control over a significant portion of their revenue generation. With the introduction of GST, these powers were subsumed under the new tax regime, resulting in the decrease of state control over their finances. 

Implications of Fiscal Federalism in GST

While the unified national market strengthens the multifaceted tax system to boost economic efficiency, the concerns of upholding cooperative federalism still remain a challenge. The raised concerns are mentioned below:-

(I) Reduced State Autonomy

The Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution divides legislative powers between the central and the state governments. It specifies three lists: List I contains subjects over which the central government has exclusive power to make laws; List II contains subjects over which state governments have exclusive powers to make laws; and List III contains subjects over which both the central and the state governments can make laws. 

Prior to GST, states had the independent authority to levy taxes included in List II, such as sales tax and certain excise duties. After the introduction of GST, the taxes previously levied by states came under the ambit of GST. This has resulted in the decreased autonomy of states, as a major source of revenue generation is now subject to a national tax regime determined by the GST Council. 

(II) Centralised Control 

Article 246 of the Constitution deals with the distribution of legislative powers. After the Constitutional 101st amendment, Article 246A was inserted, dealing with the powers of special powers of the centre and the states in relation to GST. The composition of the GST Council, which is chaired by the Union Finance Minister and the representatives of all states, was established to envisage a balance of power between the centre and the states. However, the central government has a weighted voting share in the council, giving it more power to influence decisions. This has led to an unruly situation, where the states argue about the inadequate representation in the federal spirit of the Indian Constitution. 

(III) Revenue Sharing Concerns 

GST implementation had guaranteed a compensation scheme for five years (2017-18 to 2021-2022) to address the potential revenue loss of the states compared to the pre-GST era. The compensation amount was calculated considering the 14% annual growth in state state revenues. 

The expiration of the guaranteed compensation period in 2022 has created uncertainty for state finances. Many states have argued that they are still experiencing revenue shortfalls due to GST implementation, particularly those states that were previously reliant on sectors such as textiles or petroleum products, which are now taxed under the GST regime. There have been ongoing discussions between compensation periods or devising alternative mechanisms to address revenue losses, yet a concrete agreement is yet to be reached.

Liquor, petrol, and diesel tax policy 

Notably, liquor or alcoholic beverages, petrol, and diesel are currently kept outside the ambit of GST. Thus, the states continue to levy taxes over excise duty (central government) and VAT (state government) in the GST regime. 

Apart from that, states have control over luxury taxes, entry taxes, tax advertisements, lotteries, betting, gambling, and other cesses related to the supply of goods and services. However, the states are apprehensive about losing control over the major source of revenue, particularly if the GST rate on these products is set high enough to reduce their tax collection. States have the freedom to determine their own excise duty and VAT rates on liquor. Despite this, it can distort prices to hinder the free movement of these goods across the country, refusing the key objectives of GST.  

Significance of federalism in India

Federalism in India is immensely required for the distribution of power between the central and the state governments. It seeks to uphold the unitary features while maintaining diversity and fostering the heritage of India.

  • It allows different states of India to maintain their distinct identities and manage their local affairs according to their cultural, social, and linguistic variations. 
  • Different states have varying levels of development, resources, and economic conditions. So, it enables targeted development initiatives, promotes competitive federalism, and encourages states to innovate and attract investments.
  • The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments have strengthened the federal structure by empowering local self-governments in rural and urban areas, respectively. 
  • It provides a framework for resolving conflicts between the central and the state governments as well as among states. The Supreme Court plays a crucial role in adjudicating disputes between centres and states and maintaining the federal balance.

Why is India quasi-federal

India is described as a quasi-federal nation. It strikes a balance between federalism and strong central authority. While it respects the autonomy of states, it ensures that the central government has sufficient power to maintain national unity, integrity, and effective governance. The Union List in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution contains subjects that only the Central Government can legislate, while the Central Government has the power to legislate on subjects falling under the Concurrent List. In case of any conflict, the central law always prevails. 

Article 356 empowers the centre with greater authority to proclaim an emergency in a state considering the failure of its constitutional machinery. Under Article 249, the Parliament can legislate on any subject in the State list if the Rajya Sabha passes a resolution by the votes of a two-thirds majority of the assembly necessary for the national interest.

The Central Government also has control over financial resources and the distribution of funds to states through centrally sponsored schemes, showing the financial dependency of states on the centre. Thus, India has a unique blend of federal and unitary features. It ensures that India manages the spectrum of diversity while ensuring cohesive functioning at the national level.

Constitutional debate on federalism

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, in his historic speech in November 1949, addressed the concept of federalism in the Constituent Assembly. He highlighted specific features of the draft Constitution that aimed to create a flexible and adaptable federal system capable of functioning effectively in both ordinary times and during emergencies. 

The draft Constitution included provisions that aimed to facilitate this flexibility. For instance, Article 246 distributes legislative powers between the central government and the states. However, Articles 249, 250, and 252 empower the Parliament to legislate on state-specific subjects under various circumstances. Dr. Ambedkar argued that these federal features allowed the Indian Constitution to function as a federal system in normal times, with a clear division of powers. Conversely, during emergencies or for matters of national interest (Articles 352 & 353), the central government could assume greater control. This, he believed, was essential for national unity and security. The key provisions are discussed below:-

  • Article 246: This article distributes legislative power between the central government and the states. The union holds exclusive authority over matters listed in List 1 (Seventh Schedule), while both the union and states can legislate on matters in List III.
  • Parliamentary Intervention in State Subjects: The Constitution empowers Parliament to legislate on matters under the purview of state jurisdiction in certain matters.
    • Article 249 allows Parliament to enact laws on state subjects deemed to be in the national interest.
    • Article 250 grants legislative powers to the Parliament over any state subject during a national emergency. 
    • Article 252 empowers Parliament to make laws for two or more states with their consent.
  • Emergency Provisions (Articles 352 and 353):  The provisions for proclaiming an emergency and the authority of the central government in such situations are outlined in these articles.
  • Parliamentary Supremacy: The Constitution can be amended by the Parliament through a special majority. Article 368 grants special powers to the parliament to make amendments in favour of national interests and balancing federalism over time. However, the judiciary ensures that the amendments comply with the Constitution’s basic structure.

Balancing the flexibility in federalism

While Dr. Ambedkar’s speech focused on the context of the newly independent India, the concept of flexibility in federalism still remains a challenge. Critics argue that it creates a quasi-federal system that allows the central government to take greater control during emergencies or in the interest of national unity and security. This flexibility is seen as necessary to maintain overall stability and uniformity in the country. However, the potential misuse of the emergency powers outlined in Articles 352 and 353 is still argued as a way to encroach upon the state’s rights. 

Challenges of federal structure in the Indian Constitution

India’s federal structure leads to disputes between the states and the centre when the states particularly feel that their autonomy is being undermined. Issues arising, such as the use of Article 356 (President’s Rule) by the central government against the state governments, have always been a contentious discussion.

The effective implementation of policies requires coordination between the central and the state governments. Part XI (256-263) discusses the measures of inter-governmental disputes between the states and the centre. Article 263 of the Constitution addresses contentions between states over any policies by establishing an Inter-State council.

Sometimes, the dual control of the state and the centre might lead to major conflicts in the following ways:-

  • In every state in India, there are different dynamics in the culture, education, and economic position, which bring about regionalism in the unitary features.
  • The central armed police forces and the intelligence agency’s influence lead to conflict in dual control. It sometimes leads to major security threats, especially in cases of elections.
  • Disputes arise regarding the role of Governors, who are appointed by the President and are often seen as an extension of the central government. For instance, governors are perceived to act against the interest of the state government when matters like the appointment of the chief minister or the dissolution of the state assembly come into play.
  • Fiscal federalism, which creates a unified market, often expresses other concerns regarding the transparency and the duration of compensation from the central government to the states for revenue losses for GST. Many states have complained of experiencing shortfalls due to GST implementation to meet their expenditure needs as well as developmental responsibilities.

Although the Planning Commission for addressing these issues was established, the same is not as effective as a whole. Further, central policies like citizenship amendment, tax policies, one-nation-one-election, National Education Policy, farm laws, and COVID-19 policies are often discussed as repugnant to the federal structure of government.

Relevant doctrines

Doctrine of Territorial Nexus

The doctrine of territorial nexus is a principle in constitutional law that concerns the jurisdictional powers of a legislative body in a federal system like India. Article 245(1) of the Constitution states that Parliament can make laws for the entire or any part of the territory of India, and a State Legislature may make laws for any part of the State. Thus, it allows the Parliament to make laws that have extra-territorial operation. The doctrine of territorial nexus is with respect to the extraterritorial operation of the state legislature if there is a reasonable connection between the object of the act and the subject matter of law. 

The Apex court, in the case of State of Bihar vs. Charusila Dasi (1959), held that if there is sufficient nexus between the object of the act and the subject matter of extra-territorial application, the laws can overreach jurisdictional boundaries imposed by law. The connection between the state and the subject matter must be real and substantial. 

Doctrine of Pith and Substance

This doctrine is used to resolve conflicts where a law appears to encroach upon the domain of another legislative body. In India, the Constitution delineates the powers of the Parliament and State Legislatures through the Union List, State List, and Concurrent List in the Seventh Schedule. Articles 246-254 provide the framework for the division of these powers. This doctrine provides a way to identify incidental encroachments of legislatures on matters outside the jurisdiction of the legislative bodies. It stresses on the true nature or purpose of law rather than its form while determining the subject matter and its effect. It deals with flexibility in legislative action while ensuring that the core purpose of the legislation is in compliance with the constitutional division of powers. 

In the case State of Bombay v. F.N. Baksara (1951), the Supreme Court applied the doctrine while determining that the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949, enacted by the central government upon state governments, was with the purpose of addressing inflationary pressures, thus not infringing state’s rights altogether.

Relevant case laws

State of Rajasthan vs. Union of India (1977)

In 1977, following the period of emergency in India, the newly elected Janata Party government at the centre decided to dissolve the legislative assemblies in several states that were ruled by the Congress party. The primary legal question of this case was whether the central government had the power to dissolve state assemblies and impose President’s Rule under Article 356, based solely on subjective satisfaction that the state governments did not enjoy the confidence of the citizens.

The Supreme Court held that the president’s satisfaction under Article 356 is subject to ‘judicial review’, but the scope of review is very limited. The framers of the Constitution have envisaged a federal system with a powerful central government to ensure national integrity and effective governance. The Court acknowledged that the political context in which the central government acted must exercise its power under Article 356 with caution and only in situations where there is a clear breakdown of constitutional machinery in the state. 

The judgement emphasised the dominant role of the Central Government in the Indian federal structure and highlighted that the central authority can intervene in state affairs to maintain constitutional order. The Court also established that while the central government has brought power to the centre under Article 356, its actions are not beyond the judicial scrutiny.

S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India (1994)

In the landmark judgement of S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India (1994), the Supreme Court reiterated that the imposition of the presidential rule should not undermine the federal principles and the control of the states. The court interpreted the application of Article 356 in the event of the governor’s recommendation to the President, citing the loss of a majority in the assembly. A significant aspect of the judgement was the emphasis on the ‘floor test’. The Court held that the proper method to determine the majority of the government in the state legislature is through a ‘floor test’ and not based on the governor’s subjective assessment.

It further held that if the proclamation of the president’s rule is found to be unconstitutional, the dissolved state legislative assembly can be revived and the dismissed government reinstated. The judgement significantly curtailed the arbitrary use of Article 356 by the central government and restrained the misuse of this provision to dismiss state governments for political reasons. 

The judgement clearly laid down that the provision can only be invoked under exceptional circumstances when there is a genuine breakdown of constitutional machinery in a state. It maintained that the power under Article 356 is not absolute and can be challenged if it’s mala fide or based on irrelevant considerations. It underscored the integrity of the government, ensuring a robust framework safeguarding states’ rights against the misuse of Article 356 by the centre. 

State of West Bengal vs. Union of India (1962)

The Central Government has many powers, including powers to interfere in the functions of a state. However, it has been provided in the Constitution explicitly that the powers are granted to certain subjects where the states and central government both can legislate. Here, the central government, through its power in the union list, had implemented the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957 for coal-bearing areas, where rights were acquired by the central government of the land previously owned by the states. The state of West Bengal was the first state to challenge an action of the central government by filing a petition under Article 131

The main contentions before the Court were that land is a subject under the state list, and sovereignty of such land is vested upon the states by the federal nature of the Constitution. On the other hand, the Central Government’s argument was that the legislative competence of the Central Government under Entries 52 and 54 of the Union List pertained to industries declared by Parliament to be of national importance. So, the regulation and development of the mines and minerals was well within its legislative domain. 

The judgement of the Supreme Court was as follows –

  • The central government, though not specifically mentioned in the Union List, has legislative competence to enact the law under Entries 52 and 54 of the list. The structure of the Constitution, being quasi-federal, falls within the purview of the central government’s powers.
  • Even though land is a subject in the state list, the Act’s primary focus was on coal mining and development, which are subjects in the union list. Therefore, the central legislation was valid.
  • The Court held that though there is decentralisation of the state’s powers, there is a certain degree of autonomy of the centre in the interest of national importance. 
  • The doctrine of pith and substance was explained to provide a clear methodology in the case of central and state legislation. It provided that any encroachment on the state powers was merely incidental and not the primary objective of the law.
  • The ruling set a precedent for future cases involving conflicts between central and state legislative powers. It provided a framework for interpreting the distribution of powers under the constitution, ensuring the national interest is balanced with state autonomy.

Shamsher Singh vs. State of Punjab (1974)

The case involved two probationary subordinate judges, Shamsher Singh and Ishwar Chand Agarwal, whose services were terminated by the state government without seeking formal approval from the governor. The Supreme Court, in a seven-judge bench ruling, held that while the governor is the head of the state, their powers are exercised on the advice of the council of ministers under Article 163, except in some situations. 

Hence, despite the fact that the governor occupies an official position of governance, their decisions should be tempered with the advice of the elected government or the council of ministers. This strengthens the measure of checks and balances between the constitutional head and the elected government, where strict demarcation of their duties is maintained. This case also draws the distinction between inherent authority and supremacy of the judiciary and the checks and balances within the branch of the executive. 


The decision-making structure of India’s governance system, commonly known as two systems of governance, keeps power decentralised between Central and State governments. The division of powers and the dual system of government ensure that the situation of the extensive and diverse population in India is dealt with while, at the same time, the unity of the nation is respected. The provision of dual citizenship in the Constitution of the country empowers every person with citizenship, irrespective of state, to be acknowledged as a citizen of India. This consolidates the nation and streamlines legal practices concerning citizenships that are quite different from the dual citizenship model seen in the United States. This is a perfect example of the balanced principle of merely opting as an Indian citizen and enhancing the obligations and rights of the nation. The flexibility of amendments through a special majority of the parliament remains relevant as it enables it to adapt to the changing social conditions and political realities. There is, however, the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution, which cannot be amended to protect the core values and stability of the nation. The combination of single citizenship, a unified constitution, flexible amendments, and partial constitutional rigidity encapsulates the unique and dynamic nature of federalism.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)

Is federalism a part of the basic structure?

Federalism is a part of the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution under one legal and political framework. In Kesavananda Bharati vs. State of Kerala (1973), the case was heard by a 13-judge bench, where it was stated that federalism is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.

Is the Constitution flexible in its quasi-federal nature?

The Constitution of India is flexible with rigid party elements, which require the state’s approval for significant changes. However, the Constitution can be amended (under Article 368) without affecting the basic structure.

Why is having a single Constitution significant for India’s quasi-federal system?

A single Constitution ensures uniform governance across the country, with states operating under the same legal framework. It contrasts with the federal systems like the United States, where each state has its own constitution, thereby highlighting the unitary characteristics within the federal structure.

What are the challenges of implementing Indian federalism?

There are challenges of central-state relations while implementing federalism in India. The recent challenge of Goods and Services Tax (GST) has raised concerns about guaranteed compensation period ending and states losing revenue autonomy. 

How does the Judiciary play a role in Indian Federalism?

The Indian Judiciary plays an important role in upholding federalism in India. The Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, resolving the potential disputes between the central government and the state governments. It helps maintain the balance of power and ensures both levels of government function within their own boundaries.

What is the debate on ‘cooperative federalism’ in India?

Cooperative federalism emphasises collaboration between the central government and state governments. Proponents argue that it is essential for addressing national challenges while ensuring effective governance. They also express concern that excessive focus on cooperation might erode the division of powers and weaken state autonomy.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here