The Indian constitution is often described as ‘Quasi-federal.’ It means that it has both federal and unitary features imbibed in it. ‘India is an indestructible union of destructible states.‘ The center is powerful and the states are sub-ordinate to it in many respects. However, this does not necessarily mean that state governments do not have an identity of their own. The center is expected to look after the macro-issues of the nation where as the states cater to the needs of their respective territories.
Why do we have states? A large country like India can be difficult to administer from just its national capital. States enable the decentralization of powers and responsibilities. You cannot expect the Prime Minister to look after what is going on in your neighborhood. This is why we have multiple levels of administration and governance, which starts at the village level and goes all the way up to the entire nation. It allows for region specific policy formulation and implementation.
Naturally, there are bound to be conflicts between the central government and the state governments on various issues and domains. Therefore, the areas of responsibilities have been divided between the two through the usage of ‘lists.’ The 7th Schedule of the Constitution of India deals with the allocation of powers and functions between the two types of governments. It contains three lists, Union list, State list and Concurrent list. At a fundamental level, these lists clearly define which government can make laws on what subjects. For example: Union list contains subjects of national importance like Defense, Foreign Affairs and Railways etc. The State list contains subjects like, education, marriage, public health and many more. Finally, the Concurrent list deals with subjects upon which both the center and state can formulate laws. A popular example is that of Education- The existence of the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education)and various state boards exemplifies it. However, in case of disputes on the subjects in this list the central government has superiority over state laws.
In years after independence, the Indian National Congress was the dominant party in the country. This was mainly because a majority of the popular Indian Independence movement leaders were attached with the I.N.C. and it was the only party with a foothold in India. This was the ‘one-party dominant system’ phase of Indian politics. During this phase the idea of co-operative federalism was almost non-existent since the same party was in power at all levels. There was no requirement to establish relationships across party lines to get work done.
Co-operative federalism is a feature of a multi-party system, just like the one we have in India presently. It is essential for the smooth functioning of a large democratic nation like India. The importance of co-operative federalism increased when regional parties in various states like West Bengal, Kerala and Maharashtra etc. started forming governments multiple times. Unlike China, where there is a one-party system (not to be confused with ‘one-party dominant system mentioned above). Here, there could be three different political parties in power at the local (In Municipal corporations and councils), states and central level.
However, in recent times this co-operative federalism has come under threat. Central interference in state affairs is not a new phenomena. Many times it has tried to assert its superiority over the states and have its way with policy implementation and obstruction of execution of state authority. Since the last few years, it has been turning ugly. An example could be taken from the Goods & Services Taxation system. This is a revolutionary system that changed the way businesses paid taxes to the government. From an economic perspective, this is a fantastic policy that was necessary to be implemented. But politically it has caused problems between the union and the states. The latter (especially those ruled by opposition parties) have accused the former of not releasing funds that are meant for the state governments. Such acts cannot become the norm as it gives rise to competitive federalism.
Competitive Federalism is a system of government where the Union establishes itself as the supreme authority in the country. Unlike co-operative federalism which has a horizontal structure, competitive federalism establishes a vertical one. In such systems, the state governments have almost next to no liberty in administering their territories. If such a system is going to become prevalent here, it will be detrimental to not only to our federal structure, but the democratic nature of our political systems.
Why did we adopt for a Federal structure? We briefly talked about this at the onset of this article, let us dive into some specifics.
India is a land of vast cultural diversity. It has multiple types of regions, languages, religions, cuisines, art & crafts and whatnot. To rule such a multi-cultural land through deep centralization would have been catastrophic as it would not be able to cater to the needs of each group which lives in our society. Our constitution makers knew this and adopted for a federal structure. To prevent conflicts, as mentioned above, they divided the powers between the center and the state through the union, state and the concurrent list in the 7th schedule of the constitution.
Moreover, the presence of hundreds of languages is another crucial factor in India’s adoption of a federal structure. States have been formed on the basis of languages, Maharashtra for Marathi, Gujarat for Gujarati, Tamil Nadu for Tamil, Kerala for Malayalam just to name a few. The mother tongue is something all of us hold dear and in a centralized system of administration, it could lose the spotlight to ‘administrative convenience.’ It was promised that after independence, states would be formed on linguistic basis to cater to these regional languages.
Read also: Medium of Knowing by Priyamvad Rai
We are also a geographically diverse nation. We have deserts, snowy mountains, states which are completely hilly (e.g.: Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland) in their topography, regions with plains rich in nutrients, six types of soil (namely Alluvial soil, Black soil or regular, Red soil, Laterite soil, Desert or Arid soil, and Forest and mountainous soil), five categories of forests (Tropical evergreen forests, Tropical deciduous forests, Tropical thorn forests, Montane forests, and Swamp forests) and so much more.
In such a situation can you imagine a system of government where the decision making authority is sitting in only one corner of the nation? It is possible, but won’t be representative of the specific needs of the people living in these regions.
This also brings us to the latest amendments to the ‘Government of National Capital Territory Act.’ There has been a long-standing tussle between the State government of Delhi and the Central government over executive authority over the region. Recently, the Parliament passed certain amendments which transforms the Lieutenant Governor (appointed by the Center) into a more active role and reducing the freedom of the state government of Delhi. It gives primacy to the LG and has made the ELECTED government of the state subsidiary to the appointed authority.
Here are some highlights of the act. It prohibits the Legislative Assembly from making any rule to enable itself or its Committees to
- Consider the matters of day-to-day administration of the NCT of Delhi.
- Conduct any inquiry in relation to administrative decisions.
- The Amendment requires the LG to reserve certain Bills passed by the Legislative Assembly for the consideration of the President.
- This also specifies that all executive action by the government, whether taken on the advice of the Ministers or otherwise, must be taken in the name of the LG.
Co-operative federalism is not an option, but a necessity for India. Although this particular act may not be replicated for other states, it sets a dangerous precedence and threatens the federal structure. The judiciary will have to play an active role to ensure that this does not occur. In the ‘Kesavnanda Bharti Case’ the doctrine of the basic structure of the constitution was brought into the limelight. The doctrine states that certain aspects of the constitution are so fundamental, that even a constitutional amendment could not abrogate them. It listed many features of the constitution, including the ‘Federal character of the Constitution’ as part of the doctrine.
It is imperative that we be aware of the when, what, where, why, who and how, as citizens, when such situations arise.
I hope that after reading this article, you have a greater idea about Federalism and the importance it holds in India and how it can be problematic if it is removed.
Like what you read? Don’t miss out on more! Subscribe to TheMusing.in by filling out this form below!