Opinion Based Blog

The Peculiar Indian Polity: A Unique Form of Federalism

Author: Mihir Chandra, a student at Babu Banarasi Das University, Lucknow


States are called “federal” or “single”, depending on how governance is organized. The center has extensive administrative and legislative powers in a unified structure, and its constituent units have little autonomy. Under federal arrangements, components are identified based on region or ethnicity and are given various forms of autonomy or some degree of administrative and legislative power. This is a matter of federalism, as J & K’s current political status (as two Union Territories) is a form of a downgrade from the kind of autonomy it enjoyed.  There was debate among scholars as to whether the Indian Constitution was completely federal or single. But in reality, the Indian Constitution contains the characteristics of both the Federal Constitution and the Single Constitution. But to get this conclusion very clearly, we first need to know what the Federal Constitution is and what the Single Constitution is. A typical single system is constitutionally governed as a single entity with a constitutionally created legislature. All power is top-down. A unitary state is a sovereign state in which the central government is the head and all administrative departments (quasi state organizations) are governed as a single organization that exercises only the powers that the central government has decided to delegate. These are some unified features that also exist in the Constitution of India, eventually becoming quasi federal.

Structure of the Indian Federation

Article 1 states that India, or Bharat, should be a Union of States. It is debatable whether the usage of the word “Union” was intentional or not. Because the word “Federation” appears nowhere in the Constitution. It was included in the draught Constitution but was later removed due to a purposeful omission on the side of the drafting committee. The Chairman, Dr Ambedkar, defended the deletion by claiming that the word “Federation” was not included after the States’ approval. The Centre is in charge of appointing Governors of various states. The Governor is the constitutional leader of the state as well as the Centre’s representative. Article 355 requires the central government to guarantee that the constitutional machinery in the state does not collapse and that the states be safeguarded against internal disturbances, external invasion, and war. So, to execute that obligation, the Central Government has the authority under Article 356 to impose Presidential rule, and it is the governor’s responsibility to report to the Centre on the breakdown of the State’s constitutional machinery for political or other reasons. Unlike the President, the Governor has some discretionary powers, such as the ability to withhold a measure for the President’s consideration. The governor is meant to be apolitical, yet he gets dismissed for political reasons. Because there was no meaningful interaction with the central government with the Chief Ministers of the States when the Governors were selected, it was proposed that the Governors be some notable person from some walk of life by the Sarkaria Commission, which reviewed the Centre-State Relations. 

Unitary Features of the Indian Constitution 

In Rameshwar Prasad v Union of India, also known as the Bihar Assembly Dissolution Case, the Supreme Court questioned Governor Bhuta Singh’s impartiality because there was a President’s Rule imposed in Bihar after the elections because. After all, the local party was in a position to form a government, but when there was a possibility of forming a government led by JDU led by Nitish Kumar, the Governor sent a report to the Centre that the Assembly should be dis The center did not consider the suggestion and it was swiftly adopted, and the Assembly was proclaimed dissolved the next day, with the Supreme Court ruling that the Governor did not perform his duty. The Indian Constitution establishes a Single and Uniform Citizenship for the whole country. Dual citizenship exists in a federal state such as the United States of America, where a citizen first owes allegiance to the states and then to the union. However, even though India is a Federal State, there is single citizenship. It suggests that all Indian nationals are obligated to support the Indian Union. Any citizen, regardless of birth or domicile, is entitled to civil and political rights in all Indian states and union territories. The Indian Constitution does not recognize state citizenship, hence there is no distinction between citizens of two or more states, with the excepted Kashmir. No one other than a permanent resident of Kashmir can purchase landed property in Kashmir; nevertheless, this is a strictly temporary provision that will be repealed once Kashmir is completely incorporated into the Indian Union. The assertion of Fundamental Rights is shared by all citizens.

In India, we have a unified judiciary with the Supreme Court at the pinnacle, as opposed to the federal system, which has a dual court system. In our unitary legal system, the Supreme Court is the highest. The greatest extent feasible, efforts have been undertaken to ensure its independence and meet the purpose of upholding justice. Because of its position at the top of the judicial pyramid, the Supreme Court serves as a powerful uniting influence.

Federal Features of the Indian Constitution 

The constitutional law comprises both legal in the strict sense and usages, generally referred to as conventions, which are acknowledged as obligatory by all those involved in government even if they are not enacted. Many norms and practices are not part of the law in the sense that their violation may result in legal action. A federal constitution forms a dual polity with the Union in the centre and the states on the periphery, each endowed with autonomous powers to be exercised in the fields given to them by the constitution. Both are coordinating with each other’s powers in some ways. The Indian Constitution also establishes a balance of powers between the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. If the courts are stripped of their authority, the people’s fundamental rights will be reduced to mere adornment, and the people would become a puppet in the hands of the sovereign. As a result, it will lead to a system that is antithetical to democracy and will destroy its essence. State of West Bengal v. Union of India was the first notable case in which the Supreme Court explored this subject in depth. The fundamental issue, in this case, was the Indian states’ use of sovereign rights. The legislative competence of the Parliament to implement legislation for the forced purchase of land and other properties vested in or held by the state, as well as the sovereign power of states as independent entities, were also investigated. The Supreme Court ruled that the Indian Constitution did not establish an absolute federalist basis. The Supreme Court stated in Pradeep Jain v. Union of India that India is not a federal state in the classic meaning of the word. It is not a treaty of sovereign states coming together to establish a federation by relinquishing undeniably federal qualities. The Supreme Court reiterated in Ganga Ram Moolchandani v. the State of Rajasthan that the Indian Constitution is fundamentally federal in nature distinguished by the traditional characteristics of a federal system, namely supremacy of the Constitution, division of power between the Union and the states, and the existence of an independent judiciary. In ITC LTD v Agricultural Produce Market Committee, the Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion.

Quasi Federal Structure of India

In various decisions, the Supreme Court has commented on the character of the Indian Union. It has been stated that the essence of a “federation” is the presence of the Union of States and the allocation of powers among them. In S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India, it is said that the most usually mentioned model of federalism in the United States, is a federation of States. These states were self-sufficient and sovereign in their regions when they chose to establish a federation. The federal government cannot change their territories. In India, however, Parliament has the authority to admit new states, form new states, change their boundaries and names, and unite or divide them. The last exercise also included the extraordinary step of transforming a state into a union territory. The agreement of states is not required for the establishment and dissolution of states and union territories. Unlike in the United States, there is a Concurrent List in legislation that describes the authorities of the federal government and leaves any topic not covered in it as the legislative field for the states. The residuary powers of legislation, or the authority to enact the law in an area not defined in the Constitution, are vested in Parliament in India, whereas the States have residuary powers in the United States. Furthermore, on budgetary affairs, the States’ ability to raise their resources is restricted, and they rely heavily on the Centre for financial aid. Even though the states are autonomous in their designated legislative area and their executive authority is co-extensive with their legislative powers, it is obvious that “the powers of the states are not coordinated with the Union.” This is why the Constitution is frequently referred to as ‘quasi federal.’

Asymmetric Federalism: A Misnomer

In India, the two primary types of administrative entities are the Centre and the States. There are, however, different kinds, each designed to meet distinct local, historical, and geographical settings. In addition to the Centre and the States, the country has Union Territories with and without a legislature. While the aforementioned factors support a centralized federal structure, the structure’s efficacy is based on the intent and intentions of a government. Tillin, for example, remarked that linguistic reorganization would not have been conceivable in India if the country had maintained a rigorous or traditional federal framework. In other words, the present form of federalism in the Indian context is primarily determined by the government’s aim and the goals it tries to achieve. 

The Union government has revoked the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. It has also divided the state into two areas, which it has designated as Union Territories. Thus, the administration has made a substantial change in the state’s unique type of federalism, which has witnessed war, terrorism, and strife since independence. Instead, it has instituted a new kind of federalism in which the two new divisions would be managed by the Centre. The most prominent example of asymmetry in Centre-State interactions was the way J&K linked to India until August 6, 2019, when the President stated that its special status was no longer in effect. The State was granted the right to have its Constitution, its definition of “permanent inhabitants,” the power to exclude outsiders from owning property, and the privilege of not having any Indian law automatically applicable to its area under Article 370. Before it could function there, Indian laws had to be formally approved by its Assembly. It was given the authority to create its own Penal and Criminal Procedure Codes. The President was authorized to notify the State regularly of the sections of the Constitution that might be extended to the State, with or without modification. The Indian federal system can be classified as prefectorial because, as discussed in the previous section, the Indian Constitution portrays a unitary bias and establishes the Centres supremacy over the state’s legislative autonomy For instance, under Article 200, certain bills passed by state legislatures can be reserved by governors for the assent of the President However at times, the governor of a state is considered as the agent of the Centre because the Centre often uses the office of the governor to control and command state governments From 1947-1984 over 60% of governors had taken an active part in politics The governors submit to the dominance of the union government because they are nominated to their positions by the Centre.


The constitution’s drafters attempted to strike a harmonic balance between the central and the state. As a result, Dr K.C. correctly stated, “The Indian constitution provides, in fact, a structure of governance that is as quasi federal, virtually devolutionary; a unitary state with subsidiary federal aspects rather than a federal state with unitary features.” This case has far-reaching repercussions for the history of Centre-State relations in India. The Supreme Court bravely articulated the paradigm and limitations within which Article 356 must work. According to the Supreme Court, Article 356 is an extraordinary authority that should only be employed as a last option in circumstances when there is an obvious deadlock and the constitutional apparatus of a State has disintegrated. The court’s concerns in this instance are similar to those voiced by the Sarkaria Commission. However, if necessary, the centre can take harsh steps to safeguard the operation of the state machinery. It is said that this contradicts the essence of federalism, however, in a country like India, this approach is excellent because the people and culture are varied, much like a federal state. However, when the necessity arises, we are all together. As a result, a quasi federal kind of constitution is ideal for India.







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