Cajoling and compromise
drive India’s multi-party
Indian federalism bristles with paradoxes
Manufacturers of political party banners, flags and signs display their products before shipping them to campaign offices from their
workshop in Bangalore.
REUTERS/ Jagadees h India
ndia is not a textbook federation. Under the
classic theory of federalism, it is not a federation at all.
The Constitution of India does not use the term federation;
rather, it describes India as “a union of states.” And
yet, the country’s Supreme Court has unequivocally
maintained in two landmark judgments, in 1977 and
1996, that “the Indian union is federal” and “it (federalism) is
the basic feature of the Constitution.” Described variously as a
“federation without federalism,” quasi-federal and “a union of
unequal states,” the federal system in India has often evoked
lively academic debate.
India has an evolving federalism. With the advent of coalition
governments in New Delhi, India has shed the
straightjacket of the unitary colonial regime it inherited and
operated under in the initial years of independence. Indian federalism
has moved beyond textbook formulations; it bristles
with many paradoxes.
The success of Indian democracy and federalism has many
roots. India is a state built on ancient civilizations but its democratic
institutions have adapted well to modern and
post-modern realities. The development of the Indian political
system during the six decades after independence has given it a
measure of strength and stability. Unlike most post-colonial
states, India’s basic constitutional and political framework
remains that which became operational soon after
Indian federalism is a judicious blend of rigidity and flexibility.
The basic structure of the Constitution cannot be easily
changed. Certain changes in the Constitution require a twothirds
majority in Parliament, besides being ratified by not less
than half of state legislatures. There are also cases, including the
formation of new states, which require approval of a simple
majority in Parliament. Thus, the Indian Constitution allows for
change and evolution through its amending formulas. By 2006,
it had been amended 96 times.
Independence and evolution
The existing federal system in India has deep historical roots.
The British Crown, the rulers of the princely states and the independence
movement leaders each saw federalism in a good
light for different reasons. To the British, the federal formula
was the best guarantee of their trading interests. The rulers of
Indian princely states – local hereditary rulers within British
colonial India – welcomed such a framework as they could
retain their autocratic powers. And freedom movement leaders
thought federalism offered the best possibility of an early realization
of their goal of political freedom and as a compromise
to prevent the partition of India along communal lines. For the
Muslim League, federation could only be considered a stepping-
stone toward a sovereign Pakistan.
India’s Constituent Assembly was ready to frame a federal
constitution when it first met in 1946 and early 1947. However,
the announcement of the Mountbatten Plan, outlining the partition
of India, changed the mood of the country in favour of a
strong central authority. Overnight, federalism became suspect
in the eyes of the constitution makers.
After the partition of India and independence in 1947 there
was sectarian violence of an unprecedented scale accompanied
by a huge exchange of populations between the two
countries. What loomed large at that critical moment for India
was not federalism, but national unity and integration. The constitution
makers did not abandon the federal idea as such, but
rather vested the central government with extraordinary powers.
Thus India became a union of states.
The Congress system
Ironically, independent India has always been a federation
despite the silence of the Constitution in this regard. During the
period of one-party domination by the Congress Party, which
Indians have named “the Congress system,” India remained
what former Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer calls
“unitary at the whim of the Union and federal at the pleasure of
[please turn to page 22] india
Ash Narain Roy is the associate director of the Institute of Social
Sciences, New Delhi.
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
The common thread is that laws have been adopted to protect
certain rights of minorities.
Two of the four articles on intergovernmental relations
focus on how Spain and Italy continue gradually shifting
power to their constituent units, demonstrating how a certain
level of conflict between the central authority and the constituent
units is inevitable and no doubt necessary.
The other two pieces examine politics in India through the
prism of India’s fascinating multi-party system and the realignment
of power sharing within the country.
These topics, diversity and intergovernmental relations
form two of the four core themes of the Fourth International
Conference on Federalism in new Delhi from Nov. 5–7, the
other two being local governments and federal systems; and
fiscal federalism, the subject of a recent special section of
This is the year of India’s Diamond Jubilee, 60 years of
independence. It is thus most fitting that the International
Conference, whose theme Unity in Diversity: Learning from
Each Other, be held in a country whose enduring unity has
been maintained through its considerable diversity. There is
much to learn from the Indian experience.
We trust these articles will inform and resonate both with
you our regular reader and you, the conference participant
who is reading us for the first time.
– Rod Macdonell, Senior Editor
BY ASH NARAIN ROY
independence, demands for autonomy were viewed increasingly
as divisive and secessionist. Today, parties that made
such demands hold important levers of power in the present
A changed federal system
India has moved a long way from co-operative federalism,
where states and the central government jointly plan and carry
out programs, to competitive federalism – where individual
states compete in terms of services offered, including lower tax
bases. The country still has a strong central government, but it
does not have the same clout as it once wielded in the days
when Congress was the dominant party .
In today’s multi-party coalition, the central government
often has to cajole and negotiate with the states where it would
once have bullied its way through. As well, there have been
occasions when a state government has taken on the central
government and defied its will. The arrest of two central ministers
by the Tamil Nadu government in 2001 illustrates the
extreme end of the new transformation. On June 29 and June
30, 2001, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalitha got her longtime
rival and former chief minister M. Karunanidhi arrested
along with two central ministers, Murasali Maran and T. R.
Balu. It was an act of political vendetta. A nationwide outcry
got them released on July 2.
As Susanne Hoeber Rudolf and Lloyd Rudolf write, “the
states are making themselves heard and felt politically and
economically more than they ever
have.” India is moving from administrative
federalism toward multi-level
political federalism. Through the 73rd
and 74th constitutional amendments, a
third tier of governance has been created.
These 1993 amendments to the
Indian Constitution provided the
framework for introducing a third tier
of elected councils in rural and urban
areas. They also provided for reserving
at least one-third of elected seats in
councils for women. Today, many prev
ious l y e x c luded g roups and
communities are included. But the
biggest impact of the 73rd and 74th
amendments is on local governance,
which moved beyond the exclusive control of central and state
Economic reforms have given a new lease on life to states,
and there has been a gradual shift of power away from the central
government. With the end of one-party rule and the advent
of coalition governments, India is moving toward a polity that
permits the emergence of strong states with a strong centre,
accompanied by increasingly assertive local governments.
With 22 official languages, a population of 1.1 billion, more
than five major religions and a geography ranging from mountain
ranges to rain forests to flatlands, it is hard to imagine India
as anything but a federal country. Had the Indian Constitution
been shorn of its federal provisions, India probably would have
had to adopt federalism simply to survive. In the past 60 years,
federalism has changed the grammar of Indian politics.
india [from page 7] the Centre.” However, with the weakening of the Congress system
and the rise of regional parties, Indian political leaders
realized that the federal system was the bedrock of India’s democratic
One-party dominance had its share of unhealthy influence
on the federal body politic. Such was the obsession with strong
federal government that regional movements and identity
aspirations became a sort of anathema to the Indian state. Yet,
the States Reorganization Act of 1956 paved the way for the creation
of linguistic states, which stymied many demands for
autonomy. While southern India burned over the perceived
imposition of the Hindi language in the 1960s, there were ethnic
stirrings in the northeast and subnational uprisings. Some
movements bordered on secessionism, while the ethnic
upsurge was primarily the result of an accrued sense of neglect
and alienation. The 1980s saw three autonomy movements, in
Punjab, Assam and Kashmir.
Leaders in the Congress Party warned that having strong
states would entail a weak central government, and vice-versa.
If the country was weak and drifting in the late 1970s and 1980s,
they argued, it was the result of regional demands for autonomy.
Such an argument could be considered misleading as it
sidestepped the central issue of distribution of powers.
The end of one-party rule
The transformation of India from a dominant-
party to a multi-party system has
strengthened federalism. Although the
Congress Party remains a major player,
India operates with a multi-party system
that includes the Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP) and many state-based parties.
Since 1996, regional parties have
become important constituents of each
federal coalition. Gone are the days of
Three combinations of coalition governments
have held power: the non-BJP,
non-Congress-led United Front, supported
from outside by the Congress
Party (1996-98); the BJP-led National
Democratic Alliance (1998-2004); and
the present Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (since
2004). The United Front government’s alternative model of
governance, with its devolution of greater economic and
administrative autonomy to states, set the tone for change in
the federal polity. Coalition governments have come to stay
and India has learned to live with this. With their commitment
to granting greater autonomy to states and transferring the
bulk of centrally-sponsored programs to state governments,
regional parties have successfully advanced the cause of
The Indian federal system has to go through frequent negotiations
between the centralists and seekers of autonomy, and
between federal and state governments. There have been
repeated revisions of the Constitution and frequently the failure
of talks and accords. It is through such constant churning
that India’s federal system has matured. In the early days of
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
In run-up to Indian elections, cookies are sold
with party symbols. Clockwise from top left:
Congress Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, Tinamool
Congress and Communist Party (Marxist).