Factors sustaining federalism in India


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Federal structure

Mains level: Paper 2- Federalism in India and factors sustaining it

The article analyses the various factor that helped in sustaining the federal structure in India.

Flexible federalism

  • The Indian Constitution was designed to be opportunistic about federalism.
  • As BR Ambedkar had put it, “India’s Draft Constitution can be both unitary as well as federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances.”
  • This flexible federalism is still the default common sense of Indian politics.
  • The concerns about security, state-building, and economic development are always given preference over the idea of federalism.

4 factors sustaining federalism in India

1) Linguistic and cultural diversity in India

  • The first was a genuine concern about whether a centralised state could accommodate India’s linguistic and cultural diversity.
  • The States Reorganisation Act and the compromises on the issue of languages was a victory for federalism.
  • It allowed India to use federalism to accommodate linguistic diversity.
  • So long as regional linguistic identities are not threatened there is no natural source of resistance to centralisation.

2) Distribution of political power

  • The rise of coalition governments, economic liberalisation, regional parties, seemed to provide a basis for political federalism.
  • Political federalism is quite compatible with financial, and administrative centralisation.
  • Fragmentation of power effectively meant was that each state could bargain for certain things, or very strong leaders could veto central proposals.
  • However, it is striking that the period of fragmented power, strong chief ministers, didn’t act to strengthen the institutions of federalism.

3) Political and institutional culture

  • The third thing that sustains federalism is the political and institutional culture.
  • But the culture of political parties ruling at the Centre was committed to the most extreme interpretation of flexible federalism, including procedural impropriety to oust opponents.
  • Because of the increasing presidentialisation of national politics, the attribution of policy successes or failures might change, diminishing the stature of chief ministers considerably.
  • The other source of institutional culture might be the Supreme Court.
  • There was mostly a bi-partisan consensus on honouring the technical recommendations of institutions like the Finance Commission.

4) Asymmetrical federalism

  • The fourth thing that sustained federalism was “asymmetrical federalism” — special exemptions given to various states.
  • But asymmetrical federalism has always been subject to three pressures.
  • For Kashmir, asymmetrical federalism came to be seen as the source, not the resolution, of the security threat.
  • Even in the North-east, local conflicts within the scheme of asymmetrical federalism and discourse of security allowed the Centre to step in.
  • And increasingly, there will be pressure on the question: Which laws under asymmetrical federalism are compatible with Article 14 of the Indian Constitution?

GST and Decentralisation in states

  • The most far-reaching change in the Indian Constitution on federalism was GST.
  • It does increase centralisation in the system.
  • But it is a product of the cooperation of the states, who still have a significant role in shaping it.
  • The states did push back against the possibility of the Centre reneging on its commitment on payments.
  • Most states are reluctant to honour more decentralisation within, to rural and urban bodies.
  • The Centre disproportionately controls resources in India; but very few states have shown a zeal to increase their own financial headroom by utilising whatever powers they might have on taxation.

Consider the question “How federalism in India is different from the U.S.? What are the factors responsible for its sustenance in India?”


The flexible federalism will be bent in all kinds of ways. But it is important to remember that this mess is not a product of Centre versus states. It has been co-produced by a political culture in both Centre and the states.

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