The upcoming challenges to Indian federalism

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Federal structure

Mains level : Paper 2- Challenges to India's federalism

Context

In 2026, there will be the challenge of addressing the conflict between the democratic principles and the federal principles, when there will be a reallocation of Lok Sabha seats. India needs to reimagine the current federal compact to address the challenges to federalism.

Population freeze for Lok Sabha seats

  • Since 1976, seats in the Lok Sabha have reflected the 1971 census and have not taken into account changes in the population.
  • The primary reason for this has been unequal population growth among States.
  • India’s most highly developed and prosperous States have been successful at family planning, while the poorer States continue to expand.
  • The freeze was thus a chance to ensure that India’s most successful States are not punished politically for their success.
  • Therefore, the Indian Constitution may face an unprecedented crisis in 2026 when there will be a dramatic change in the composition of the Lok Sabha.

Challenge of balancing the principle of democracy and federalism

  • As Article 1 of the Indian Constitution says, India is a Union of States.
  • However, the history of the linguistic reorganisation of States in 1956, and subsequent movements for Statehood afterwards demonstrates that States are distinct associative communities, within the federal structure of the Indian Union.
  • In a democratic set-up, all citizens are equal and are thus entitled to equal representation in governance.
  • But this would imply that bigger States are likely to dominate the national conversation over smaller States.
  • This leads us to an inherent contradiction between the principles of democracy and federalism when federal units are unequal in size, population and economics. 
  • The small States fear that they would get a smaller share of the pie economically, a much reduced say in national issues, and be irrelevant in the political governance of the country.

How the US Constitution addresses the concerns of small states

  • When the Americans adopted their Constitution, they protected smaller States in four ways.
  • First, national powers over the States were limited.
  • Second, each State regardless of size had two seats in the Senate, giving smaller States an outsized role in national governance.
  • Third, Presidents are elected by electoral votes, which means they must win States rather than the total national population.
  • Fourth, the slave-owning states were allowed to count the slaves for purposes of representation, with each slave being counted as three-fifths of a person.
  • This essential structure remains the bedrock of the American Constitution today.

How Indian Constitution deals with the issue?

  • India’s quasi-federal structure has always been sui generis.
  • Our founders knew that India’s diversity made federalism inevitable, but, fearing separatist tendencies among States that had never been a single political unit, they also created a strong centre.
  • However, the 1956 reorganisation of States on linguistic lines was a popular recognition of federal principles and yet did not result in separatist tendencies.
  • Since then, new States within the Union have been created in response to the demands of people for greater autonomy.

Way forward on addressing the challenges to federalism

  • There is an urgent need to reimagine our national compact.
  • Following are the components of such a new balance that need to be fine-tuned to Indian realities.
  • Give more powers to States: The powers of States vis-à-vis the Centre contained in the Lists and in the provisions dealing with altering boundaries of States must be increased to assuage the fear of smaller States that they will be dominated by bigger ones.
  • More localised decision-making is bound to increase national prosperity.
  • Indeed, this was the entire goal of the creation of Panchayat governance through the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution.
  • Expand the role of Rajya Sabha: The role and composition of the Rajya Sabha, our House of States, must be expanded.
  • This would allow smaller States a kind of brake over national majoritarian politics that adversely impact them.
  • Consent of all states on financial redistribution: Constitutional change and the change in financial redistribution between the States must require the consent of all or nearly all States.
  • Constitutional provisions dealing with language and religion must also be inviolate.
  • Break the bigger States: Serious thought must be given to breaking up the biggest States into smaller units that will not by themselves dominate the national conversation.

Conclusion

The unity of India is, of course, the fundamental premise underlying this discussion; but this unity does not depend on an overbearing Centre for its survival.

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