The contemporary discourse on federalism in India is moving on a discursive note across multiple dimensions, be it economic, political and cultural, to the extent that one is compelled to regard India to be at an inflection point vis-a-vis Centre-State relations owing to increasing asymmetry. Professor Shawn Rosenberg has argued that without an active and committed citizenry a democracy can devour itself and, in this context, it is worth engaging with India’s federal ethos and the associated asymmetries.
India consciously adopted a version of federalism that made the Union government and State governments interdependent on each other (latter more vis-a-vis the former) thereby violating the primal characteristic of a federal constitution i.e., autonomous spheres of authority for Union and State governments. Similar other constitutional features include the size and composition of the Rajya Sabha akin to that of the Lok Sabha thereby favouring larger States; Article 3 of the Indian Constitution which allows the Union to alter the boundaries of a State without the latter’s consent, emergency powers, and concurrent list subjects of the Seventh Schedule wherein the Union possesses more authority than the State barring a few exceptions. India’s centralised federal structure was not marked by the process of ‘coming together’ but was an outcome of ‘holding together’ and ‘putting together’.
Ambedkar called India’s federation a Union as it was indestructible which is why the Constitution does not contain words related to federalism. He also said that India’s Constitution holds requisite flexibility to be federal and unitary on a need basis. While the Supreme Court of India held that federalism was a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution in the S.R. Bommai vs Union of India case (1994), the Court also held that the Indian variant of federalism upholds a strong centre in the Kuldip Nayar vs Union of India case (2006).
Professor Louise Tillin argues that a conscious effort on the part of the framers of the Constitution to ensure flexibility and accommodate diversity renders India’s federalism an original form which is neither conventional nor reductive.
It is worth noting that the Indian National Congress (INC) vehemently opposed the discretionary powers of the provincial governors in the run-up to the 1937 elections and advocated in favour of autonomy. However, following the governance experience, in 1939, Nehru argued otherwise. Therefore, contextualising the choice of the framers of the Constitution provides a much needed insight on the past, thereby helping one understand the present and imagine the future of India’s federal ethos. Tillin presents at least four reasons that informed India’s choice of a centralised federal structure.
First was the partition of India and the concomitant concerns. Anticipating the Muslim League’s participation in the Constituent Assembly debates following the Cabinet Mission plan in 1946, the Objectives Resolution introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Assembly were inclined towards a decentralised federal structure wherein States would wield residuary powers. Further, in his presidential address at the 44th session of the INC, J.B. Kripalani too spoke in favour of maximum autonomy to the States and regarded centralisation to be at odds with liberty. However, after the Partition a revised stand was unanimously taken by the Union Powers Committee of the Constituent Assembly, in favour of a strong Union with residuary powers and weaker States, to safeguard the integrity of the nation.
The second reason pivoted around the reconstitution of social relations in a highly hierarchical and discriminatory society towards forging a national civic identity as argued by Professor Katharine Adeney instead of immediate caste and linguistic identities. Dr. Madhav Khosla shows that Nehru and Ambedkar believed that a centralised federal structure would unsettle prevalent trends of social dominance, help fight poverty better and therefore yield liberating outcomes. The third reason concerns the objective of building a welfare state. Drawing from existing literature, Tillin shows that in a decentralised federal setup, redistributive policies could be structurally thwarted by organised (small and dominant) groups. Instead, a centralised federal set-up can prevent such issues and further a universal rights-based system.
The final reason involved the alleviation of inter-regional economic inequality. The cotton mill industry in Bombay, and the jute mill industry in the Bengal region were subject to a ‘race to the bottom’ or rampant cost cutting practices. The Bengal region saw workers’ rights and safety nets being thwarted by Anglo-Scottish mill owners. The Bombay region had an empowered working class — thanks to the trade unionists — thereby affecting the business interests of mill owners owing to race to the bottom practices in the adjacent cotton belt region mills.
Provincial interventions seemed to exacerbate inequalities. India’s membership in the International Labour Organization, the Nehru Report (1928), and the Bombay Plan (1944) pushed for a centralised system to foster socio-economic rights and safeguards for the working and entrepreneurial classes.
While the aforementioned reasons make a case for a centralised federal set-up, the structure’s effectiveness is solely dependent on the intent and objectives a government aims to achieve. For instance, Tillin observed that linguistic reorganisation would not have been possible if India followed a rigid or conventional federal system. In other words, the current form of federalism in the Indian context is largely a function of the intent of the government of the day and the objectives it seeks to achieve. The majoritarian tendencies prevalent today are subverting the unique and indigenised set-up into an asymmetrical one. Inter alia, delayed disbursal of resources and tax proceeds, bias towards electorally unfavourable States, evasion of accountability, blurring spheres of authority, weakening institutions, proliferation of fissiparous political ideologies all signal towards the diminishing of India’s plurality or regionalisation of the nation — a process that is highly antithetical to the forging of a supra-local and secular national identity that preserves and promotes pluralism.
While it would be safe to argue that our federal set-up is a conscious choice, its furthering or undoing, will depend on the collective will of the citizenry and the representatives they vote to power.
Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a doctoral researcher at King’s India Institute, King’s College London. He tweets @krvtweets.