What is Federalism

 what is federalism?


  • Vertical division of power among different levels of government is one of the major forms of power sharing in modern democracies.
  • This is most commonly referred to as federalism.


  • One of the key changes made in the Constitution of Belgium was to reduce the power of the Central Government and to give these powers to the regional governments.
  • Regional governments existed in Belgium earlier.
    • These powers could be withdrawn by the Central Government.
  • Change in 1993: Regional governments given constitutional powers.
    • No longer dependent on the central government.
  • Belgium shifted from a unitary to a federal form of government.
  • Sri Lanka continues to be a unitary system where the national government has all the powers.
    • Tamil leaders want Sri Lanka to become a federal system.
  • Federalism is a system of government in which the power is divided between a central authority and various constituent units of the country.
  • Two levels of federation government:
    1. Government for entire country: usually responsible for a few subjects of common national interest.
    2. Governments at province or state level: look after the day-to-day administering of their state.
  • Both the levels of governments enjoy their power independent of the other.
  • Federations are contrasted with unitary governments.
  • Unitary system:
    • Either there is only one level of government;
    • The sub-units are subordinate to the central government.
    • Central government can pass on orders to the provincial or the local government.
  • Federal system:
    • The central government cannot order the state government to do something.
    • State government has its own powers for which it is not answerable to the central government.

  • Both these governments are separately answerable to the people.

Is India Federal

Is India Federal?

the power sharing arrangements in our country

  • 1947: India emerged independent after a painful partition.
  • Several princely states became a part of the country.
  • The Constitution declared India as a Union of States.
  1. It did not use the word federation.
  2. The Indian Union is based on the principles of federalism.
  • All 7 features of federalism apply to the provisions of the Indian Constitution.
  • Constitution’s original provision: 2-tier system of government:

the Union or the Central Government- the Union of India;

the State governments- the states in the country.

  • Third tier of federalism later added: Panchayats and Municipalities.
  • These different tiers enjoy separate jurisdiction.
  • Constitution clearly provided a 3-fold distribution of legislative powers between the Union Government and the State Governments. It contains 3 lists: 

1. Union List: subjects of national importance.

  1. These can be defence, foreign affairs, banking, communications and currency.
  2. They are in this list because a uniform policy is needed on these matters.
  3. Union Government alone can make laws relating to these subjects.

2. State List: subjects of State and local importance.

  1. These can be police, trade, commerce, agriculture and irrigation.
  2. State Governments alone can make laws relating to these subjects.

3. Concurrent List: subjects of common interest to the Union Government & the State Governments.

  1. These can be education, forest, trade unions, marriage, adoption and succession.
  2. Both the Union and the State Governments can make laws on these subjects.
  3. If their laws conflict with each other, the law made by the Union Government will prevail.

4.Subjects not falling in the 3 lists: As per the constitution, the Union Government has the power to legislate on these ‘residuary’ subjects.

special status

  • Since most ‘holding together’ federations do not give equal power to its constituent units, all States in the Indian Union do not have identical powers.
    • Some states enjoy a special status.
    • Constitution of India (Article 371): Assam, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh & Mizoram enjoy special powers due to their peculiar social & historical circumstances.
    • These are especially enjoyed in relation to the protection of:
  1. land rights of indigenous peoples,
  2. their culture,
  3. preferential employment in government services.
  • Indians who are not permanent residents of this State cannot buy land or house here.
  • Some units of the Indian Union enjoy very little power.
  1. These are areas which are too small to become an independent State but could not be merged with any of the existing States.
  2. These areas (Chandigarh, Lakshadweep or National Capital of Delhi) are called Union Territories.
  3. These territories do not have the powers of a State.
  4. The Central Government has special powers in running these areas.
  • This power sharing between Union & State governments is basic to the structure of the Constitution.
  • The Parliament cannot change the arrangement by itself, so it not easy to make changes.
  • Any change has to be passed by both the Houses of Parliament with at least 2/3rd majority.
    • It has to be ratified by the legislatures of at least half of the total States.
  • The judiciary: oversees the implementation of constitutional provisions and procedures.
    • Dispute about division of powers: the High Courts & the Supreme Court make a decision.
  • The Union and State governments have the power to raise resources by levying taxes in order to carry on the government and the responsibilities assigned to each of them.




how it works in India

How is federalism practised?

Constitutional provisions: necessity of success of federalism but these are not sufficient.

If the federal experiment has succeeded in India, it is not merely because of the clearly laid out constitutional provisions.

The real success of federalism in India can be attributed to the nature of democratic politics in our country.

This ensured that the spirit of federalism, respect for diversity and desire for living together became shared ideals in our country.

Linguistic States

  • The creation of linguistic States was the first and a major test for democratic politics in our country.
  • 1947 to 2019, Political map of India: large extent of the changes.
  1. Many old States have vanished and many new States have been created.
  2. Areas, boundaries and names of the States have been changed.
  • 1947: boundaries of several old States of India changed to create new States.
  1. Reason: to ensure people who spoke the same language lived in the same State.
  2. Some States created to recognize differences based on culture, ethnicity or geography.
  • These include Nagaland, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand.
  • Rise in demand to form States on the basis of language: some national leaders feared it to lead to disintegration of the country.
  • Reality: formation of linguistic States has made the country more united.
  1. It made administration easier.

Language policy

  • Constitutionally, there is no national language in India.
  • Hindi: official language.
  • But Hindi is the mother tongue of only about 40% of Indians.
  • There were many safeguards to protect other languages.
  • There are 21 other languages recognized as Scheduled Languages by the Constitution.
  • A candidate in an examination conducted for the Central Government positions may opt to take the examination in any of these languages.
  • States have their own official languages.
  • Much of the government work takes place in the official language of the concerned State.
  • Leaders of our country adopted a cautious attitude in spreading the use of Hindi.
  1. English was to be discontinued for use in official purposes in 1965, as per the Constitution.
  2. Many non-Hindi speaking States demanded to continue the use of English.
  3. In Tamil Nadu, this movement took a violent form.
  4. The Central Government agreed to continue using English along with Hindi for official purposes.
  5. Many critics think that this favored the English-speaking elite.
  • Promotion of Hindi continues to be the official policy of the Government of India.
  • This does not mean that Central Government can impose Hindi on States that speak a different language.

  • The flexibility helped our country avoid the kind of situation in Sri Lanka.

Centre-State relations

  • The Centre-State relations have also been restructured to strengthen federalism in practice.
  • Working of power sharing constitutional arrangements depends largely on how ruling parties & leaders follow them.
  • For a long time, the same party ruled both at the Centre and in most of the States.
  1. The State governments did not exercise their rights as autonomous federal units.
  • If the ruling party at State level is different, parties at Centre try to undermine the power of the States.
  1. Central Government often misused the Constitution to dismiss State governments controlled by rival parties.
  2. This undermined the spirit of federalism.
  • After 1990: rise of regional political parties in many States of the country.
  1. It marked the beginning of the era of COALITION GOVERNMENTS at the Centre.
  • No single party got a clear majority in the Lok Sabha to form a government at the Centre.
  1. Major national parties entered into an alliance with several regional parties.
  2. A new culture of power sharing & respect for the autonomy of State Governments developed.
  • Supreme Court supported this trend by a major judgement.
  1. This made it difficult for Central Government to dismiss state governments vaguely.

  • Federal power sharing is more effective today than it was in the early years after the Constitution came into force.

Decentralisation in India

  • A vast country like India cannot be run only through these two-tiers.
  • Indian states are as large as independent countries of Europe.
  1. In terms of population, Uttar Pradesh is bigger than Russia, Maharashtra is about as big as Germany.
  2. Many of these States are internally very diverse.
  3. There is a need for power sharing within these States.
  • Decentralization of Power: Federal power sharing needs a tier of government below State governments.
  • This resulted in a third-tier of government, called local government.
  • Decentralization means power being taken from Central & State governments & given to local government.
  • The basic idea:
  1. There are a lot of problems and issues which are best settled at the local level.
  2. People have better knowledge of problems in their localities.
  3. They have better ideas on where to spend money while managing things more efficiently.
  4. It is possible for the people to directly participate in decision making at the local level.
  5. This inculcates a habit of democratic participation.
  6. Local government is the best way to realise an important principle of democracy, namely local self-government.
  • Need for decentralization: recognized in the Constitution.
  • There have been several attempts to decentralise power to the level of villages and towns.
  1. Panchayats in villages and municipalities in urban areas were set up in all the States.
  2. These were under the direct control of state governments.
  3. Elections to these local governments were not held regularly.
  4. Local governments did not have any powers or resources of their own.
  5. So, there was very little decentralisation in effective terms.
  • In 1992, the Constitution was amended to make the 3rd-tier of democracy more powerful & effective.
  1. Constitutionally mandatory to hold regular elections to local government bodies.
  2. Seats reserved in the elected bodies & the executive heads of these institutions for:
  • the Scheduled Castes,
  • the Scheduled Tribes,
  • Other Backward Classes.
  1. At least 1/3rd of all positions are reserved for women.
  2. State Election Commission, an independent body, was created in each State to conduct panchayat & municipal elections.
  3. State governments are required to share some powers & revenue with local government bodies.
    1. The nature of sharing varies from State to State.
  • Panchayati raj: popular name rural local government.
  • Each village, or a group of villages in some States, has a gram panchayat.
  • Gram panchayat: A council consisting of several ward members, called panch, & a president or sarpanch.
  1. They are directly elected by all the adult population living in that ward or village.
  2. It is the decision-making body for the entire village.
  • Panchayat: works under overall supervision of the gram sabha.
  1. All the voters in the village are its members.
  • It has to meet at least 2-3 times a year to approve annual budget of panchayat & review its performance.
  • Local government structure at the district level:
  1. A few gram panchayats are grouped together to form a panchayat samiti or block or mandal.
  • Panchayat samiti: members are elected by all the panchayat members in that area.
  • All the panchayat samitis or mandals in a district together constitute the zilla (district) parishad.
  1. Most members of the zilla parishad are elected.
  • Lok Sabha members, MLAs of the district & other officials of district level bodies are also its members.
  • Zilla parishad Chairperson: political head of the zilla parishad.
  • Local government bodies exist for urban areas as well:
  1. Municipalities are set up in towns.
  2. Big cities are constituted into municipal corporations.
  • Municipalities & municipal corporations are controlled by elected bodies of people’s representatives.
  • Municipal chairperson: political head of the municipality.
  • Head of municipal corporation: mayor.
  • This new system of local government: largest experiment in democracy conducted in the world.
  • There are about 36 lakh elected representatives in panchayats & municipalities etc.
  • Constitutional status for local government has helped to deepen democracy in our country.
  1. It has increased women’s representation in our democracy.
  • There are many difficulties:
  1. Elections are held regularly and enthusiastically, gram sabhas are not held regularly.
  2. Most state governments have not transferred significant powers to the local governments.
  3. They have not given adequate resources.
  4. We are thus still a long way from realising the ideal of self-government.