Recent trends of Indian federalism

  • Local bodies have become crucial

By: Dr Rajkumar Singh

The history of federalism and Centre-State relations in India is marked by political mobilisation and intermittent struggle to fashion a more federal set-up. In the first phase lasting until the last 1960s, the task of nation building and development was the main concern of the nation’s rulers. This period was not solely dominated by the trend of centralisation. Whatever conflicts arose, and there were many major ones, were all sought to be resolved under the Constitution. Geographic boundaries of the States have often been reorganised. In 1956, they were organised on linguistic basis. This laid the basis for the later assertion by the States for greater powers. Later more States were formed– Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Goa. Even in 2003, three large States were bifurcated to create three new States of Jharkand, Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh to respect and encourage the local aspirations of respectively.

In this regard installation of non-Congress governments at the state level after 1967 is considered as the beginning of the process of erosion of Congress hegemony. But in fact this was the starting point for the emergence of coalition politics in India. The decline of the ‘Congress System’ as advocated by Austin, brought a number of issues to the surface. One of this issues was to make room for other political parties to play their roles in the national as well as local politics. The 1977 development is the process of culmination which started way back in 1967. In post 1967 phase the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam decided to carry on a campaign on Centre–State relations in a systematic and scientific manner. In February 1970, in the DMK Conference in Tiruchy, a popular slogan , ‘Autonomy for the States; Federalism at the Centre’, was given. In its 1971 Election Manifesto, the DMK announced: ‘Though the Constitution of India is described as a Federal one, the balance is more tilted towards the Centre and hence the States are not able to function freely in the administrative and financial spheres. Only such powers as are necessary for the Centre to preserve the strength of India should be assigned to the Centre and all the other powers should be left to the States without impairing the ideal of a strong India’.  The DMK is of the view that for proper and ideal Centre–State relations, there should be more powers for the States.

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No single entity can claim superiority. Sovereignty does not lie in any one institution or in any one wing of the government. The power of governance is distributed among several organs and institutions for good governance. Thus the element of cooperation, of seeking friendly counsel with each other and of ever keeping the larger end in view, is of paramount importance

For the first time in 1989, a National Front coalition government headed by V.P. Singh, which included major regional parties like the DMK, took office at the Centre. Though short-lived, this government took certain steps to strengthen the federal principle. The Inter-State Council was constituted in 1990. The entry of regional parties in coalition government at the centre became a regular feature in 1996 with the formation of the United Front government and in all subsequent ones– and presently in the United Progressive Alliance government. The left parties, which supported both the National Front government in 1989 and the United Front government in 1996-1998 and the present UPA government, are strong supporters of the federal principle. An analysis of the nature and dimension of federal government in India will show that there have been qualitative changes in the inner dynamics of political parties in India, both at the national and regional levels.

In the beginning of 1990s the implementation of dual policies of liberalisation and decentralisation were significant as the local bodies in their functioning reduced the role of the bureaucracy while increasing grassroots-level participation with the State’s support. A historic development took place in 1992, both in the Constitutional and federal history of India, by virtue of the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts to the constitution. They respectively made the rural local bodies and the urban local bodies respectively a compulsory and statutory provision. They were also entrusted with powers and responsibilities ‘to enable them to function as institutions of self – government and such law may contain provisions for the devolution of powers and responsibilities. Their main responsibilities were ‘the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice in the matters listed in Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules for the rural and urban local bodies respectively. Both these Schedules are broadly derivatives of the State list and these are meant in further refining the developmental and welfare functions of the State and in the process, federalism too.

In this regard the fact remains that decentralisation has often come to be regarded as a way of reducing the strength of governments and as synonymous with privatisation.  In these Amendments, a total of 29 responsibilities have been given to rural local bodies and 18 to urban local bodies respectively.

India for more than the last one decade has been experiencing coalition politics and both the Centre and many States are being governed by coalition of different political parties. The earlier phenomenon of ‘one-party system’ or rather ‘one-party dominant system’ has been eroding to a coalition system. Political parties or alliance of political parties are playing divergent roles in the Union-State governance. A Party, which is ruling the State, is in the opposition at Centre and vice-versa. ‘This has made the spectacle of monolithic party organisations a thing of the past. Different segments of the same party are both cooperating and opposing the government of the day and this has thrown such a challenge to traditional thinking in regard to federalism that the President, the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers are vying with each other in their expressions of mutual co-operation and smooth running of Union-State relations’.  The time is ripe now with almost every major political party realising by sheer experience, and because of objective conditions, the need to establish a true federal system that would strengthen the bonds of mutual cooperation, unity, and cordiality between the Centre and the States.

The honest and the practical way ahead is for the Union to lose its extra weight and shed its tendency to be the centre with monopoly of power to dominate over the units and the people. In short, the only way to preserve ‘India, that is Bharat’ as a ‘Union of States’ is to work for building it as a ‘federal Union’ with multiple tiers of government and sharing of powers from the lowest grassroot levels of Panchayats to the Parliament and the Government of the Union.  When the basic units of the federal Union at the grassroots become small and autonomous, most of the conflicts related to ethnicity and quest for freedom may get resolved and it may be possible to involve various groups in governance more closely and this may make the Union stronger and the nation more integrated, emotionally and culturally.

Above all, it needs to be remembered that only the spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’, and not an attitude of dominance or superiority, can preserve the balance between the Union and the States and promote the good of the people. Under our constitutional system, no single entity can claim superiority. Sovereignty does not lie in any one institution or in any one wing of the government. The power of governance is distributed among several organs and institutions for good governance. Thus the element of cooperation, of seeking friendly counsel with each other and of ever keeping the larger end in view, is of paramount importance.

The writer is head of the political science department of the B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India and can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. India is a large country with limited States. There is large disconnect between grassroot citizenry with Union Government. The existence of rural feudalistic landlords and lack of desired education of peasantry is yet not conducive of either giving more leverage to existing State making them more assertive against Union or governing the nation totally with Panchayati Raj system which may centralize power making the Union more Hegemonistic? The equilibrium needs to be made in powers to be. The process is required to be slow and steady with awareness of public to understand the democratic dualistic controls ??? 🤔

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