People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 05

January 29, 2006

Strengthening The Federalist Structure In India


Anil Biswas


IN 1950, the Constitution of the Republic of India was adopted. Among the basic principles adopted for the Constitution was Federalism, along with Secularism, Popular Sovereignty, Fundamental Rights, and Directive Principles of State Policy, Judicial Independence, and a Cabinet form of government.


As the Party Programme of the CPI(M) states in clear terms, the agenda for the Directive Principles was never fulfilled. Nor for that matter, as we shall try to argue briefly, was the concept of federalism, in any full measure. This, of course, flowed from the bourgeois-landlord system that was set in place in the wake of independence from British colonial rule.


Federalism means a union or association of states, that leads to the setting up of a composite institution where there is a separate and distinct union government, and state governments. The pattern of relationship is never rigidly defined in the Indian Constitution. The fact that the relationship is based on an elastic set of norms has always gone to the advantage of successive powerful union governments. The bourgeois-landlord ruling classes have in succession always run the union governments.


The concept of federalism in India is built upon the substructure of power sharing in a set up of parliamentary bourgeois democracy. The three basic features expected of a such a set up, the bourgeois norms notwithstanding: unity in diversity, devolution of authority, and decentralised administration, have remained largely unsung and unfulfilled,¯often at the altar of ‘strong governance at the centre.’


In speaking about the concept of federalism-in-practice, we should be sharply aware of the fact that from the moment the Constitution started to be drafted, the concept of unity rather than diversity had a marked influence on the process of federalism. The drive to create an ‘indestructible union’ was also accompanied by the urge to foster and foist on the nation, a driving supremacy of the Union over the State, in matters that concerned the nation’s interests.


B R Ambedkar’s definition and commentary on the nature and sweep of federalism is worth recalling. What Ambedkar said was in effect a commentary on the au contraire path the subsequent union governments have chosen to adopt, treading underfoot the interests of the states. According to Ambedkar, in a federalist structure, "the states are not agencies of the union, nor they are subordinate to the Union: the ‘authority of one is coordinate with that of the other."


A look at the manner in which the Directive Principles of state policy have been ignored for satiation of class interests of the bourgeois-landlord class would reveal how the Union of India remains weak and lacks the kind of integration that the nation deserved.


The principles of adequate means of livelihood for every citizen, the right to work, an economic system that militates against concentration of wealth, the right to education, free and compulsory education for children, living wages for workers, and equal pay for equal work for women as well as men have not been realised in practice.


In putting the federal system in India under the scanner, one cannot but encounter the pervasive influence of the pre-independence governance of the India Act of 1935. The pattern of legislative powers is broken down into three lists. The longest list, comprising the ‘vital interests of the State,’ vests in the Union government. It includes items like defence, arms and ammunitions, foreign affairs, foreign trade, atomic energy, treaties, war-and-peace, electronic communication, currency, coinage, the Reserve Bank of India, industries, natural resources, apex courts of law, and the Constitution, to name but a few.


The states’ list comprises, among other things, public order, police, trade, and commerce within the state, agriculture, markets, money lending, land revenue, excise duty, and various taxes. The concurrent list includes such items as detention for ‘security of the state,’ transfer of non-agricultural property, contracts, economic, and social planning, monopolies, TU’s, social security, education labour welfare, factories, price control, and electricity.


All residuary powers of legislation are vested in the union government. Indeed, the entire system of distribution of powers is heavily tilted against the states. The imperatives of restructuring the centre-state relationship are certainly an important way of tilting the balance back to its rightful position.


The Constitution empowers the Union government, through the Rajya Sabha to transfer any State listed subject to the Union list. The present system thus is a deviation from the federalist pattern and represents an attempt to ‘unitarism in federal form.’


In terms of administrative powers, too, the states are reduced to playing a role subservient to that of the union. According to Article 256, the executive power of every state has to be exercised ensuring ‘compliance with parliamentary legislations.’ Further, in a move that is distinctly anti-federalist, the Constitution empowers the Union government to direct the states as it may see fit.


The Constitution also calls upon the states not to impede, or prejudice in any circumstances, the executive power of the Union. The Union government also possesses overt and covert control over the administrative machineries of the state government.


Thus, by virtue of constitutional practices, the states have been virtually reduced to enjoying only an attenuated form of power sharing with the Union government. They do not possess substantive powers at their disposal to function as effective agencies of the state power that they share with the union.




We may point to some of the glaring discrepancies in constitutional practice that go to weaken rather than strengthen the nation’s federal structure.

The following issues on the centre-state relationship has been on the agenda of the CPI(M) long before the H S Sarkaria commission was appointed to take a look at the relationship nationwide. The following demands if met, would go a long way in re-regulating centre-state relations and augmenting the federalist structure.

  1. The central tax share plough back must be increased from 29 per cent to 33 per cent at the least,

  2. Consignment tax must be implemented for the interest of the states

  3. The states must get back the items on which it has the constitutional right to impose taxes

  4. The central developmental schemes in the states list must be handed over to the states with the financial component

  5. The surplus funds generated from small savings should be ploughed back in the states as financial assistance and not as loans

  6. The credit-deposit ratio should be restructured to benefit states

  7. Central assistance must be increased in the ease of such national level issues as river erosion, dredging of rivers, national highways, mega city projects and investments made in central industrial units

  8. Strengthening of the public distribution system

  9. Putting a stop to transferring the burden of WTO and IMF conditionalities on to the states

  10. Taking up by the centre of the financial and rehabilitional liabilities of natural disasters

  11. The subjects of the concurrent list should be transferred to the states list and

The National Integration Council and the National Development Council must be made federalist in outlook.