Categories
Issue 11

The Frailty of Quasi-Federalism in India

Saaransh Mishra

The structure of federalism adopted by India to tackle post-independence challenges appears to be compatible with the unitary agenda of the Central government. Additionally, the BJP’s majority forming the Centre and its recurrent tendencies to bypass state governments’ and its citizens pose an extreme danger to federalism, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution and must be protected at all costs.

The Rajya Sabha reverberated with staunch opposition to the approval of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (GNCTD Bill) on 24 March, 2021 . The Bill contains amendments that would bolster the powers of the Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Delhi and further limit the administrative powers of Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP government.

In stark contrast to the earlier-vested powers of the elected government to take independent decisions on most administrative matters, the bill  mandates  LG’s approval prior to every executive action. CM Arvind Kejriwal called it a “sad day for democracy,” while Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi called the bill “the most pernicious and the most unconstitutional bill the Rajya Sabha has ever received.”  Having received Presidential assent amidst opposition walkouts in the Rajya Sabha, it has yet again resurrected debates on the current government’s commitment to federalism in India. This is not the first time that the government has come under scrutiny for passing heavily opposed legislations jeopardizing constitutional federalism. The recent GNCTD Bill, along with certain other highly controversial moves like the stance on “one nation one election”, the abrogation of Article 370, the CAA & NRC and the passage of the farm bills, all in the face of incessant criticism and opposition within and outside the Parliament, has brought the BJP under question. So, how do these contentious bills get passed despite such strong opposition? One could consider the role of India’s “quasi-federal” structure and its compatibility with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s longstanding agenda of attaining a unitary state with an overly dominant Centre. The larger debate that these legislations highlight is the inadequate checks that India’s quasi-federal structure presents to a government with a parliamentary majority. 

“Federalism” refers to the constitutionally allocated distribution of powers between two or more levels of government; one at the national level, other at the provincial, state or local levels. The principal feature of federalism is that the various levels of governments operate within their own constitutionally-defined jurisdictions with substantial independence from each other. A key tenet of the federal concept is the voluntary compact between several independent states that agree to become a part of a nation and are required to submit an integral part of their power to the Centre.

However, in most federal countries, the difference in power between the central and state governments is not as substantial as it is in the case of India. The herculean challenges faced by postcolonial India in terms of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity have contributed extensive powers to the Centre. The disunity and secessionist tendencies that postcolonial India witnessed in the form of linguistic nationalism in the South, accession of the Princely States, the Kashmir conflict, and regional rivalry with Pakistan, among others, led the members of the Constituent Assembly to advocate for a strong Union government. This was deemed necessary to ensure  political stability  for India’s survival as a unified nation-state amidst enormous cultural heterogeneity and national security threats. 

Unlike other federal countries such as the US, the Parliament in India has the power to admit new states, create new states, alter boundaries and their names, in addition to establishing unity between states or dividing them. Further, there are various provisions in the Constitution that allow the Centre to override the powers of the states; the power to make laws within fields that have not been specified within the Constitution lies solely with the Centre. Additionally, on fiscal matters, states have limited capabilities and are quite heavily dependent on the Centre. Thus, the Constitution of India was drafted with strong centralizing tendencies that confer maximum powers to the central government and is thus referred to as “quasi-federal.”

BJP leaders have been pushing for the idea of “one nation one election” in various public platforms ever since the agenda reserved its space in the party’s 2014 election manifesto. In fact, as recently as in December 2020, BJP conducted roughly 25 webinars propagating the idea. . This agenda will further affect the limited autonomy of  regional parties that contest to form  state governments across India. This centralized control of state legislatures and state governments adds to the longstanding goals of the BJP to attain a unitary state. Further, advancing the abrogation of Article 370 that granted a special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir bypassed the citizens of the state. Moreover, on 12th December 2019, the Parliament passed the heavily contentious “Citizenship Amendment Act,” which is widely considered an “anti-muslim” law. And the farm bills of 2020, which continue to see protests, received Presidential assent to become a law in September 2020.

Despite opposition parties protesting against these anti-federal legislations, the BJP has been able to enforce them majorly due to their absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and a substantial standing in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP has 305 legislators in the Lok Sabha, which is more than enough to pass any bill without the support of allies. In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP has 82 members (38 short of the simple majority of 120), but it’s allies  take the  tally to 107. Additionally, various regional parties such as the BJD, Shiv Sena, the YSRCP, the TRS and the NPF (total of 19 members) registering their votes  in BJP’s favour, gives them the required number – above 120.

Complementing such  a majority, the powers vested in the Centre under Article 256, 365 and 356 allow the BJP to enforce any law that would strengthen its hold over the states. Article 256 says that all states are obligated to enact laws passed by the Parliament, whereas Article 365 states that if the States do not comply, then the President may hold that a situation has arisen in which the government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the Constitution. Resultantly, Article 356 authorizes the President to remove State Governments and dissolve state assemblies if they cannot run in accordance with the Constitution.

As political scientist Philip Mahwood argues, culturally diverse and developing countries like India require federalism not just for administrative requirements, but for the very survival of the nation. However, the centralized structure of federalism adopted by India to tackle post-independence challenges appears to be compatible with the unitary agenda of the Central government. Additionally, the BJP’s majority forming the Centre and their recurrent tendencies to bypass state governments and its citizens pose an extreme danger to federalism, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution and must be protected at all costs. 

Picture Credits: Ipleaders

Saaransh Mishra is a graduate of Political Science and International Affairs. He is deeply fascinated by geopolitics, human rights, the media and wishes to pursue a career in the confluence of these fields. In his spare time, he watches, plays, discusses sports and loves listening to Indian classical fusion music.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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