Federal System

Federal System

This article deals with ‘Federal System– Indian Polity.’ This is part of our series on ‘Polity’ which is important pillar of GS-2 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.


The idea of federalism as an organizing principle between different levels of a state is quite old. Greek city-states had it. Lichchhavi kingdom of northern India in the 6th century BCE is a celebrated example of a republican system.  European Union is a recent example of the idea of federalism being implemented at a trans-national level.  

  • The term “federation” is derived from the Latin word “foedus,” meaning treaty or agreement.
  • A federation can be formed in two ways.
    • Integration, i.e. Coming Together Federation: When two or more weak states come together to form a strong union, e.g., USA.
    • Disintegration, i.e. Holding Together Federation: When a Big unitary state is converted to a federation by granting autonomy to provinces, e.g., Canada and India.
  • Federal Polity is a system of governance in which sovereignty is constitutionally shared between the centre & states.
Federal System

Federal system is adopted so that

The federal system is adopted so that 

  • States & their diversity can flourish with autonomy. 
  • For multicultural societies, federalism is an attractive option.  It enables minorities to become majorities in sub-national units  
  • Political Motives
    • The Federal System provides security from external & internal threats.
    • Additional central assistance, when required, can be provided by the centre in the Federal System.
  • Economic Motives
    • The Federal System provides access to the larger national market 
    • Transfer of resources from other states in case of an underdeveloped state. 
  • India has a Federal system, but the term federation is mentioned nowhere in the constitution; instead, Article 1 describes India as a Union of states

Federalism and Stability of State

Centralized administration often refuses to decentralize, thinking it will undermine its integrity. But the opposite is true. Decentralization leads to stability, and those who refuse to decentralize often crumble under their weight.

Federalism and Stability of State

Difference between Federal and Unitary Government

Federal SystemUnitary System
Federal Polity has a ‘dual government.’ Unitary Polity has a ‘single government.’
 It has a written constitution (must) It may have written (France) or unwritten (Britain) constitution.
There is a division of powers between the centre and the states There is no division of power, as all the powers are vested in the centre
There is a supremacy of the constitution Constitution may be supreme (Japan) or may not be (Britain)
Federal Polity has a rigid constitution Unitary Polity may have a rigid or flexible constitution.
Federal Polity has an independent judiciary Unitary Polity may or may not have an independent judiciary.
Federal Polity has bicameral legislature Unitary Polity may have two houses (Britain) or one house (China)

Federal System in India

  • India is holding together federation different from the USA, which is coming together. 
  • The holding together model was adopted for the sake of the unity of the country & national integration – The constituent assembly prescribed the federalist model so that the country could face the challenges of Centrifugal forces effectively. 

Features of the Indian System of Federation

  • Dual Polity: India follows the concept of a dual polity, with the Union at the Centre and the States at the Periphery.
  • Division of Powers: There is a well-defined division of powers between the Union and the States, elucidated in the 7th Schedule of the Constitution. 
  • Supremacy of the Constitution: The Indian Constitution establishes the supremacy of the Constitution itself. All laws must conform to its provisions, and any law inconsistent with the constitution is declared void. 
  • Rigid Constitution: The constitution is rigid in its structure, and the method of amendment is also rigid. Provisions concerned with federal character can be amended by joint action of state and centre.
  • Independent Judiciary: The judiciary in India is independent and not under the influence of the Union government. 
  • Bicameralism: The Indian Parliament follows a bicameral system, where the Rajya Sabha represents the states of the Indian Federation, and the Lok Sabha represents the Indian people as a whole. 
  • Asymmetric Federalism: India has Asymmetric Federalism in the sense that the rights and responsibilities of all the states are not the same. The special nature and needs of certain regions are defined constitutionally via various sub-clauses of Article 371

Architect of the Indian Constitution, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, believed that for a culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse and heterogeneous country like India, federalism was the ‘chief mark’, although with a strong unitary bias. This understanding, which was shared by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and other national leaders, stood at sharp variance with Gandhi’s idea of federalism, who was a votary of decentralization and devolution of power to the lowest unit of Panchayat. 

All federal systems, including the American system, are placed in a tight mould of federalism. No matter the circumstances, it cannot change its form and shape. It can never be unitary. On the other hand, the Indian Constitution can be both unitary and federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances. In normal times, it is framed to work as a federal system. But in times of distress(e.g. National Emergency), it is designed to make it work as a unitary system.

Unitary features of the Indian Constitution

  • Strong Centre: The Indian Constitution leans towards a strong Centre, where the powers are tilted in favour of the Union. 
  • Parliament’s Authority to Change State Boundaries: Parliament holds the unique power to alter state boundaries and names and even create new states.
  • Single Constitution for Union and States: Unlike other federations, India has a single constitution that governs the Union and the states. It ensures a unified legal framework throughout the country. 
  • Flexible Process of Constitutional Amendment: The process of Constitutional Amendment is less rigid than found in other federations.
  • Inequality in State Representation in Rajya Sabha: The Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, does not guarantee equal representation for states. 
  • Unitary Transition During Emergencies: In times of Emergency, the federal structure temporarily transforms into a unitary one. This shift occurs without the need for a formal Constitutional Amendment.
  • Single Citizenship: There is only single citizenship, i.e. citizenship of India, and no separate citizenship of states.
  •  Unified Judiciary: There is a single judiciary with the Supreme Court at the top that enforces central and state laws.
  • All India Services: The creation of All India Services, such as the IAS, IPS, and IFS, is a unitary feature.
  • Integrated Audit Machinery. CAG audits accounts of both Central and State Governments but is appointed by the President only, and states have no say in his appointment or removal.
  • Office of Governor: The head of state, i.e., the Governor, is nominated by the President and is an agent of the centre in states.
  • Integrated Election Machinery: India maintains a single integrated election machinery for conducting both central and state elections.
  • President’s Absolute Veto: The President has an Absolute Veto over the State Bill if the Governor send any bill to the President for consideration.

Is India a federal state or a Unitary state?

India’s constitutional framework raises the intriguing question: Is India a federal or unitary state? The answer lies in the nuanced understanding of the features embedded in the Indian Constitution.

  • Although there are large unfederal features that are essentially incorporated for the unity and integrity of the country, it is equally important to recognize that all the fundamental federal features are present in the Constitution. The presence of strong unitary elements has led some scholars to categorize India as a “Quasi-federal” state. 
  • Although  Article 1 states that India is a Union of states, this doesn’t mean India isn’t a federation. No particular significance is to be attached to the word union because the word union is used in the Preamble of the USA, too, and citing this, BR Ambedkar said the description of India as a Union, although it is a Federation, does no violence to its usage. 
  • At the time of Independence, traumatized by the partition and violence, the Constituent Assembly wanted to ensure the unity and integrity of the new nation. Hence, the framework departed significantly from all existing models of federalism.  

When India adopted this system, In the absence of any track record of India in federalism and the tendency to compare all federal states with the US model, jurists found it difficult to certify that the system was indeed federal. It was therefore declared ‘Quasi-Federal’. This description is no longer valid today because the federal principle has taken root and further developed on Indian soil.  

After the 73rd & 74th Amendments & formation of the Panchayati Raj, a new era was started in the chapter of Indian Federalism.

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