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Federalism in India

“Federalism isn’t about states’ rights. It’s about dividing power to better protect individual liberty.” - Elizabeth Price Foley


Federalism derives from the Latin term “foedus,” which meaning “covenant, agreement, or treaty.” Federalism is a principle that outlines a governance system in which authority is divided between the National Government and the State Government. A government operates on a dual machinery system. The central government and numerous state authorities have different levels of authority.

The “Separation of Powers” idea is observed by these forms of governance. India operates on the idea of two tiers of government, with authority divided between the Central Government and the State Government. The Indian constitution, which envisions a parliamentary system of government, is federal in structure and unitary in nature. The three main branches of the federal government are the legislative, executive, and judicial.

Functions of Federalism

The primary function of federalism is to ensure the division of powers between the federal government and the state governments. The Central Government makes laws in the areas mentioned in List I of the Seventh Schedule (for example, Foreign Affairs, Extradition, Foreign Jurisdiction, and so on), whereas the State Government makes laws in the areas indicated in List II of the Seventh Schedule ( e.g, Public order, Public health and sanitation etc). List III is the Concurrent List, which discusses areas where both governments have the authority to create laws.

Another role of federalism is to uphold justice through the Supreme Court’s supremacy. Also, there is proper check and balance under this form of government so that no branch becomes more powerful suppressing the other. According to James Madison “If men were angels. No government would be necessary”

Features of Federalism

The following are the main characteristics of federalism:

  • There are two levels of government: central and state.
  • There is power separation/division.
  • There is a written constitution in place.
  • The constitution guarantees the powers and functions of each level of government.
  • The Constitution’s supremacy.
  • Rigid constitution; that is, constitutional provisions cannot be changed by any level of government.
  • A separate judiciary.
  • Bicameral legislature: A country’s parliament is made up of two houses (upper or lower house).

Nature of Indian Federalism

Indian Federalism is not federal in the same way that US federalism is. It is a “one-of-a-kind federation” ( federation sui generis). Despite the fact that the Indian Constitution talks about the division of power, which states that neither the union nor the states have unlimited sovereignty, the Indian Constitution contains several clauses that contradict this idea. The President of India has the authority to declare an emergency under Articles 352, 356, and 360. Furthermore, Article 200 of the Indian Constitution states that the Governor may reserve some measures enacted by the State legislature for consideration by the President. It combines the qualities of federalism with unitarianism, transforming it into a unitary state.

Importance of Federalism in India

Power decentralisation

In Indian governance, power transfers from the centre to the local bodies, known as Panchayats. Decentralisation is required so that the central government does not obtain all powers, which would result in a unitary system of government.

Governance becomes simple.

This method assists the administration, which is already overworked. In India, there are three branches of government. Executives in the centre are unable to reach out to communities. As a result, the local government assists the executive in reaching a lower level, as well as residents in actively participating in democracy.

Maintains the Constitution’s supremacy

In a federal system of government, the Constitution remains the ultimate law of the nation, as opposed to unitary government, where Parliament is paramount, and monarchy, where the king is supreme. The rule of law is firmly enforced. The Constitution is supreme in India as well.

Diversity is preserved.

India’s population is made up of people of many ethnicities and religions. The administration embraced a secular concept, which was incorporated to the Preamble by the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976. Because India is a secular country, it cannot promote a single religion or race.

Cases Related to Federalism in India

  1. Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala

This case not only strengthens the “Doctrine of Basic structure” which was propounded in Keshvananda Bharti v State of Kerala but also held that all the machinery of government, legislature and executive and judiciary are bound by the constitution, and nobody is above the constitution. The Kesavananda Bharati ruling established the Basic Structure theory, which limited Parliament’s ability to make radical changes that may jeopardise the Constitution’s basic principles, such as secularism and federalism. The decision affirmed the Supreme Court’s authority to conduct judicial reviews of laws passed by Parliament. It developed the notion of separation of powers between the three parts of government – legislative, executive, and judicial.

  1. State of West Bengal v Union of India

This lawsuit concerned the use of sovereign rights by Indian states. The Supreme Court ruled in this case that the Indian constitution does not support the idea of absolute federalism. The court goes on to list four features that demonstrate that the Indian constitution is not a traditional federal constitution.

  1. The first feature emphasised by the court is that the Indian constitution is the primary text that controls all states, and there is no provision for separate constitutions for each state, as necessary in a federal state.
  2. The court further emphasises that the states have no ability to change the constitution, and that only the central government has the authority to change the Indian constitution.
  3. The third feature emphasised by the court is that the Indian constitution grants the courts ultimate power to nullify any action that breaches the constitution.
  4. The fourth characteristic is highlighted by the court is that the distribution of powers facilitates national policies matter by central government and local governance by the state government.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled that the central government is the final authority on any matter. Political authority is divided between the union and state governments, with the union government receiving more weight.

Another issue that goes against genuine federalism is the notion of single citizenship in India.

Finally, the learned justices decided that India’s constitutional framework is centralised, with the states having a subordinate position to the Centre.


The Indian government structure is federal with certain features of a unitary system of government. Union and state adhere to the idea of separation of powers, although not strictly. In India, the principle of power distribution is typically followed. As a result, India is a federal country in its own right. It is referred to as a Quasi-Federal Country for convenience.

This article has been written by Kanupriya Bhargava, from Amity Law School. 


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