Federal System

On the basis of relations between the national government and its constituent parts, such as states or provinces, the government can be classified into unitary and federal. In a unitary government, the relationship between the centre and its constituent parts such as states or provinces are largely one-sided, with the central government enjoying almost complete control over its constituent parts such as states or provinces. In a unitary system, almost all power and responsibility are vested in the central government. Local governments may only exercise power through the central government. In this system, sovereignty is vested in the central government alone.

On the other hand, a federal government is one in which powers are divided between the centre and its constituent parts, such as states or provinces. In the federal system, two sets of politics, one at the centre or national level and the second at the regional or provincial level. In a federal system, the national government is known as the Federal government or the Central government or the Union government, and the regional government is known as the state government or the provincial government. Britain, China, France, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Spain and so on have the unitary model of government, while the US, Canada, Brazil, Russia, Argentina, India and so on have the federal model of government.

Types of Federation

The term ‘federation‘ is derived from a Latin word ‘foedus‘ which means ‘treaty’ or ‘agreement’. Thus, a federation is a new state (political system) which is formed through a treaty or an agreement between the various units. The units of a federation are known by various names like cantons (as in Switzerland) or provinces (as in Canada) or states (as in US) or republics (as in Russia). A federation can be formed in two ways—the first one is by way of integration and the second one is by way of disintegration. In the first case, a number of independent militarily weak or independent economically backward states come together to form a big and strong union, as, for example, the USA, Australia, Switzerland. Here, states enjoy more autonomy as compared to the holding together kind of federationThe US is the first and the oldest federation in the world. It was formed in 1787 following the American Revolution (1775-83). At present, it comprises 50 states (originally 13 states). In the second case, a big unitary state is converted into a federation by granting autonomy to the provinces to promote regional interest, as, for example, Canada, India. Here, powers are generally tilted towards the central authority. The Canadian Federation comprising 10 provinces (originally 4 provinces) and formed in 1867.

The Constitution of India provides for a federal system of government in the country. However, the term ‘federation’ has nowhere been used in the Constitution. Instead, Article 1 of the Constitution describes India as a ‘Union of States’. According to Dr B R Ambedkar, the phrase ‘Union of States’ has been preferred to ‘Federation of States’ to indicate two things: (I) the Indian federation is not the result of an agreement among the states like the American federation; and (II) the states have no right to secede from the federation. The federation is a union because it is indestructible. However, India is a federal system but with more tilt towards a unitary system of government. It is sometimes considered a quasi-federal system. It has features of both a federal and a unitary system.

Federal Features of the Indian Constitution

The federal features of the Indian Constitution are explained below:

  • Written Constitution- The most important feature of a federation is that its constitution should be a written one, so that both the Union Government as well as the State can refer to that as and when needed. The Constitution of India is a written document and is the most elaborate Constitution of the world. Originallythe Indian Constitution contained a Preamble, 395 Articles (divided into 22 Parts) and 8 Schedules. At present (2020), it consists of a Preamble, 470 Articles (divided into 25 Parts) and 12 Schedules. It specifies the structure, organisation, powers and functions of both the Central and State governments and prescribes the limits within which they must operate. Thus, it avoids the misunderstandings and disagreements between the two.
  • Rigid Constitution- The procedure of amending the Constitution in a federal system is normally rigid. The Indian Constitution provides that some amendments require a special majority. Such an amendment is related to those provisions which are concerned with the federal structure (i.e., Centre-state relations and judicial organisation) can be amended only by the joint action of the Central and state governments. Such provisions require for their amendment a special majority of the Parliament and also approval of half of the state legislatures. Hence, the Indian Constitution has been rightly called a rigid constitution.
  • Division of Powers- In the Indian Constitution, there is a clear division of powers between the Centre and the States. The Indian Constitution described such three lists in the Seventh Schedule which divide the powers between the Centre and the States. These three lists are Union List, State List and Concurrent List. The Union List consists of 100 subjects (originally 97), the State List 61 subjects (originally 66) and the Concurrent List 52 subjects (originally 47). Both the Centre and the states can make laws on the subjects of the concurrent list, but in case of a conflict, the Central law prevails.
  • Independent Judiciary- Another very important feature of a federation is an independent judiciary to interpret the Constitution and maintain its sanctity. The Indian Constitution establishes an independent judiciary headed by the Supreme Court for two purposes: one, to protect the supremacy of the Constitution by exercising the power of judicial review: and second, to settle the disputes between the Centre and the states or between the states. It can declare a law unconstitutional if it contravenes any provision of the Constitution.
  • Dual Polity- In a federal set-up, there are two tiers of government with well-assigned powers and functions. In this system, the central government and its constituent parts, such as states or provinces, are endowed with sovereign powers to be exercised in the fields assigned to them respectively by the Constitution. The Union government deals with the matters of national importance like defence, foreign affairs, currency and so on. On the other hand, the state governments look after the matters of regional and local importance like public order, agriculture, health, local government and so on.
  • Supremacy of the Constitution- The constitution is the supreme law in India. The basic structure of the Constitution of India is indestructible as laid out by the judiciary. The supremacy of the Constitution can be maintained only if the organs of the government (legislative, executive and judicial) at both the levels must operate within the jurisdiction prescribed by the Constitution. However, the supremacy of the Constitution is protected by exercising the power of judicial review by the Supreme Court and high courts.
  • Bicameralism- The Indian Constitution provides a bicameral legislature. It consists of an Upper House (Rajya Sabha) and a Lower House (Lok Sabha). The Rajya Sabha represents the states of the Indian Federation, while the Lok Sabha represents the people of India as a whole.

Unitary Features of the Indian Union

Besides the above federal features, the Constitution of India also possesses the following unitary or non-federal features:

  • Single Constitution– Usually, in a federation, the states have the right to frame their own Constitution separate from that of the Centre. But in India, no such power is given to the states. The Constitution of India embodies not only the constitution of the Centre but also those of the states.
  • Strong Centre- In the Indian Constitution, the division of powers is in favour of the Centre. The Union List contains more subjects than the State List. The more important subjects have been included in the Union List. On the Concurrent List subjects, the parliament can make laws that can override the laws made by a state legislature.
  • State not Indestructible- Unlike in other federations, the states in India have no right to territorial integrity. The Parliament can take unilateral action to change the area, boundaries or name of any state. Such action requires only a simple majority and not a special majority.
  • Flexibility of the Constitution- The Indian Constitution is a blend of flexibility and rigidity. Certain provisions of the constitution can be easily amended. In case the amendments seek to change aspects of federalism in India, the provision to bring about such amendments are not easy. Furthermore, the power to initiate an amendment to the Constitution only lies with the Centre. In the US, the states can also propose an amendment to the Constitution.
  • Unequal representation of states in the Rajya Sabha- In an ideal federal system, all the states should have equal representation. The representation of the Indian states in the Upper house (Rajya Sabha) is based on the states’ populations. For example, Uttar Pradesh has 31 Rajya Sabha seats and Goa has 1 Rajya Sabha seat. On the other hand, in the US, the principle of equality of representation of states in the Upper House is fully recognised. Thus, the American Senate has 100 members, two from each state.
  • Emergency powers- The Constitution of India provides emergency power to the Central government. The Indian Constitution describes three types of emergencies – national, state and financial. During an emergency period, the Central government becomes all powerful and the states go into the total control of the Centre. Hence, during an emergency period, it converts the federal structure into a unitary one without a formal amendment of the Constitution.
  • Integrated judiciary- The Constitution of India has established an integrated judicial system with the Supreme Court at the top and the state high courts below it. This single system of courts enforces both the central laws as well as the state laws. On the other hand, in the US, there is a double system of courts.
  • Single citizenship- In India, only single citizenship is available to citizens. They cannot be citizens of the state as well. This helps in increasing the feeling of nationality as it forges unity amidst regional and cultural differences. It also augments fundamental rights such as the freedom of movement and residence in any part of the nation. On the other hand, the other federal states like the US, Switzerland, and Australia have dual citizenship, that is, national citizenship as well as state citizenship.
  • All India Services- In the US, the federal government and the state government have their separate public services. In India also, the Centre and the states have their separate public services. But, in addition, there are all-India services such as IAS, IPS, etc. which are common to both the Centre and the states. The members of these services are recruited and trained by the Centre which also possesses ultimate control over them.
  • Integrated Audit Machinery- Appointment and removal of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India by the president of the country, who audits accounts of both the centre and the states. On the contrary, the American Comptroller-General has no role with respect to the accounts of the states.
  • Integrated Election Machinery- The Election Commission of India is responsible for conducting free and fair elections at both the centre and the state levels in India. The members of the election commission are appointed and removed by the president. On the other hand, the US has separate machinery for the conduct of elections at the federal and state levels.
  • Appointment of Governor- The head of the state is the governor. He is appointed and removed by the President. The governor of a state acts as the centre’s representative in the state. The state government does not appoint the governor, the centre does. On the contrary, the American Constitution provided for an elected head in the states. In this respect, India adopted the Canadian system.
  • Veto over States Bills- The governor of a state can reserve certain kinds of bills for the president’s consideration. The president enjoys absolute veto on these bills. He can even reject the bill at the second instance that is when the bill is sent after reconsideration by the state legislature. This provision is a departure from the principles of federalism. But in US and Australia, the states are autonomous within their fields and there is no provision for any such reservation.


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