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Federalization of a Predominantly Parliamentary System in India

This is the text of a lecture delivered by Prof. M.P. Singh at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad as the inaugural activity of the Centre for Policy and Governance at the TISS, Hyderabad on 25th October, 2012.


Predominantly Parliamentary Regime


            From the 1950s to the 1970s the governments in India operated largely as a predominantly parliamentary regime, despite the constitution which is parliamentary- federal in nature.  These three decades, barring the Nehru-Patel dualistic dominance (1946-1950) and the Shastri inter-regnnum (1964-1966), were dominated by Prime Ministers Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  The ruling Congress party throughout this period was in power in New Delhi as well as in all or most states excepting for 1967 to 1971.  The internally democratically elected and regionally coalitional power structure of the party under Nehru gave way to a highly centralized party organization under Indira Gandhi following the great 1969 split between the followers of the Prime Minister and some regionally powerful leaders like Kumarswamy Kamaraj, Morarji Desai, Sanjiva Reddy, Atulya Ghosh, S.K. Patil, S. Nijalingappa, etc. 1  Despite these variations between the Nehru and Indira eras, both the regimes were parliamentary, in fact prime ministerial, almost presidential’ in the American sense in some ways. This was the reality notwithstanding the formal federal and cabinet system façade. Indeed, the Indira Emergency regime (1975-77) took upon some features of authoritarianism in modern societies.

            Some federal features, including a collective cabinet system, tended to grow in the post-Emergency Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai elected to power in the 1977 Lok Sabha election.  A de facto coalition of five non-Congress and non-communist parties, the Janata Party also formed governments in major north Indian states.  The constituent party factions controlled different state governments and formed a confederal power structure in the central party and the government as well.2 Confederal organization and factional feuds in the Janata Party government caused its premature fall in 1979, however, paving the way for the restoration of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress in 1980. The federal tendency in the political system was once again overtaken by political centralization in New Delhi, especially in relation to the Congress-ruled states.  There was a return to the practice of nomination or removal of Congress Chief Ministers as in the 1970s by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and, following her assassination in 1984, the practice was continued by her successor Rajiv Gandhi, at least in the Hindi-speaking states and its immediate neighbours.  However, throughout the 1980s Congress kept losing Assembly elections in various states where non-Congress parties came to power.  This provided an opening for the federal features of the political system to sprout.  Non-Congress state governments started the practice of holding Chief Ministers’ conclaves that continued through the 1980s to put oppositional pressure on New Delhi in media and mass forums and intergovernmental councils.  This trend was joined by a flank of oppositional party-building in Jammu & Kashmir and mass movements in Assam and Punjab.  Insurgent activities also surfaced in several northeastern states.  Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi considered it expedient to sign ethnic peace accords with major regional parties in Punjab, Assam, Mizoram and Tripura 3.  However, New Delhi’s relations with Congress-ruled states in the Hindi heartland, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh remained uninformed by federal approach.  By the latter part and the end of the decade, Congress lost most of these states, and insurgencies surfaced in Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, and Assam.



            The 1989 Lok Sabha election finally proved to be the turning point in the process of federalization of the Indian political system, defined as increase in autonomy of state governments and state units of national parties and clout of the regional parties. Wages of over-centralization of the political system had produced some dysfunctional consequences such as authoritarianism at the centre and insurgencies in the peripheries.  The advent of the multiparty system with federal coalition governments allowed regional parties to acquire a decisive balancing role in the government.  It created an unprecedented federal matrix in the country.  The grand old party of India – the Indian National Congress – was reduced to a minority party status, though it remained the largest single party in the political system.  Along with the Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress formed the triad of the larger national parties, but all three remained short of the majority mark in the Lok Sabha. 


            Federal coalition governments got off to an unstable start with Janata Dal-led National Front and United Front governments led respectively by V.P. Singh (1989-90) H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral alternately (1996-1998) in quick succession.  The Congress minority government of P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) precariously managed to hold the fort for a full term, though not without the ignominity of promoting defections and parliamentary bribing to win a vote of confidence.  The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Atal Behrari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Manmohan Singh (2004-2009) may be credited with having lent to coalition governments in New Delhi some degree of insecure stability.  Incidentally, the UPA led by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, with the strengthened Congress core, was in the summer of 2009 to be the first incumbent federal coalition government to be reelected to power.  In the opinion of some observers, India has arguably come a long way from being quasi-federal to quasi-confederal in the last two decades.4  Gone are the days when Chief Ministers were made and unmade by Prime Ministers like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.  In the previous two decades powerful Chief Ministers have decisively titled the balance in seating or unseating Prime Ministers!


            The decline of the Congress dominance internally became victim of its own failure to adapt to the growing democratization and federalization of the larger political system.  Other factors that proved to be the undoing of the Congress’s catch-all mobilizational strategy were the majoritarian pretentions of Mandal and Mandir metaphors of the Janata Dal and the BJP respectively, with their climactic acts of OBC reservations in central services by the V.P. Singh government in March 1990 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (built during the early Mughal rule supposedly on the site of a Ram temple) in December 1992 by a frenzied Hindu mob.  During the Rao minority government the Congress itself was instrumental in 1991 with the outside support of the BJP in the Parliament to accelerate neoliberal capitalist reforms faced with a serious balance of payment financial crises.  The architect of this paradigm shift in economic policy regime was Manmohan Singh, an economist in politics and the finance minister in the Rao government.  Under the successive coalitional governments of different ideological or programmatic tendencies the policy has survived, with slower or faster paces without the change of direction.  Heading the UPA governments, Manmohan Singh piloted another major paradigm shift in 2005-2008, this time in India’s foreign and defence policy regime symbolized by the Indo-US Civilian nuclear deal  .It made India and the USA strategic partners if not exactly allies. .  One gets the feeling that the issues of high economics and foreign policy hang in the air above the din and bustle of electoral politics where the questions of cultural and ethnic conflicts and development coached in terms of bijli/sarak/pani (electricity/road/water) are all that matter.  This generalization does not, however, apply to the Left wing, though their electoral clout has been steadily going down at least for a decade now, and they were routed in West Bengal in 2007-09 where they had continuously ruled for three decades and a half.


            There are two other channels of electoral politics, namely, the hard-core regionalist zones, and the underground radical class violence perpetrated by groups commonly called Naxalites (after the Naxalbari area in North Bengal) where this brand of politics by other means first occurred in the late 1960s.  The trail of violence perpetrated by these armed gangs, now increasingly called Maoist, operates in the central tribal belt or the so-called “red corridor” spanning from the Indo-Nepalese border to Andhra Pradesh.  The federal relevance of those channels of politics is in so far as these political forces predominate in identifiable regional configurations that add up to the federal mapping of India. Moreover, in the event of the peaking of these violent attacks by Naxalites or Maoists in 2010, a joint operation by central and state police forces of Andhra  Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, West Bengal, and Jharkhand was mounted.


Indicators of Federalization


            What are the indicators of the greater federalization of the political system since the 1990s?  Perhaps the most telling index is the decline in the frequency of central takeover of State administration since the 1990s.  In the commencement decades of the 1950s-60s there were 18 instances of President’s rule in States.  The number jumped to 58 in the 1970s-80s. The classic cases of patently partisan misuse of this power were the dismissal of nine Congress state governments by the Janata Party government at the Centre in 1977 and the dismissal of nine Janata Party and other non-Congress state governments by the Congress government on its return to power in 1980! Since the 1990s to the summer of 2009 the incidence of central intervention fell to nearly half to 31.  This was despite the pressure on the Union governments of some coalition partners to dismiss some State governments of parties apposed to them in state politics.  The leading parties in the federal coalitions concerned withstood these pressures.  This appears to be nothing short of a federal miracle of India.  Apart from being an index of India’s federal instability with 107 central interventions in three score years, most of these denials of parliamentary and federal principles of government to the states were constitutionally questionable.  The emergency provisions were meant by the Constituent Assembly to be used sparingly in genuine cases of the breakdown of constitutional machinery in state(s).  “Whether there is good government or not in the province is [not] for the Centre to determine”, and “we ought to expect… that such articles will never be called into operation…” Central intervention in state government via Presidents’ rule was constitutionally valid only in the eventuality of the breakdown of the constitutional machinery in a state.(drafting committee chairman B.R. Ambedkar).5  Yet constitutional courts never invalidated a President’s rule until 1994 on the pretext of constitutional emergency in a state, conceding to the plea that the determination of the fact whether the constitutional machinery had broken down there was a “ political thicket” within the prerogative of the union executive.

            Secondly, there is also prima facie, a decrease in the incidence of central intervention in the legislative process at the state level via the power of the Governor to reserve a provincial bill for consideration of the President and the power of the Union Executive to disallow it under article 200 and 201.  The Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations (Part I, 1988)6 has documented instances of undue to inordinate delays in the decision on the exercise of this presidential veto over the 1970s and 1980s.  Earlier instances of the use of this power in some cases had led to the recourse of presidential reference to the Supreme Court for its advisory opinion.7.  Barring Governor’s reservation of some anti-religious conversion, anti-corruption, and anti-terror bills of some BJP and other state governments since the 1990s, there have been fewer such instances of reservation and none of final disallowance so far. But complaints about delay in disposal of these bills by the Union Executive persist.


            Thirdly, given the dominant  nominally parliamentary  interpretation of the President’s and Governors’ power of granting consent to Union/State bills generally, the existence of a veto power in this context is doubtful (e.g. Granville Austin 1966; M.P. Jain 2003;  M.P. Singh and Rekha Saxena 2008,and Rajeev Dhavan and Rekha Saxena )8.  For a contrary, at least partly so, view in relation to Governors,  M.P. Singh 9 argues that the constitution itself grants some discretionary powers to the Governor but these are specified and limited. Yet we have seen many instances of Presidents and Governors since the 1990s inclined to use their constitutionally and conventionally limited discretionary powers, and in at least some instances having carried the day due to the reluctance of the heads of the governments to confront the heads of the states.


            Fourthly, India being a parliamentary federation in the classical British Commonwealth tradition, subscribes to the theory of treaty-making power as supposedly being the prerogative of the Union Executive 10.  The constitution excludes  the states as well as the Parliament from the field formally in the first-hand exercise of treaty-making (article 253).  The Parliament comes into the picture only post facto in case a law is required for the implementation of a treaty, while the states are totally excluded.  However, in more recent times not only the Parliament but also the state governments are becoming restive and assertive about a share in this power, especially if a treaty signed by the government of India is not palatable to a strategic party supporting a Union government (e.g. a Leftwing with regard to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal made by the Manmohan Singh Congress government in 2008), or if a treaty impinges on subjects of states’ exclusive jurisdiction (e.g. some state governments moving the Supreme Court, but later relenting, against the Union of India signing the WTO (World Trade Organization) treaty in 1995 on the plea that it affected agriculture).  Several other relevant instances of Indian states’ concerns with neighbouring foreign states figuring in foreign policy making are offered in the literature on the topic 11. Rob Jenkins cautions against reading too much by way of enhanced autonomy of Indian states in the conduct of foreign policy, yet concedes that the examples are suggestive of how federalism in India may gradually undergo changes on account of globalization 12.In 2011, at a summit meeting between the Prime Minister of India and Bangladesh a number of agreements were signed, but the Teesta river water- sharing accord was postponed due to the last-minute decision of the West Bengal Trinamool Congress-Indian National Congress government to signal protest.

            Fifthly, although negotiating and inviting foreign multilateral or private investment for any government in India falls within the Union’s purview ultimately, in the era of neocapitalist reforms and globalization since 1991 the role of state governments has become visible.  As Union Finance Minister in a United Front government, P. Chidambram is credited with the initiative to allow Chief Ministers or their Finance Ministers to directly go ahead to explore and make investment deals abroad.13  In the past decades the World Bank President Wolfensohn was found spending more time in state capitals than in New Delhi!  Needless to add that these procedural changes informally must not be uncritically interpreted to mean greater state autonomy, especially on a durable basis.  Yet straws in the wind need to be taken note of.  In any case, privatization and globalization have in fact enhanced the autonomy of the private sector as well as state governments.  The same can be said about the transition of the bureaucratic state to regulatory state since 1991 .14    

            Sixthly, the Union government in the past decade or more (1999-2012) has been constrained to move more gingerly even on issues relating to counter-terrorism measures where it could have set aside the argument of the state governments that law and order is a state subject under the constitution and asserted that “terrorism,” not to be found in any of the lists in the Seventh Schedule, is a residuary subject and therefore a Union concern.  Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (BJP-led National Democratic Alliance Government), followed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government-I), convened Chief Ministers` conferences to seek consensus to institute a federal investigative agency with all-India investigative mandate without any success due to the recalcitrance of the state governments. (The Central Bureau of Investigation, CBI, having been set up under a Delhi Police Act needs permission of state governments to operate in state jurisdictions.) The 26/11, 2009 Mumbai terror attack, remote-controlled from Pakistan, ultimately prompted the Singh Government to introduce a bill to establish the National Investigative Agency (NIA) towards the end of the year which was passed by voice vote in the Parliament. No state government has gone to the court against it. But a repeat success could not be possible when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government-II (re-elected in 2009) unilaterally announced in early 2012 to set up the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) by an executive decision in pursuance of a recommendation by the Justice M. M. Punchhi Commission on Centre-State Relations Report (2010). The non-Congress Chief Ministers – Narendra Modi (BJP, Gujarat), Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal, Odisha), Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal-United +BJP coalition, Bihar), Mamata Banerjee (All-India Trinamool Congress-INC coalition, West Bengal), J. Jayalalitha (All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Tamil Nadu), and Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party leader in Opposition in Andhra Pradesh), rose up in arms against the alleged  unilateral action of the Union government undermining the “federal structure” of the country. The Singh government was forced to retrace its decision pending consultation and subsequent action. The government of India obviously realized that the constitutional structure of India is such that the Union government has to rely on the state administration for implementation of much of its laws and policies. And a problem like terrorism cannot be effectively tackled without the full cooperation of all orders of governments in India.   

            Finally, not only in regional parties that have regionally oriented power structures but also in hitherto centralized national parties like the Indian National Congress and BJP state units are managing to get greater elbow room for functional autonomy.  A few examples in recent decades that readily come to mind are Punjab Chief Minister Amrender Singh, Andhra premier Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy, Maharashtra premier Vilasrao Deshmukh in the Indian National Congress and Narendra Modi, the BJP Gujarat Chief Minister. Singh, armed with a unanimous resolution of the Punjab Assembly, cancelled all the inter-state river water agreements with Haryana and Rajasthan put in place during the 1980s with the intermediation of Congress governments at the centre and got away with it.  Asked by the media whether he had consulted Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the matter, he replied in the negative, adding he did not want to embarrass them!15. The matter was subsequently forwarded by the Manmohan Singh government through Presidential reference under article 143 for its advisory opinion. At this writing (October 2012) the matter is still pending with the court.


Compare the leeway enjoyed by Reddy and Deshmuch, despite crisis and controversies in both the states in the recent decades, with frequent mid-stream chief ministerial changes in the 1980s! BJP’s Modi was often seen to be eclipsing the national party prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani before and during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls! Both the major national parties – INC and BJP – have made chief ministerial changes in 2010-2011 in contexts of corruption charges or political agitations or electoral prospects in approaching elections in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh (both Congress) and Karanataka and Uttarakhand ( both BJP), but not without sensing the opinion of the state party legislators. On the issue of the agitation for the new state of Telagana, the Congress party central leadership cannot take the Telegana Congress legislators for granted. Even in the CPI(M) which follows the principle of “democratic centralism” , the central committee and politburo, despite their preference for the P.Vijayan faction, had to finally renominate the popular incumbent chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan to continue to lead the party in the 2011 assembly elections in Kerala.


Explanatory Factors in Federalization


            It is worthwhile to pause to give account of the causal factors that have produced the effect of federalization of India’s predominantly parliamentary, rather prime ministerial, mode of functioning in the past.  Notably, this development has taken place despite a highly centralized constitutional text that has not been amended for this purpose.  We have in the foregoing dwelt on the symptoms of federalization; what can be accounted for as the causal factors?  Three such factors stand out.  Firstly, in terms of the timing of occurrence, the party system transition and transformation from Congress dominance to a multi-party configuration with federal coalition/minority governments brought about unprecedented changes in the Union Executive and the management of the Parliament.  National parties either diminished or got fragmented (e.g. Congress and Janata Dal) or else failed to grow beyond a certain point (e.g. BJP and communist parties).  Old as well as new regional parties multiplied and grew to new strengths to play balancing role in the making or unmaking of the coalition governments at the centre.  The Prime Minister got reduced from being the moon among lesser stars to being just first among the equals, who acted as a mute witness as coalition partners resorted to the practice of “empire-building” in the Union Council of Ministers.


            Secondly, liberalization-privatization-globalization (LPG) shift in India’s economic policy regime followed closely in 1991 on the heels of the party system transformation.  The tradition of mixed economy and the preference for state capitalism was not speedily and entirely reversed.  And LPG entailed marketization with the opening for foreign capital and technology as well as the revival of the civil society and public-private-partnership (PPP) in development.  All these trends turned out to be conducive to the growth of a market–and civil society–friendly federalism.  State level economic, administrative, and political reforms came to be emphasized more than ever before.  In richer states an orchestrated strategy of province-building gathered momentum.  Local selfgoverning institutions, so far left entirely to state legislations, were put on the constitutional footing via the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments (1993), providing for novel features such as appointment of election commissions and finance commissions at the state level and 33 percent reservation for women and scheduled castes/tribes in the three-tier panchayats and urban councils, subsequently raised to 50 percent.  All states revamped their archaic local bodies’ laws in conformity with these constitutional norms in the next few years.  Federalism in India may well be said to have come of age.


            Thirdly, federalization in India has also been reinforced by some change in judicial behaviour.  We are referring to in the jurisprudence of the theory of the “basic structure of the constitution” invented by the Supreme Court in Keshavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973), to which federalism was later added as a basic feature in its judgment in S.R. Bommai & Others v. Union of India (1994)16.  The whittling down of state autonomy by proclaiming President’s rule in a state under article 356 was treated by the Supreme Court until before 1994 as a “political thicket” best left to the Union Executive (which alone can determine the failure of constitutional machinery in a state). The matter, in short, was beyond the purview of the constitutional courts.  Since 1994 it has now been ruled to be open to judicial review.



Federalization or Regionalization

The thesis of growing federalization of the Indian political system was first put forward in 1992 and later elaborated in 2001-2 .17 This interpretation has gained universal currency. Arguably this thesis needs at least four caveats.


            First, the term “federalization” presupposes a balance of political forces between the inherent tendencies of parliamentary centralization and federal decentralization which is what the Constitution of India can bear.  What has actually happened is strongly slanted towards regionalization than federalization proper.  This has resulted in the distortion of the constitutional principles of individual responsibility of ministers to the Prime Minister and the collective responsibility of the cabinet to the Parliament (specifically Lok Sabha).  The theoretical role of the Prime Minister as the keystone of the cabinet arch in initiation and coordination of coherent public policies is appropriated by regional satraps who are not even members of the Parliament, prefer to stay in state politics as Chief Ministers or regional party bosses, and impose colleagues on the Prime Ministers, remote-control them and withdraw or replace them, sometimes against the will of a Prime Minister to retain a performing minister.  Ministries parceled out to the coalition partners, mostly regional parties, are run like semi-feudal fiefdoms.  Some times Prime Ministers themselves yield to the temptations of granting partisan financial packages to their home states or states ruled by their own parties and failing to respond to the entitlements and disaster relief to opposition-ruled states.


            Secondly, decentralization that has occurred since the 1990s is, by and large, limited to the political domain. Despite some changes, economic and financial management of India has continued to be a highly centralized affair in Union-State relations.  State governments are increasingly becoming restive about their lack of participation in these affairs and institutions.  Asim Dasgupta, the erstwhile West Bengal Left Front Finance Minister and the chair of the empowered committee of State Finance Ministers in his presidential address to a national seminar on the centre-state relations and the Union Finance Commission in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) made out a case for adequate representation for states in the Union Planning Commission, Finance Commission, and the boards of the Reserve Bank of India as also for the strengthening of the National Development Council and the Inter-State Council.  He also argued for the role of state governments in credit disbursement by nationalized banks and financial institutions in accordance with the requirement of allocation for priority sector and maintenance of inter-state balance18.


            Thirdly, taking advantage of greater fiscal resources and absence of a constitutional embargo on federal spending power in exclusive jurisdictions of states, the Union government has made massive inroads in State List subjects.  As K.K. George and I.S. Gulati 19 demonstrate, as a result of this “the separation between the state subject and central subjects can be said to have become less and less clear and therefore blurred.  A major state subject like agriculture has virtually been transformed into a concurrent subject.  As for industry, it has become more or less a Union subject.”


            Fourthly, in federal theory and practice generally the military power is under the federal government, while police power under state or local control.  The Indian constitution as well conformed to this pattern (see entries 2 and 4 in the Union List and entries 1 and 2 in the State List (original ones were, later substituted).  But this has radically changed for two reasons.  For one thing, the Union government has raised huge para-military central reserve police forces of various kinds over the decades, that may well be larger than the police forces of all the states put together! For another, the 42nd constitutional amendment (1976) inserted a new entry (No. 2A) into the Union List and modified the earlier entry (No. 2) in the State List.  The new entry into Union List empowered the Union government to deploy armed forces in States “in aid of the civil power” and the modified entry in the State List made the police power of the state subject to entry 2A of the Union List.  Lacking in revenue resources and well numbered and well equipped police forces, the state governments, originally critical of this development now themselves invite the Union to supply central police forces for reinforced policing in their respective jurisdictions!  Even after the regionalization of Indian politics and advent of federal coalition governments, this amendment has not been repealed.  Prima facie, State governments are unable to cope single-handedly with the tasks of policing the conduct of general elections and terrorist and Maoist violence.


            Fifthly, regionalization without the federalizing or nationalizing functional role of the party system has produced the phenomenon of what Robert Elgie 20                  has called “divided government” in the general context of comparative political analysis.  Quite often the President, Prime Minister, and presiding officers of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have tended to come from different political parties since 1989.  Previously they all used to come from the ruling majority party itself.  Moreover, since the advent of coalition/minority governments, the majority in the Rajya Sabha has been under the opposition to the governing coalition in the Lok Sabha.  Besides, state governments present a patchwork of variegated political formations on account of differentiation between the national and state party systems.  While this has promoted federal power-sharing and national integration, it has dulled and delayed governmental action, created alibis for non-response, and increased the tendency of buck-passing.  Partly for this reason and partly for others, the earlier pattern of executive-dominated governments at the Union and state levels has yielded the ground to a judiciary-driven governance .21  The phenomenon of “judicialization” of political processes is to an extent a general development in contemporary comparative politics.  What is problematic in the Indian context is a partial paralysis of legislative and executive organs of the aggregate states.  This has been used by the constitutional courts as an alibi for virtually appropriating legislative and executive functions. Back to the wall, the legislature and executive first acquiesced but are now complaining about and resisting “ judicial overreach” 22 and even filing revision appeals to the Supreme Court against some of its judgments. 23 Some Supreme Court judges too have also advised judicial restraint and retreat from activism as an apt role for the courts.24


            Nevertheless, the post-1989 regional turn in Indian governance is in some sense consistent with the strain of federalization the advent of which may be called political adulthood of state governments.  The decline in the role and resources of the central state on account of privatization and globalization have cast new responsibilities on state governments for state-level economic reforms, their own resource-mobilization, and for offering competitive incentives for private investment, including foreign direct investment.  In a recent comparative study of politics across India’s states and of Hindu-Muslim riots in some major cities, four explanatory variables have been employed: (a) differential orientation in economic policy making (i.e. political liberalism versus business liberalism), (b) variations in subaltern political mobilization, (c) different degrees of civic engagement, and (d) the nature of political leadership (i.e. reformist versus populist, elitist versus subaltern in social composition, etc.)25.  More relevant for our context here, Loraine Kennedy (2004)26 finds that in the federalized and neoliberal reformist ambience of the 1990s the major regional parties in government in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu followed perceptively different policy-orientations: reformist in the former and populist in the latter (Rob Jenkins ).  As it happened, Telgu Desham lost the successive elections, while the major Tamil regional parties have been better able to politically survive.  These results cannot, however, be universally generalized.  In Bihar, for example, the Rashtriya Janata Party led by Laloo Prasad Yadav led a rampantly populist and fiscally predatory regime for a decade and a half ( 1990-2005) on an Yadav-Muslim vote bank; it was finally routed out of power at the hands of a politically and economically reformist party, Janata Dal (United) led by Nitish Kumar in coalition with BJP in 2005 and re-elected with considerably increased public support  in 2010.




From the available indicators at this writing (October 2012), India has a great federal future.  We have come a long way since the 1960s when the survival of the Indian nation-state was problematized on the premises of the explosive potential of variegated ethnic diversities and unruly and misconceived democratization in such a setting (e.g. Selig Harrison )27.  After the partition of India on the basis of Muslim League’s “two-nation” theory (i.e. Muslims and Hindus are two “nations”) in 1947, no such ideology of religious/linguistic/tribal nationalism have had any credible praxis in Indian history and contemporary politics.  The 1947 partition was more due to colonial “divide-and-rule” and imperial policy than any primary social, political, or economic causation. When strategies of nation-building in relatively less heterogeneous socio-cultural contexts in our neighbourhood have failed or stand precariously perched on failure, India’s multi-national federal state has not only survived  but has also gone from success to success as a “democratic developmental state”28 and “from socialism to pro-business”29.  Externally, too, India managed to count morally as an internationally significant leader of the nonaligned world, as a regional power in strategic partnership with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and as a regional-cum-global power in strategic partnership with the USA by the latter  half of the 2000s in the post-Cold War era.  The primary political factor that must be credited for this grand success is India’s ability to stay democratic and federal.


Political federalization in India has been reinforced by the growing globalization and regional integration of the country in the post-Cold War decades. Although India is presently more globalized than regionally integrated, especially in South Asia due to the India-Pakistan feud, India’s trade with its neighbours has been slowly but steadily rising. Even Pakistan has now (2012) belatedly eased visa regime with India and reciprocated India`s a decade-and-a-half old decision to offer the status of a most favoured nation in international trade.  One major effect of privatization and globalization on the structure of the federal state in India has been the transformation of ministerial and bureaucratic control of the economy into a regulatory state by the establishment of autonomous central regulatory authorities under parliamentary statutes in various sectors of the national economy since 199130.  In a study of economic reforms in relation to India’s federal system, Lawrence Saez 31 concludes that “the viability of India’s federal system depends on the growth of Indian states.  This redefinition can be seen as part of a general development of the internal struggle for the sharing of sovereignty as well as the search for new federal solutions”.


If the peace processes underway in India’s troubled neighbourhood (e.g. between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, in Nepal, and in Sri Lanka) succeed and prove to be durable and regional integration in South Asia gathers momentum, we can hope the growth to a higher level of clusters of cross-border regions, and in the long run something akin to what David Held 32 has called “cosmopolitan democracy” ensuring right and obligations “within and across each network of power” under a “democratic international law” may develop.  The halting steps towards South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) (1985), South Asia Preferential Trade Area Agreement(SAPTA) (1993), and South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) (2004) would then take wings.  Intra-regional trade as share of GDP in South Asia in 2004 was only 0.8 percent compared to 26.5 percent for East Asia and Pacific.  Regional integration improves investment climate, takes shorter time than multilateral trade liberalization and can be a stepping stone to global economic integration.  A dove-tailed regional and global integration allows fuller gains from increased openness to trade in a more balanced way.33 The Indo-Nepal treaty of friendship (1950), which provides for an open border, and free movement of people and goods, still continues, though the government of Nepal has been saying for some time it would be renegotiated and the government of India is not opposed to the idea.  The India-Bangladesh treaty of friendship (1972) expired in 1997 as none of the parties showed inclination to renew it. In 2003 the direction of India’s export to Bangladesh as percent of the total export at 2.42 percent was higher than to any other SAARC member.  The corresponding figure for the direction of India’s export to SAARC (was at 4.89) percent 34.  Following the coming to power of the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina in the previous parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, New Delhi-Dhaka relations are again in the upswing. After a free trade bilateral agreement (FTA) became operational in March 2000 Indo-Sri Lanka trade has grown by 128 percent.35 In a historic move with turning point potentials, India and Pakistan agreed to open the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir in 2005 since its closure in 1947-48 for movement of people and trade across LoC that actually started in 2008.  Similarly, with an Indo-China agreement border trade though Nathula Pass between Sikkim and Tibet formally resumed in 2006.  Border trades between the two major Asian giants had started a decade earlier at Sipkila in Himachal Pradesh and Gunji in Uttarakhand.  Economically still insubstantial, yet these events are pregnant with great future possibilities.  These are small footsteps into a great future of peace, progress, democracy, and supranational regional clusters linking states, civil societies, and markets beyond borders.




  1. Mahendra Prasad. Singh, Split in a Predominant Party: The Indian National Congress in 1969.  New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1981.
  2. Kumar Rajesh. The Janata Enigma. Delhi: Manak Publications, 2008.
  3. P.S. Datta. Ethnic Peace Accords in India (Documents). New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1995.
  4. Douglas V. Verney, “  From Quasi-Federation to Quasi-Confederacy? Transformation of India’s Party System”, Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Vol. 33, No.4, Fall 2003, pp. 153- 171.
  5. Parliament of India. Constituent Assembly Debates, Book No.4: New Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat, 2003, fourth reprint: 176-177.
  6. Government of India (Republic), Ministry of Home Affairs. Commission on Centre-State Relations, Report, Part I. Nasik: Government of India Press, 1988.
  7. M.P. Singh. V.N. Shukla’s Constitution of India (Revised by M.P. Singh).  Lucknow: Eastern Book Company, 2001, tenth edn., pp 518-21; and .M.P. Jain. Indian Constitutional Law. Nagpur: Wadhwa and Company, 2003, fifth edn; pp. 312- 14.
  8. Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1966; M.P. Singh op. cit. in note 6; M.P. Jain op. cit. in note 7;  M P Singh and Rekha Saxena, Indian Politics: Contemporary Issues and Concerns,  2nd edition, New Delhi: Prentice-Hall of India, 2011, and Rajeev Dhavan and Rekha Saxena “Republic of India”, A Global Dialogue on Federalism: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Governance in Federal Countries, Vol.3, edited by Katy Le Roy and Cheryl Saunders, Quebec: McGill – Queen’s University Press, 2006.
  9. M.P. Singh op. cit. in note 7.
  10. Rekha Saxena, “Treaty Making Power: A Case for ‘ Federalisation’ and ‘ Parliamentarisation’, Economic and Political Weekly ,Vol.XLII,No.1,January 6,2007.
  11. Amitabh Mattoo and Happymon Jacob, “Foreign Relations in India: A Growing State Role” in Raoul eds., Dialogues on Foreign Relations in Federal Countries, A Global Dialogue on Federalism, Booklet Series, Vol. 5, Ottawa: Forum of Federations and IACFS, 2007: 27-29; and Amna Mirza, Federal Context of Treaty Making: United States of America and Indian Federal Model, M.Phil. dissertation in Political Science, University of Delhi, 2008.
  12. Rob Jenkins, “How Federalism Influences India’s Domestic Politics: And is Itself Affected in the Process,” Asian Survey, Vol. 43, No. 4, July-August 2003: 598-621; and his “India’s States and the Making of Foreign Economic Policy: The Limits of the Constituent Diplomacy Paradigm”, Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Vol. 33, No. 4, Fall 2003.
  13. India Today report/piece quoted from memory.
  14. Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, Explaining Indian Democracy: The Realm of Institutions: State Formation and Institutional Change, Vol. II, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008: chapter11, and M.P. Singh, “Economic Liberalization  and Political Federalization in India: Mutually Reinforcing Responses to Global Integration” in Harvey  Lazar, Hamish Telford, and Ronald L. Watts, eds., The Impact of Global and Regional Integration on Federal Systems: A Comparative Analysis,  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press for the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 2003: 191-236.
  15. Mahendra Prasad Singh, “The Union Executive in India”, Contemporary India: Journal of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Vol. 3, No. 2, April-June 2004: 115-134.
  16. Supreme Court, Keshavananda Bharati V. State of Kerala, All India Reporter, 1973, SC, 1461;and S.R. Bommai V. Union of India, All India Reporter, 1994,  SC:1918.
  17. Mahendra Prasad Singh, “From Hegemony to Multi-Level Federalism? India’s Parliamentary Federal System”, The Indian Journal of Social Science, No. 5, July-September 1992: 263-82;Mahendra Prasad Singh, “Towards a More Federalized Parliamentary System in India: Explaining Functional Change”, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 4, Winter 2001-2002: 553-568; M.P Singh and Rekha Saxena, India at the Polls: Parliamentary Elections in the Federal Phase, New Delhi: Orient Longman,2003, and Rekha Saxena, Situating Federalism: Mechanisms of IntergovernmentalRelations in Canada and India, New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 2006.            
  18. The Hindu, New Delhi, May 8, 2008:8.
  19. K.K. George and I.S. Gulati, “Central Inroads into State Subjects: An Analysis of Economic Services”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XX, No. 14, April 6, 1985: 592-603.
  20. Robert Elgie, ed., Divided Government in Comparative Perspective, Oxford: University Press, 2001.
  21. Rajeev Dhavan, “Governance by Judiciary: Into the Next Millennium” in B.D. Dua, M.P. Singh, and Rekha Saxena (Eds.), Indian Judiciary and Politics: The Changing Landscape, Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 2006

         22. In 2005, the Look Saba Speaker Somnath Chatterjee convened an all-party meeting of legislators and a meeting of presiding officers of legislative bodies in the country in protest of increasing interference of the Supreme Court and High Courts in legislative proceedings and processes. Early in the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government (  2009 -2014), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed concern at  the growing phenomenon of “ judicial overreach” while addressing a conference of Chief Justices of the constitutional courts in the country. The Law Minister in the same government has also expressed the intention of amending the constitution to bring about a greater say of the executive in the appointment of judges of superior courts through the collegiums of the Chief Justice of India and   four senior most judges of the Supreme Court that has developed under case law laid down in Supreme Court that has developed under case law laid down in Supreme Court Advocates- on Record Association v. Union of India, All India Reporter  1994 SC: 268; and Presidential Reference, All India Reporter 1999: 1.

       23. In 2011, the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh filed two such review petitions in the Supreme Court regarding its judgement in the Salva Judam ( a government-sponsored tribal militia in Chattisgarh to fight against the outlawed Maoists and the Court’s decision to appoint a committee of retired Supreme Court judges to monitor investigations in cases of political and corporate corruption.

        24. The reference is to the pronouncements of Justice Marandey Katju and Justice A.K Mathur of the Supreme Court in the 2000s. See The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, December 16, 2007.

       25. Rob Jenkins, ed., Regional Reflections: Comparative Politics Across India’s States, New Delhi: Oxford: University Press, 2004.

  1. Loraine Kennedy, “The Political Determinants of Reform Packaging: Contrasting Responses to Economic Liberalization in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu” in Rob Jenkins, ed., op. cit. in note 20.
  2. Selig Harrison, India: The Most Dangerous Decades, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.
  3. Rob Jenkins, “The Developmental Implications of Federal Political Institutions in India” Mark Robinson and Gordon White, eds., The Democratic Developmental State: Political and Institutional Design, Oxford: University Press, 1998:187-214.
  4. Atul Kohli, Democracy and Development: From Socialism to Pro-Business, New Delhi: Oxford: University Press, 2009.
  5. Mahendra Prasad Singh, “Economic Liberalization and Political Federalization in India: Mutually Reinforcing Responses” in Harvey Lazar, Hamish Telford, and Ronald L. Watts, eds., The Impact of Global and Regional Integration on Federal Systems: A Comparative Analysis, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003: 191-236.
  6. Lawrence Saez, Federalism Without a Centre: The Impact of Political and Economic Reform on India’s Federal System, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2002.
  7. David Held, Models of Democracy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, 2nd edn. See also Daniele Archibugi, The Commonwealth of Citizens: Towards Cosmopolitan Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  8. Dilip K. Das, “Shifting Paradigm of Regional Integration in Asia”, CSGR Working Paper Series 230/07, June 2007,
  9. Mohammad Mafizur Rahman, “Bangladesh-India Bilateral Trade: causes of Imbalance and Measures for Improvement”,
  10. Financial Express, 30 September 2004.



Professor M. P. Singh is presently an honorary Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Centre for Multilevel Federalism, Institute of Social Sciences, Vasantkunj, New Delhi 110071, INDIA. He was formerly a Professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi, Delhi 110007.