As Nepal decides upon its federal Constitution, India’s contribution to the evolution of federalism makes for an interesting review. Despite its diverse hues, federalism essentially involves the devolution of power and sharing of the decision-making authority. The format can be a ‘bottom up’ model, like that of the US where sovereign pre-existing units cede power to form a union, a ‘top down’ model, like India’s, with a strong unitary focus and provincial units, ‘confederations’ within a loose union, like the European Union, and ‘consociational’ models based on unanimity of all constituents. Federalism is a vehicle for managing diversities, multiplicities and pluralities.
Much of the debate on definition is superfluous because a nation’s model of federalism is determined by a unique amalgam of the region’s history, development, culture, ethnicity, genius and concept of nationhood. While ancient Indian literature on gram swarajya and panchayats reflect a clear federalist spirit, it was the 16th century German philosopher and theologian, Johannes Althusius, who formalised the concept in the West. In 1787, it was the ‘gang of three’ — James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay — who led the battle for the federalists in the US. The federalist papers focused on sovereignty split between central and federating units for greater protection of individual rights. It is a misconception that federalism works only in large units. Belgium, Switzerland, Israel, Holland and Austria are successful examples. Federalism provides a shared identity without which governance becomes monopolistic. It also operates as a safety valve for dissent, dissatisfaction and discomfort. Analysis has shown that improved governance, efficient delivery mechanisms, enhanced responsiveness and a heightened sense of shared responsibility are features of federalism.
The Indian story is fascinating. The framers of our Constitution were irreversibly apprehensive about India’s unity, integrity and security. Hence, they proposed a unitary Indian Constitution — more accurately described by Kenneth Clinton Wheare as “quasi-federal”. Yet, in the last 60 years, this entity has become increasingly more federal, considerably more decentralised and progressively less ‘quasi-federal’. Six diluting effects on India’s unitarism need to be highlighted. The first was the re-organisation of states along linguistic lines in 1956. India has managed its linguistic diversity — 106 dominant languages with a minimum of 10,000 speakers of each — rather well. The three-language formula has withstood the test of time and the acrimony of the 1960 language riots has not recurred. What is ironical is that what 60 years of State departments could not achieve for Hindi, has been, almost imperceptibly, achieved by the exponential expansion of Hindi television channels. This has led to even diehard non-Hindi speakers to freely and spontaneously engage with the Hindi media.
Another ‘diluting’ influence has been that of the Indian judiciary, which has evolved into being zealous watchdogs of state-level autonomy, central intrusion and violation of constitutional letter or spirit during any President’s rule. Vigorous judicial review has accompanied the assertion of the right to restore status quo ante. The ‘floor test’ has been judicially propounded. Courts have nudged the system to make President’s rule as close as possible to B.R. Ambedkar’s ideal of a ‘rarest of rare’ occurrence.
The revitalisation of the panchayati raj in India has had a strong impact. Within a short timeframe, India now has 250,000 elected panchayats, with 3.2 million elected representatives (more than Norway’s population), including over 1.2 million elected women. The SCs and STs now experience power at the grassroots. A Gram Nyayalaya Bill is pending to complete the circuit and create judicial decentralisation. This will create an arc of summary courts to deal with petty civil disputes and criminal cases. No doubt the list of subjects entrusted by states to its panchayats has to be increased from the present list of a mere 29. This is necessary to combat the culture of centrality. But, undoubtedly, the Sarkaria Commission’s criticism of Indian federalism as “blood pressure at the Centre with anaemia at the periphery” has been largely addressed.
Regionalism and the proliferation of regional parties, a feature often criticised, has had a beneficial impact. Despite several drawbacks — a narrow view of national interest, the politics of coalition, backbiting and blackmail — regional formations have become successful vehicles for the expression of regional identity. They are shock absorbers for regional frustration, transmuters of long suppressed aspirations and the new symbols of the inclusive paradigm of participatory democracy. They ensure “inadvertent or unintended federalism”, as succinctly put by Niraja Jayal.
The economic reforms of 1991 have helped loosen central control over state-level decision-making, especially for licensing, tariff and manufacturing liberalisation. Fiscal federalism is the other good step forward. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes operate at the state level and show a high degree of financial devolution in practice.
At the end, federalism is what federalism does. It is a spirit, a concept, which must reach every niche, nook and cranny to enrich, enliven and enthuse the entire constitutional scheme.
Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and Senior Advocate