Characteristics of Federation

This article provides a list of five characteristics of a federation. This is a part of the Polity portions in the IAS syllabus.

What is Federation?

The term federation is used to refer to groupings of states, often on a regional basis, that establishes central executive machinery to implement policies or to supervise joint activities. In some cases such groupings are motivated primarily by political or economic concerns; in others, military objectives are paramount. Further details on Federalism is available on the linked page.

This article will give details characteristics of the federation to help in IAS Exam preparation.

Aspirants can check their preparation by attempting the UPSC Previous Years Question Papers now!!

To complement your preparation for the upcoming exam, check the following links:

Characteristics of Federation

A Federal Constitution generally possesses the following 5 characteristics.

Dual or two sets of governments:

  1. In a unitary state as the name indicates there is only one government, the national government.
  2. In a federation two sets of governments co-exist. The national (also called central or federal) government and the government of each constituent State.
  3. These two governments derive their powers from the same source (the Constitution) and are controlled not by the other but by the Constitution. Check details on the Constitution of India on the linked page.
  4. But it would be erroneous to assume that they work in watertight compartments. They govern the same people and their object is to serve the same populace so naturally, their functions many at times touch and affect each other.
  5. They must necessarily work not in isolation but in active cooperation with the other.

It is interesting to note two things in this context—

(a) The Constitution in Art. 1(1) states India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States. Dr Ambedkar had stated in the Constituent Assembly that the word Union has been used advisedly because it has certain advantages. It indicated that –

  • The Indian federation is not the result of an agreement among the States and
  • The States have no right to secede.
  • It may be noted that the word Union was employed by Stafford Cripps in his proposals and was also used in the Cabinet Mission Plan.

Read about Cripps Mission on the linked page.

(b) By the 73rd amendment and 74th Constitution amendments, another level of government has been created viz. Panchayats and Municipalities. They have assigned Powers and functions. This may be regarded as a third level. So in India, the Constitution envisages not two but three levels of government.

  • This is a novel form of federation, unknown to the outside world.
  • Local government of a district, country or municipality is generally a creature of an Act of the legislature.
  • In India they are created by the Constitution whose provisions are supplemented by the Acts.
  • It is the natural corollary of a dual government that there is a Separation of power and functions between the two sets of government.
  • The distribution between the Federal and the State units may not be identical in all constitutional systems.
  • The division of subjects may be two-fold i.e. Federal and State as in the U.S.A. or maybe threefold (Central, State and Concurrent) as in Australia.
  • The residuary powers may rest with the Centre (Canada and India) or with the States (U.S.A. and Australia). Apart from the lists, there are many other ways of distributing power.

Written Constitution:

  1. In order to make the distribution clear and permanent it must be reduced to writing and must be made amenable to amendments and changes by observing the procedure laid down in the Constitution itself.
  2. Left to unwritten conventions or understanding it would create fluidity which in turn would generate uncertainty leading to dissatisfaction among the constituent units.

Check out the Difference between Written and Unwritten Constitution on the given link.

Supremacy of the Constitution:

  1. The constitution is regarded as a higher law that is there for the Union and States to obey and honour.
  2. None of the Units has the authority to override or disregard the Constitution.
  3. In some cases the Union may have overriding powers but not in relation to the divisions of power.
  4. Federal Constitutions guard attentively the distribution of powers and do not tolerate encroachments.
  5. Just as Public Corporations derive their powers from the Act creating them the two sets of Government owe their power to the Constitution and are in a way controlled by it and function within the limits marked by it.

Read about the Evolution and Framing of the Constitution on the linked page.


  1. Rigidity does not mean that the Constitution is not subject to any change and must remain in the same static condition. But as a corollary of the necessity of having a written Constitution, it is required that the provisions containing and regulating the distribution of powers must not be left to the discretion of the Centre or the States.
  2. The amending process should lay down as a precondition the concurrence of both. Our Constitution provides amendment by a special majority at the Centre followed by ratification by at least half of the States. (In the U.S. it is ¾ of the States).

Authority of Courts:

  1. In a federation, there is the possibility of a State encroaching upon the field of another State. There is also the possibility of the Union trespassing on the rights of one or more States as also the States purporting to exercise the functions of the Union.
  2. To take care of such contingencies, a federation contemplates an independent judicial body which will decide the rights of the Units and keep them confined within their limits. Read in detail bout the Indian judiciary on the given link.
  3. The Courts have the last word in regard to questions involving the interpretation of the Constitution.
  4. Our Constitution confers original jurisdiction on the Supreme Court in regard to federal matters (Art. 131). Thus the Supreme Court has been constituted arbiter in all disputes involving the units.
  5. The five characteristic features recounted above are found in our Constitution. Our Constitution is a written document that establishes a dual polity of the govt. level i.e. Central and State. Each deriving its powers from the supreme law of our land, the Constitution.
  6. The powers, functions and responsibilities of the Union and the State are plenary within the boundaries defined by the Constitution. The Constitution is endowed with supremacy. The Centre alone cannot mould or change it.
  7. Federal features may be amended with the concurrence of both sets of government as required by Art. 368 of the Constitution.
  8. To guard the division of legislative and administrative powers between the two sets of government, the Constitution has set up the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may invalidate and injunct any act which transgresses the division.
  9. It may be an administrative act or a legislative measure. The Supreme Court may be moved by any person aggrieved by a violation of the distribution of powers or by any State or the Union.
  10. It is the existence of the above features in our Constitution that led the Supreme Court to describe our Constitution as federal.

Along with characteristics of the federation, aspirants can read other Polity Related Articles given below to complete theor UPSC Syllabus

Important Amendments in Indian Constitution Administrative Reforms In India 
Important Articles in Indian Constitution Fundamental Rights (Article 12 -35)
Directive Principle of State Policy (DPSP) List of High Courts In India 2021
Sources of Indian Constitution How a Bill is Passed in Indian Parliament?
Indian Polity Questions from UPSC Mains GS II IAS Mains General Studies-II Governance Questions
Constitution Questions from UPSC Mains General Studies-II UPSC Mains GS 2 Strategy, Syllabus and Structure
Download UPSC Polity Notes PDF (Free) Writs in India


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