Federalism in India - Federal Features of Indian Constitution [UPSC Indian Polity Notes]

Federalism is a system of government in which powers have been divided between the centre and its constituent parts such as states or provinces. It is an institutional mechanism to accommodate two sets of politics, one at the centre or national level and second at the regional or provincial level. It makes an important part of Indian Polity syllabus of the IAS Exam. This article will introduce you to Federalism in India notes.

Federal System – Two Types of Federations

In a federation system, there are two seats of power that are autonomous in their own spheres. A federal system is different from a unitary system in that sovereignty is constitutionally split between two territorial levels so that each level can act independently of each other in some areas.

There are two kinds of federations:

  1. Holding Together Federation – In this type, powers are shared between various constituent parts to accommodate the diversity in the whole entity. Here, powers are generally tilted towards the central authority. Example: India, Spain, Belgium.
  2. Coming Together Federation – In this type, independent states come together to form a larger unit. Here, states enjoy more autonomy as compared to the holding together kind of federation. Example: USA, Australia, Switzerland.

Read the difference between Indian and the US government in the linked article.

Aspirants reading the topic, ‘Federalism in India,’ are also suggested to read the following topics related to Indian Polity syllabus:

Features of the Federal System of India

  1. Dual government polity
  2. Division of powers between various levels
  3. Rigidity of constitution
  4. Independence judiciary
  5. Dual citizenship
  6. Bicameralism

All federations might not have all the above features. Some of them may be incorporated depending on what type of federation it is.

Federalism in India

India is a federal system but with more tilt towards a unitary system of government. It is sometimes considered a quasi-federal system as it has features of both a federal and a unitary system. Article 1 of the Indian Constitution states, ‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states’. The word federation is not mentioned in the constitution.

Elements of federalism were introduced into modern India by the Government of India Act of 1919 which separated powers between the centre and the provincial legislatures.

Read about Constituent Assembly debates on Federalism in the linked article.

Federal Features of the Indian Union

  • Governments at two levels – centre and states
  • Division of powers between the centre and states – there are three lists given in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution which gives the subjects each level has jurisdiction in:
    • Union List
    • State List
    • Concurrent List
  • Supremacy of the constitution – the basic structure of the constitution is indestructible as laid out by the judiciary. The constitution is the supreme law in India.
  • Independent judiciary – the constitution provides for an independent and integrated judiciary. The lower and district courts are at the bottom levels, the high courts are at the state levels and at the topmost position is the Supreme Court of India. All courts are subordinate to the Supreme Court.

Also, read the RSTV’s Big Picture’s discussion on challenges to the Federal Structure in the linked article.

Unitary Features of the Indian Union

  • The flexibility of the constitution – the 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 is not easy. (Read about types of majorities in India Parliament using which amendments or certain other provisions are introduced.)
  • More power vests with the Centre – the constitution guarantees more powers with the Union List. On the Concurrent List subjects, the parliament can make laws that can override the laws made by a state legislature on some matters. The parliament can also make laws regarding certain subjects in the State List.
  • Unequal representation of states in the Rajya Sabha – the representation of the states in the upper house is based on the states’ populations. For example, Uttar Pradesh has 31 seats and Goa, 1 in the Rajya Sabha. In an ideal federal system, all the states should have equal representation.
  • The executive is a part of the legislature – in India, the executive in both the centre and the states is a part of the legislature. This goes against the principle of division of powers between the different organs of the government.
  • Lok Sabha is more powerful than the Rajya Sabha – in our system, the Lok Sabha is more powerful than the upper house and unequal powers to two houses is against the principle of federalism.
  • Emergency powers – the centre is provided with emergency powers. When an emergency is imposed, the centre has increased control over states. This undermines the autonomy of the states. (You may also read about President’s rule – Article 356 in the linked article.)
  • Integrated judiciary – the judiciary in India is integrated. There is no separate judiciary at the centre and the state levels. (Gain more information about Indian Judiciary from the notes mentioned in the linked article. )
  • 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.
  • Governor’s appointment – 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.
  • New states formation – the parliament has the power to alter the territory of a state by increasing or reducing the area of the state. It can also change the name of a state.
  • All India Services – through the All India Services such as the IAS, IPS, etc. the centre interferes in the executive powers of the states. These services also offer uniformity in administration throughout the nation.
  • 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 EC is appointed by the president.
  • 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. (Read in detail about veto power in the linked article.)
  • Integrated audit machinery – the president of the country appoints the CAG who audits accounts of both the centre and the states.
  • Power to remove key officials – the state government or state legislature does not have the authority to remove certain key government officials even at the state level like the election commissioner of a state, judges of the high courts, or the chairman of the state public service commissions.

Federalism is an important principle and federalism in India is especially relevant for the UPSC exam. It comes under polity and governance in general studies paper II in UPSC Syllabus 2021.

Federalism in India – UPSC Indian Polity Notes:-Download PDF Here

FAQ about Federalism in India

What are the main features/characteristics of Indian Federalism?

Some features are: (1) Clear division of powers between the Centre and the states, (2) Independent Judiciary, (3) Bicameral Legislature, (4) Dual government polity, (5) Supremacy of constitution.

Which type of federalism is practised in India?

The Indian model of federalism is called a quasi-federal system, as it contains major features of both a federation and union.


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