The framers of the Indian Constitution established a strong centre and visualized federalism as a functional instrument for creation of an Indian nation and a strong cohesive state. This has been further reinforced by the actual working of the federation during the past 66 years. The study of this period can be classified as in the following:
The first phase (1950-67)
The second phase (1967-77)
The third phase (1977-89)
The fourth phase (1989-onwards)
Party system is perhaps the most important intervening variable that significantly influences the working of a federal political system. This phase was marked by the domination of the Congress party both at the centre as well as in the states. The Congress party along with the charismatic leadership of Nehru further strengthened the centre. The issues in centre-state relations were resolved at the level of the party as its internal issue. The Planning Commission and the National Development Council (NDC), both created through executive resolutions, became Centre’s instruments of domination over states. The Planning Commission was to look after social service-education, medicine, health, agriculture, cooperation, social welfare and industrial housing which were all state subjects. The NDC was seen as an experiment on cooperative federation. But in one of its meetings, the states surrendered to the centre their sales tax on textile, sugar and tobacco. This period also saw misuse of Article 356 against the Communist government in Kerala in 1959.
Nehru took democracy seriously enough, which was reflected in his monthly letters to state chief ministers in which he informed them of the state of the nation and solicited their opinion in an attempt to build national consensus. The Indian National Congress institutionalized the principle of consultation, accommodation and consensus through a delicate balancing of the factions within the ‘Congress System’. It also practised co-optation of the local and regional leaders in the national power structure and the system of sending out Congress ‘observers’ from the centre to mediate between the warring factions in the provinces, thus simultaneously ensuring the legitimacy of the provincial power structure in running its own affairs as well as the role of Central mediation.
Thus, the first phase of Indian Federalism was marked by central domination over the states which even ceded some of their powers to the centre.
The Zonal Councils were created under the States Reorganization Act as advisory bodies to foster cooperative federalism in evolving uniform policies in socio-economic matters. However, they were formed within the system of central domination over the states
The Second Phase (1967-77)
The fourth general election was an important event in the federal dynamics of the country, which drastically reduced the overwhelming majority of the Congress party to a simple majority at the centre while it lost nearly half of the Indian states to the opposition or coalitions. It led to a radical change in the nature of centre-state relations. This phase saw the emergence of assertion on the part of states and the centre reacting to such assertions by demonstrating its effective power.16 The Congress party attempted to regain political power by engineering defections and all other means at its disposal including Article 356. The Rajasthan case was a classic example where the Governor recommended imposition of president’s rule in order to prevent government formation by the coalition of opposition parties. The Assembly was suspended. Meanwhile, the Congress party engineered defections and finally formed the government.
During the period 1967-71, the Union-state conflict was at its peak. The Union government refused to accept assertions of rights by the non-Congress state governments. But the most important factor during this period was the emergence of regional forces to fill up the vacuum created by the weakening of the Congress party. Mrs. Gandhi used the Congress dominance to make the centre stronger and the controversial 42nd Amendment to the constitution made centre more powerful at the expense of the states. This centralization process culminated in the infamous Emergency of 1975-77.
The Third Phase (1977-89)
The 1977 election saw the Congress losing power at the centre for the first time since independence. It brought the Janata Party to power which believed in the decentralization of economic and political power. However, the first act of this government was the dismissal of nine state governments ruled by the Congress on the specious argument that they had lost people’s faith as reflected in their performance in the 10k Sabha elections. It also scrapped Article 357(A) through the 44th Amendment Act which empowered the centre to deploy army and paramilitary forces for dealing with any grave law and order situation in the states. The Congress returned to power in the mid-term election in 1980 and it dismissed the Janata party governments in nine states using the same specious argument like by its predecessor. In a number of states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, etc., government was formed by the regional parties which demanded more autonomy. The Akali Dal in Punjab too supported these demands. The four southern states declared the formation of a regional council to buttress the demand for more autonomy. All this led to the appointment of Sarkaria Commission to look into the centre-state relations.
The Rajiv Gandhi government tried to build alliances with the regional parties due to political compulsions as seen in Rajiv-Longwal pact and the Assam accord. However, he also tried to centralize powers by calling the conference of District Magistrates to deal directly with them, thereby bypassing the state governments. He also repeated this by introducing the Panchayati Raj Bill and Jawahar Rojgar Yojana.
1989 Onwards: The Era of Multi-Party System
The 1989 general election was a landmark in the history of Indian polity as it ushered in a new era of multiparty system and initiated the process of greater federalization. With the defeat of the Congress party, this election ended one party rule at the centre and marked the beginning of coalition government at the centre. The regional parties became an integral part of the federal cabinet and started asserting themselves in a forceful manner at the centre. This process of greater federalization, for the convenience of study, can be divided into the Political federalization and Economic federalization.
The advent of multiparty system led to qualitative change in the Indian polity which has con¬tinued ever since. Starting from 1989 elections, no single party has been able to get a clear majority at the centre and coalition and minority governments at the centre have become a norm. The regional parties have become part and parcel of every coalition cabinet and, hence, have started playing a decisive role at the central level. Regional parties such as the DMK of Tamil Nadu or the RJD of Bihar have asserted their interests more openly over one and a half decades of coalition and minority governments.This increased assertion on the part of the regional parties had forced even the Hindu nationalist BJP to temper its attitude while leading the NDA coalition government in 1999 when it had to drop its core agenda of Ram Mandir, Article 370, Uniform civil code and Hindi as national language in the common minimum programme and adhere to the norms of centre-state relations established by its predecessors governments.
This coalition era has led to greater sharing of powers at the central level by the regional leaders and they have a decisive say in policy matters and aligning national priorities with their regional interests. In the political process of the 1990s shows the internalization of the federal norms in the game plans of the local and regional leaders. Rather than taking a mechanical anti-Delhi stance, the new breed of ambitious, upwardly mobile leaders of India have learnt to play by the rules even if they challenge them and thus have developed a new federal space in which the nation and region can coexist. The next step on the career ladder of these leaders is Delhi, which encourages them to place the region within the larger context of the nation. Eventually as the members of the national coalitions of regional parties, they start striking the postures of national leaders, ready to bargain with and conciliate conflicting interests. The new groups of regional leaders are much more willing and able to listen to the minorities, to regions with historical grievances, to sections of society that entered post-independence politics with unsolved grievances. So far from being its antithesis, region has actually emerged as nursery of the nation. Thus, even with the decline of the Congress as the once dominant party, the multiparty system that has replaced it has produced a similar institutionalized method of regional conflict resolution within a national framework.
However, this process has some flip side too. The federal cabinet has become different from the classical Westminster form based on collective responsibility of the cabinet to the popular chamber of the legislature. It is marked by fragmentation and the dilution of the principle of collective responsibility. The constituent regional parties often controlled by regional satraps get their share in the cabinet in lieu of their support and they nominate their representatives in the cabinet. These cabinet nominees are remote controlled by their party bosses and are responsible to them instead to the prime minister. So the PM has little say in the selection as well as removal of his colleagues. It is not surprising that these ministers air their differences on policy matters openly, which should/be confined to the cabinet meetings. They pay heed to wishes of their party bosses instead of adhering to cabinet dharma. This was seen recently when the Minister of State in the railways from the Trinamool Congress party in UPA~II refused to visit railway accident site in Assam in June 2011 when he was asked to do so by PM Manmohan Singh who was holding additional charge of Railways. In some cases, even the choice of the PM was decided by the regional leaders as seen in appointment of H.D. Deve Gowda and LK. Gujarat in the United Front Government in 1996. Even the fate of the federal government was decided by the regional party bosses. The Vajpayee Government fell when J. Jayalalitha withdrew her support in 1999 and the UPA-I was rescued by the support extended by Mulayam Singh Yadava in 2008 when the Left Parties withdrew their support over Indo-US nuclear deal.
With the decline of the prime ministerial power, the presidential role has acquired some more elbow room, and recent presidents have shown greater initiative and drive under coalition situations, particularly in the formation of government and the dissolution of Lok Sabha in cases of uncertain majorities than in the pastY Since 1990s, the role of Rajya Sabha as a Federal Second Chamber has become more pronounced. The differential oppositional majority in the Rajya Sabha as distinct from that of the Lok Sabha is a reflection of the differential compositions of the state legislatures which constitute electoral college of Rajya Sabha. It makes imperative for the government to have inter-house legislative understanding with the Rajya Sabha to facilitate passage of the legislations and the constitutional amendments.