Cooperative federalism : a tortuous road ahead

To push big reforms, India needs cooperative federalism between Centre & States.

United we stand, divided we fall

World over, ever since modern forms of democracy took hold, a central question in structuring the State and its government has been – to centralize or not?

Various answers to this question have resulted in the multiple formats of States and governments we see across the world. In the spectrum ranging from the loosely-held confederation in Canada to the federal structure of USA, we witness the Indian model which is a quasi-federal structure bordering on being unitary. The key idea running through all these models is efficiency and effectiveness of governance from the perspective of citizens.


www.BodhiBooster.com, http://hindi.bodhibooster.com, www.sandeepmanudhane.org

A focus on federalism

Federalism as a political system is built on a mixed form of government with the central government and the regional /state governments functioning side by side. There is a distinct division of powers and authority between the two levels of governments, and when disputes arise, the Supreme Court of the nation decides matters requiring a constitutional interpretation.


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    • Is India federal or unitary?
      • Technically, India is not a federal state. We are defined as a state which will be quasi-federal with a unitary bias. Quasi = Seemingly, but not really. Since we have 29 states and a strong central government, and since simple expressions make conversations easy, the use of “federalism” is common in political parlance now.


What did Dr.Ambedkar, the principal architect of Indian constitution, say on this matter while drafting it?

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    • “Two principal forms of the Constitution are known to history - one is called Unitary and other Federal. The two essential characteristics of a Unitary Constitution are (1) the supremacy of the Central Polity and (2) the absence of subsidiary Sovereign polities. Contrariwise, a Federal Constitution is marked (1) by the existence of a Central polity and subsidiary polities side by side, and (2) by each being sovereign in the field assigned to it. 
    • In other words Federation means the establishment of a Dual Polity. The Draft Constitution is federal inasmuch as it establishes what may be called a Dual Polity. This Dual Polity under the proposed Constitution will consist of the Union at the Centre and the States at the periphery each endowed with sovereign powers to be exercised in the field assigned to them respectively by the Constitution”.


[Read this Bodhi in Hindi, here]

Words of federal wisdom


The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security  - James Madison, Founding Father and US President (1809-1817)

The units of the Union would have very great degree of autonomy. Now, the Union Constitution will deal with Union subjects and common matters concerned. So far as the other subjects are concerned, the provinces and the states will be sovereign  - Pandit Nehru, first PM of India

Federalism is no longer the fault line of Centre-State relations but the definition of a new partnership of Team India   - Narendra Modi, PM of India


The Assembly Elections 2017 results have reinforced the Modi Doctrine that pushes India's interests positively abroad. 

Read about   [##leaf## The Modi Doctrine]  and [##leaf## Assembly Elections Analysis 2017]




 Continued on Page 2 

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The Indian system exhibits these distinct characteristics

A nation as vast and diverse as India needs to possess both flexibility and strength simultaneously. From the birth of the modern republic, the framers of our constitutions attempted the same.

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    • Need for a strong Centre
      • Our constitution makers realized that Centre needed to be strong as the India of 1950s ran the real risk of fragmenting, unless a strong force held it together.
    • Need for “federal” freedoms
      • Since India is a hugely diverse nation, a single force can never hold it together and keep citizens happy too. Decentralisation is a must. Creation of NITI Aayog can be considered a step in that direction.
    • Strong framework
      • Both these forces can clash if a clearly-defined framework is not in place. The Constitution itself is that framework.
    • An empowered arbiter
      • The Supreme Court stands sentinel and helps sort tricky federal disputes. So far, there have been relatively few points of intractable discord.
Post 1991, the Central government embarked on a radical reform of the Indian economy. The forces of liberalization set into motion a cascading effect, which though positive, ended up changing the requirements of governance at state levels. More entrepreneurial freedom was required, and as volumes of inter-state trade and commerce started shooting up, legal frameworks that aided the flow rather than hindering it, became a crying need of the hour. Alongside, the enactment of constitutional amendments making the Panchayati Raj a mandatory part of governance, set into motion huge forces at the village and district levels across India. In a Bodhi on changing trends in Indian politics, we examined these trends. [ ##eye## Read that Bodhi here]

That marked the beginning of the multiple frictions we see in centre –state relations today.


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    • A few examples to highlight this friction can be found easily. ##chevron-right## Planning Commission When the Planning Commission existed prior to 2015, the southern states often complained of a step-motherly treatment in funds allocation, which took into account the population sizes of states. Their common refrain was “We are penalized for keeping our populations low!” ##chevron-right## Central Schemes The huge Central schemes became another bone of contention, not least in terms of branding and positioning. When the size of the Union Budget kept growing, schemes that would touch the ordinary citizens’ lives – be it highways, or MGNREGS, or PDS etc. – were scaled up. 
    • ##chevron-right## Coalition Governments When coalition governments ruled at the Centre, by default a lot of decentralization happened. But when a majority government came up, complaints started popping up. ##chevron-right## Internal trade and commerce The extremely complex tax structures affecting trade and commerce gave rise to persistent demands for simplification. It has taken nearly a decade for the GST regime to show the first signs of coming into existence. Such is the complex nature of getting things done in India. 

What compounds the problem is the existence of competitive politics. Political parties compete in elections happening frequently at state level, and policy-making at Central level too can accelerate or suffer, depending on the nature of alliances that come into existence.

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    • ##thumbs-o-up## Team India - making it a reality
      • The present government has shown remarkable accommodation through simple gestures like using the “Team India” phrase for NITI Aayog meetings, or the formation of an all-inclusive GST Council authorized to take all major decisions, etc. Fortunately, institutions like the Finance Commission exist, which recommended in its 14th FC Report that states are entitled to a higher share of the central pool of taxes.


www.SandeepManudhane.org, www.BodhiBooster.com, http://hindi.bodhibooster.com

Cooperative Federalism

So we saw that a federal system of government is a compound political system. Cooperative federalism is the approach in which the national and state governments cooperate with each other to collectively solve common problems. For cooperative federalism to operate successfully, a federal balance of power needs to be created.

Theoretically the concept of cooperative federalism sounds good. But achieving an ideal cooperative federal working structure is a difficult task. Conflicts and competition between various stakeholders of the federal systems complicate matters, as we saw earlier. These arise from huge social, political, economic and even cultural and developmental diversities and disparities in the different states or regions. They do not enjoy a level playing field.

Reasons why cooperative federalism in India a tough task to master :

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    • Bundle of diversities and disparities
      • The diversities and disparities are bound to create different ambitions and aspirations. It is always a big challenge to identify and resolve these bundles of diverse ambitions and aspirations and bring each state at the same platform. Till date, India has not been able to do that.
    • Healthy Competition 
      • States vary not only in size but also in availability of resources. For cooperative federalism to function successfully, an environment of healthy competition needs to be developed among the states and the centre. The tipping point where this healthy competition degenerates into populism is the danger mark.
    • No man is an island
      • The Centre will always require the cooperation of the states as the implementation part of the central policies will rest with the states.
    • Fractured politics
      • Cooperative federalism may also be difficult to implement because of the fractured political landscape of India.

Citizens first

Bodhi Booster feels that the key challenge today is to strike a balance between cooperative and competitive federalism. The distribution of powers in the Constitution suggests a more cooperative rather than competitive states. But the stark reality of politics often precludes a healthy interaction despite the best of intentions. Due to electoral compulsions, grand and transformative schemes can be opposed on the most basic of issues – for example, why not call it the “PM CM Jan Dhan scheme” rather than only “PM Jan Dhan scheme”! The same debate has plagued the Nov. 2016 demonetisation exercise as well, with some Chief Ministers up in arms against an allegedly 'unitary and unilateral decision' that has put to risk livelihoods locally for which they have no solutions or answers to give.

India stands at the crossroads today. A huge young population wants solutions to life’s basic issues fast. The political classes need to deliver, before the narrow window of demographic dividend turns into a demographic disaster.


The boldest visionary


www.BodhiBooster.com, http://hindi.bodhibooster.com, www.SandeepManudhane.org, www.PTeducation.comThe future peace, security and ordered progress of the world demand a world federation of free nations that ensures the freedom of its constituent nations, the prevention of aggression and exploitation by one nation over another, the protection of national ministries, the advancement of all backward areas and peoples, and the pooling of the world's resources for the common good of all.   - Mahatma Gandhi, resolution in INC - 1942








The Assembly Elections 2017 results have reinforced the Modi Doctrine that pushes India's interests positively abroad. 

Read about   [##leaf## The Modi Doctrine]  and [##leaf## Assembly Elections Analysis 2017]




This Bodhi will be regularly updatedKeep visiting. And do share your thoughts in the Comments thread.


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    • Bodhi Links (for deeper study; Caution: some may be external links, some large PDFs)
      • ##chevron-right## Ambedkar and Federalism - a detailed analysis here  ##chevron-right## Rajya Sabha publication on Ambedkar pdf  here  ##chevron-right## NCERT on federalism pdf  here  ##chevron-right## Gandhi on federalism - a comprehensive analysis here  ##chevron-right## Criticism of Modi government  here  ##chevron-right## Stresses in centre-state relations in land acquisition issues here 


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Bodhi Booster: Cooperative federalism : a tortuous road ahead
Cooperative federalism : a tortuous road ahead
To push big reforms, India needs cooperative federalism between Centre & States.
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