Federalism redefined ~ II

In the wake of demonetisation, a suggestion was floated by several state governments on the formation of a national government…

Federalism redefined ~ II

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In the wake of demonetisation, a suggestion was floated by several state governments on the formation of a national government at the Centre. This would have signalled the death of the federal structure of governance which, ironically, has been advocated as part of their agenda for a long time.

Their brand of federalism has been advocated on numerous occasions. Most of the measures, adopted by the Union Government, are invariably regarded as anti-federal by their ministers. One may not find fault with such shenanigans if one grasps the political compulsions of the parties ruling these states. But an intermittent blitzkrieg of such out-of-the-box views is certainly not conducive to a stable and mature polity like India. There is a clear distinction between a federal and a national government as was pointed out by Alexander Hamilton in his essay.

A national government is essentially responsible to the people of the country irrespective of the political leanings of the constituent parties. A federal government, on the other hand, is accountable to the party which enjoys the majority in the legislature. The problem arises when one party has the majority in the Union legislature while different parties do so in the legislatures of the constituent states, as is the case at the present juncture.


More often than not, irreconcilable conflicts emerge where governance becomes the victim. The framers of the Constitution possibly could not foresee such a political logjam.

The US Constitution took care of such an eventuality by adopting the Presidential system where the President is elected by the people of the country directly with built-in constitutional checks and balances to prevent untrammelled exercise of authority by the President.

Unfortunately, the Indian experience is throwing up indefensible roadblocks in the way of a smooth working of the government. Added to the problem is the provision of a bicameral legislature at the Centre. Recent history suggests that except the money bills, it has become practically impossible for the executive to achieve its legislative agenda. A bicameral legislature under the Government of India Act 1935 could function as an effective system because of the overriding powers enjoyed by the Viceroy-in-Council. In the existing system, no such safeguard is available and so, despite having a majority mandate, the government is handicapped in getting its agenda passed through the respective Houses.

It is also necessary to examine the issues which unexpectedly arise in the process of governing Union-State relations as would be apparent if one traces the recent history of the country. For example, with the changes in the Union legislature brought about by the installation of a new government, the status of the Governors of the states who were appointed by the previous government becomes precarious when the new government starts the process of replacing them with their own nominees.

This phenomenon has assumed importance over the past seven decades, to the extent that the matter had to be referred to the Supreme Court for resolution. The controversy seems to resurface with every change in the ruling disposition at the Centre. The sensitive issue erupts at regular intervals when the need to choose and appoint officials for strategically vital slots arises. Despite an apparently workable mechanism in place, parties are often seen to be bickering over the selections. One keeps wondering if this is a healthy sign of a democratic set-up in the federal system of governance. A recent instance is the abolition of the Planning Commission.

It is nobody’s case that the erstwhile entity was able to achieve the mission for which it was established. It gradually transformed itself into a gargantuan institution whose main raison de etre was to act as an alter ego of the Union Government and provide a waiting-room for superannuated bureaucrats and unelectable politicians. Yet, when abolished, it created an opportunity for some state governments to attack the decision on the ground of violating the federal system of governance. Also, consider the criticism of many decisions of the Defence Ministry taken in course of its normal line of duty.

For an efficient functioning of the various organs of the services, it is absolutely imperative for them to undertake manoeuvres and surveys from time to time in specific territories of the country. If such programmes are thought to be subject to prior permission of the state governments then the armed forces cannot be expected to perform at all. There may be occasions when a particular geographical area requires immediate movement of the forces as perceived by the Union Government.

Before undertaking such a task on an urgent basis, can the Central Government be hamstrung by the prior concurrence theory?

Two expressions have gained almost universal currency in the political discourse ~ cooperative federalism and competitive federalism. Even President Pranab Mukherjee referred to them while inaugurating the third edition of the Bengal Global Summit in Kolkata. The first concept would essentially mean a smooth relationship between the Union and the States. In reality, however, we have seen just the opposite. Most of the States are victims of a fortress mentality.

They leave no stone unturned to put a spanner in the facile working of the system. There have been personal attacks against the Head of the Union Government with a view to reap political dividends. Similarly, there have been efforts to project one state against another and the Union Government, to show one’s achievements. This does not advance either cooperative or competitive federalism. They simply appear fanciful and untrue.

It is time for a relook at the federal system envisaged by the Constitution. Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous expression ~ Unity in Diversity ~ has been devalued by the ominous trends in governance. The country is suffering under the personal ego of political leaders, bordering on narcissism, intense sectarianism, and chauvinism of language, caste, community, religion and provincialism. There is a strong urge towards and hope for a radical change. One wonders if the Founding Fathers had bargained for this metamorphosis of the nascent Republic.