FEDERALISM – Converging in semantics – diverging in nuances

Federalism ( Etymology ; Foedus a latin word connoting treaty, pact or covenant) is a political concept and a constitutional paradigm. It is a political concept of decentralized political authority co-existing with centralized political power. It is a constitutional paradigm of ‘shared rule’ coalesced with ‘self-rule’.

Configured in arithmetical imagery, ‘federalism’ conceptually stands as a sum of addends, where all the addends, are politically identifiable and politically distinguishable positive and whole numbers, while the sum, always one, remains open to testing of veracity of its peculiar essentiality. All political unit or sub-units, are veritable political-constructs. The addition of such political units results in a ‘sum’ recognizable in the political numeric as ‘a unity’. The ‘addends’ represent a common geographical space, being all neighboring political entities with distinct, often markedly distinct political personalities. The common nexus binding these political units includes historical sharing of a territorial and cultural proximity with each other.

Federalism as a political reality unfolds when all coalescing political units unanimously consent to immerse their external identities, while retaining the intrinsic identities, such as, State name, State culture, State history, State religious practices, State language, State literature etc., with full play of local vibrancy, in a unified political Sovereignty. In such scenario the political units eternally declare themselves as an integrated political identity – an integrated State- a Sovereign State-­ a Nation. Pactum foederis is a secular arrangement to live together in mutual benevolence.

The power sharing pattern between a central government and State governments is founded on the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ ( propounded in the works of Popes Leo XIII  (1891), Pius XI ( 1931), Proudhan and also dealt with by Johnannes Althusius ( 1603 ) which contemplates a comparative benefit in terms of efficiency and efficacy in the context of shifting powers in favour of the Center in preference to the federating States as a guiding indicator.

Critical questions that haunts a researcher on the genesis and development of federalism are : whether power-centric hubs in the political order of federal polity finally emerge as ‘leftover’ from the erosion effects of decentralization pressures? whether such power centric hubs originate in the  pre-existing ‘magnetic field’ of the political processes, which strongly attracts smaller States, to gain further strength, to such pre-existing political construct?.

The paradoxical parables in the processes and values of federalism are numerous. Conspicuous paradoxes abiding in the federal political order are: the paradox of multiple whole numbers adding up to necessarily reach ‘one’ as a sum, another paradox of multiple political identities immersed in a single identity and yet all remain unscathed and flourish independently and yet another paradox is collision-free course of cyclical and counter-cyclical power flows in the same functional paths, within the same political order. All these paradoxical parables resonate in federalism while critically tossing up challenges in the domains of logic. These  paradoxes vindicate the veracity of the dictum that politics is ultimately an art of the possible.

Daniel Ziblatt in his famous work ‘ Structuring the State’ brings forth the following explanations of federalism ;

Ideational Theory: this theory postulates that value assessments inter se the ideological commitment to decentralization and ideological inclinations towards federal features necessarily leads to adoption of federalism by the society.

Cultural-historical theory: Culturally and historically fragmented populations are politically keen to embrace federal paradigm of polity.

Social contract theory: This theory envisages the existence of a factual matrix in a political scenario, where States as sub units of federal structure are not empowered to secede and Center as main unit of federation is not empowered to dominate. Such factual scenario ipso facto leads to formation of a Federation.

Infrastructural Power theory: This theory contemplates that federation as a functional model is feasible where complete political infrastructure, such as, constitutional mandate, parliament, administrative set up of a modern State,  exists in the units and sub units.

Federalism as a thesis has indeed gained clarity by theoretical contributions of Wheare (1964  ), King (1982  ), Watts ( 1978  ) and Elazar( 1987)   .

The concept of federalism also abides even de hors the territorial reality. Such non-territorial federalism theories were propounded and researched by Otto Bauer(1903 )  and Renner (1907 ) and Bottomore and Goode(1978 ) etc.

In the political domains, federalism is not merely a self-evolved umbilical-cord bonds between geographical siblings, having cultural and historical contents traceable in their DNA, but it is a politically invented ‘value kit’ for the eternal, yes eternal, growth of the federated Sovereignty, in midst of perpetual conflicts and pressures in the zigzag course of the supremacy race on the power tracks of global politics. This ‘value kit’ encapsulates the prudence based on the ‘political truths’ and this ‘value kit’ gains its legitimacy from the universal acknowledgement of time-tested ‘political truths’.

The expression ‘political truths’ signifies well-articulated rules of polity, culled by the political thinkers, from the complexity of the human experience of the society, especially the experiences gained in the power-centric battle-fields of history of civilizations. The political truths are value-tested on the touchstone of the political conflicts, ever known to the mankind. The universal recognition of the proven ‘political truths’ exalts the same to the status of a benchmark in the political thought to configure and adjust the value-patterns of the polity.

One such well-acknowledged ‘political truth’ is a vital and existential co-relation of political size of a Sovereign State with political strength of the Sovereign State.  The Shay’s armed uprising in Western Massachusetts, in the year 1768, when farmers gathered and threatened to uproot the State machinery, worked as a catalyst for adoption of federal model in United States of America. The tiny States, with their own fragilities and vulnerabilities, being usually short of fully-institutionalized and fully-autonomous position of strength, rarely withstand the pulls and pressures of competing and power-centric political societies and often vanish and dissolve into the shadows of large and robust Sovereign States. The theories of David Hume, antithetic to views (against large federations) of Montesquieu, focus on the central theme that a large democracy, in contrast with a small one, has compass and room to refine itself.

‘Federation’ differs from ‘confederation’ in as much as a confederation is more or less an optionally-evolved and optionally-sustaining coalition of political states, where confederating States, independently define, delineate, limit and control the scope of power of the confederated body. Thus confederated body exercises the powers literally ceded by the confederating States within the limits and bounds drawn by confederating States. Besides Cantons of Switzerland, entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, various political bodies like European Union and United Nations Organization are the present day examples of Confederations.

Federalism has distinct theoretical hues: classical federalism, dual federalism, cooperative federalism (also known as interlocking federalism), fiscal federalism or creative federalism is theoretically entrenched foundation of forms of federalism. These forms of federalism are theoretically distinct from each other. Classical federalism is a compact of sovereigns with equal power structures for the constituents and is functionally akin to cooperative federalism, envisaging co-existence of Union and States on equal footing in the functional power hub of the federation. The concept of dual federalism recognizes federal government as superior to the constituent State governments. The theoretical classification of fiscal federalism is functionally based on levers of finance and in such federalism the federal bonds are quintessentially money-centric. Creative federalism or ‘picket fence federalism’ envisages federal government assesses and decides the needs of the constituent States and ensures requisite allocation of resources by the Federal government to meet the demands, so determined. Over the period of time creative federalism stands overshadowed by emergence of cooperative federalism. In practical manner today even a well-evolved federal model of USA does not perfectly fit into any one particular category. Thus the theoretical classifications of federalism are more or less relevant for academic research.

Federalism may be theoretically further classified as symmetric or asymmetric. Federalism is asymmetric or asymmetrical when the constituent States are clothed with different and non-uniform powers. Thus in such form of federalism some states may have more autonomy than other constituent states. On the other hand, the symmetric federation is conspicuously free from such inter-State distinctions in the context of constitutionally-mandated power patterns. In a symmetric federation no tangible difference is found in the power-sharing pattern of the federal constitution.

Federalism coexists with unitary model of governance, where the federal government or central government functionally stand as predominantly exclusive center of the power dynamics of the polity. So federalism and unitary form of government are not quintessentially antithetic to each other. Rather federalism and unitary form of government are complimentary to each other.

Besides United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium, Republic of China, Turkey various States are unitary States in contrast with federalism. However, Italy, Spain and Belgium are in certain limited constitutional contexts are also described as semi-federal.

Another political view also holds the field that federalism and unitary form of government are antithetic .Thus in historical perspective some notable events spurred by such political view resulted in turbulence in the federal polity.

Historically a concept of ‘new federalism’ was invented when in 1980s, the then Republican President Ronald Reagan of USA, forcefully floated the idea of return of political powers back to states. This movement in America is also known as ‘Devolution Revolution’ of 1980s.

India is a federal State. India is an asymmetric federation, having, inter alia, features of federalism beneath the front-loaded features of the unitary form of constitutional model. The power structures in the constitutional scheme of India fairly acknowledge the strengths of ideals of federalism, while the inspiration of the political value of unitary philosophy holds its rightful space in the Constitutional text.

As regards asymmetric nature of federalism in India, the same is clearly reflected in the constitutional text. Articles 370 and Articles 371,371 A to 371 J spell out distinct treatment to the specific constituent States. Even after resolution dated 6th August 2019 to declare all clauses of Article 370 inoperative (except clause 1 thereof) the asymmetrical tilts are palpable in the fold of articles 371, 371A to 371 J as well as in the ambit of Article 279 A. Thus various states including Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Goa, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland etc. are constitutionally entitled to distinct treatment and continue to be distinctly treated in the text of Constitutionally-delineated legislative or administrative powers.

India with its linguistic diversity holds a unique status of not only being multilingual but being riddled with political fault-lines due to linguistic radicalism. Thus India, with constitutionally recognized 22 languages (Schedule 8 of the Constitution), besides English as an official language had to address the multiple language issues through voluminous text of eleven Articles i.e. Article 343 to Article 351 (inclusive of Articles 350 A and Article 350 B). Thus India is also described as a multilingual federation.

However, in contrast with India, Constitution of Canada represents broadly symmetric federalism, while the tilt in favour of French speaking state, Quebec, does not fully purge it of all dimensions of asymmetry.

The iteration of power dynamics in the centre-state relations in a federation is a regular political feature. A German word ‘Gleichschaltung’ defines the structural shift in federal polity from constituent states towards more Unitary paradigms.

Concepts of proto-States or quasi States are also relevant in the context of Federalism. The proto- States or quasi States are not fully institutionalized and autonomous sovereign States. These expressions were politically applied to represent some British colonies or dependencies which are self-governing. Even Republics of Soviet Union are described as proto-states. The militant groups, such as Islamic outfits, having long-term territorial and political controls over some regions politically fit in the status of proto states. Azad Kashmir in Pakistan is also politically recognized as a Proto state.

There are conflicts within federal States revolving around the themes of power sharing. The conflicts highlight the deviations from the ethics of responsibility. Such conflicts also lead to de-federation of a Political State.

The usual and normal federal polity is scripted through the Constitutions of the nations.

In India a script of Center-State relationship is etched in the Constitution of India. Article 1 of Constitution of India reads as under;

Article 1 name and Territory of the Union (1) India, that is, Bharat, shall be a Union of States


The expression ‘Union of States’ was found more meaningful and relevant by the Constituent Assembly to the alternative expression ‘Federation of States’. However, the constitutional exposition of Center-State relationship as adopted by the constitution of India, in the initial stages of development of constitutional law, came to be judicially treated as non-federal constitutional model. Hon’ble Bench of Supreme Court, ostensibly relying on classical theory of federalism in State of West Bengal v Union of India , AIR 1963 SC 1241 held by majority view that India is not a true federation.

The said view further gained strength in State of Rajasthan v Union of India(AIR 1977 SC 1361  ) Justice Beg , the then Chief justice penned down the following weighty and ageless words qua federalism in India;

“In a sense, therefore, Indian Union is federal. But the extent of federalism in it is largely watered down by the needs of progress and development of a country which has to be nationally integrated, politically and economically coordinated and socially, intellectually and spiritually uplifted.”

However, in the course of development of constitutional law, taking a radically different view in Keshava Nand Bharti v Union of India  (AIR 1973 SC 1461 ), ‘federalism’ itself was recognized as a basic feature of the Constitution of India.

Bare reading of Constitution of India makes it crystal clear that Articles 245 to 255 address the distribution of legislative powers while Articles 256 to 261 deal with distribution of administrative powers of the States. However Article 248 vests the Union with the residual powers. The 7th schedule contains three separate lists of subjects for the purpose of exercise of legislative powers; Union list (list I ), State List (list II ) and Concurrent List (list III ).

Ideally a relationship of power-parity is contemplated in a federal States. However, various political compulsions chisel the ideals into pragmatic moulds. It is matter of common experience that ‘Ideals’ often melt in the heat of party-politics in a democracy. In the party politics the ‘political capacity’ of the democracy which is quintessentially the soul and strength of a democracy actually turns into carcass by ‘power-vultures’ taking bites of ‘political capacity’ to nourish their respective political domains. In such political scenario, national interests and national aspirations suffer inevitable overshadowing by ‘party-interests’ and ‘party-aspirations’. The assertive points and equally assertive counter-points in the power sharing discourses remain loud, shrill and incessant in the federal polity. Even the disputes qua power sharing issues are common and often contentious within a Federal political order.

Professor Sawer opined that federalism is the most suitable in a society where ‘federal situation’ exists. In India by reason of its size, population, regional and linguistic differences and communication issues of critical nature, the federal situation was necessarily in existence and resultantly the federalism as a political order as adopted by constitution of India synchronizes with the needs of the society.

It is relevant to peep into Report of the Administrative Reforms commission (June 1969) on the operational aspects of federalism. The relevant part of the said report reads as under;

“ …..we would emphasize that the states cannot expect the central resources to be made available to them in order to compensate them for their unwillingness to tap their own resources to the required extent. Some of the State governments are very chary of levying taxes and rates on those who are direct beneficiaries of heavy investments made by the Governments big projects, like irrigation and power projects, and on whom the levy of such taxes and rates will not become a great burden. To refrain from making such levies, under the wrong notion that they will lead to unpopularity will only result in unequal and unjust treatment being meted out to different classes or groups of persons in the State. While the state Government must no doubt be anxious to increase the tempo of development in their States, they must be equally keen on maximizing the revenues from the development projects.”


In State Of Rajasthan V Union of India, ( 1977) 3 SCC 592, Hon’ble Bench of Justice Y. V. Chandrachud expressed his  view on the claims of the  federating States , through following words;

“In a federation, whether classical or quasi-classical, the States vitally interested in the definition of powers of the Federal government on the one hand and their own on the other. A dispute bearing upon the delineation of those powers is precisely the one which the federating States, no less than Federal government itself, are interested. States, therefore, have the locus and interest to contest and seek an adjudication of the claim set up by the Union government.”

The administrative as well as judicial opinions are highly balanced and treat the unitary features in the constitutional scheme as necessary and value-based .

The highest ethics of responsibility and not heroics of street protests alone hold potential to transmute the values of federalism into a source of political strength and potential to kindle national idealism for a benevolent mutuality in the political order of the society. We need to reinvent a political order where the processes of federalism are saved from the bane of institutional obsolescence while values and ideals of federalism find a political culture for empowering benevolent and progressive society.

The hyperborean hyperbole of James Falconer Kirkup, despite its contextual variance, aptly captures within its splendid fantasy of legends and notations even the intertwined structure of convergence-divergence power- themes ;

“….. …and the final land,

Where down the sky’s large whiteness, the archipelagos of the day

Gradually move, on forests lights with birch and black with larch

In grave progressions….”

In the multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic Indian society a monumental challenge is to save federalism from the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. But politics remains energetically engaged in the task of circling the squares.


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