Need For A Definition Of Federalism Politics Essay

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Federalism is a political concept referring to a form of government in which sovereign functions are constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent units such as states or provinces. It is a system where the governing power is shared between national and state governments thus giving birth to a federation. This article is divided into three parts. The first part examines the meaning and reviews definitions of federalism. Then the Indian system is explored and finally this researcher concludes.

Robert A. Dahl defines federalism as a system of dual sovereignty, "in which some matters are exclusively within the competence of certain local units-cantons, states, provinces-and are constitutionally beyond the scope of the authority of the national government, and where certain other matters are constitutionally outside the scope of the authority of the smaller units."

Similarly Ron Watts defines federalism as: "Federalism provides a technique of constitutional organization that permits action by a shared government for certain common purposes, together with autonomous action by constituent units of government for purposes that relate to maintaining their distinctiveness, with each level directly responsible to its own electorate."

It is found out from the writings of several scholars that the focus is more on the vertical division of sovereignty and the distribution of power between the center and the states or provinces or such political units whatever they may be, and most strikingly, almost nothing is said about the constitutional features of such units.

Author Valerie Bunce however, implies that federalism must create smaller political units or representative bodies. She says that federal system exists when there is a "layer of institutions" between the center and the localities of a country and such institutions have their leaders who share decision-making power with the central authority .

In Europe, the term federalist describes a 'common federal government' with distributed power at regional, national and 'supernational' levels. In Canada, federalism denotes opposition to sovereigntist movements which is true also in case of the United States. Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India and Malaysia are some other examples of federal countries. Federalism may encompass just three or even less internal divisions in a country, as seen in the cases of Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ecclesiastic and theological federalism also exist in some Christian countries. Federalism is a theory of principles dividing powers between sub units and central institutions of a state. Unlike in central forms of government, sovereignty in federal orders is non-centralized, in most cases constitutionally, and between at least two levels so that at each level, the bodies or institutions have final decision-making power and can be self governing where required.

Citizens in a federal state therefore have rights granted by and duties prescribed by two levels of government. The amount of power-concentration between the smaller and the larger units is not constant and varies from case to case.

History of Federalism as it Evolved in the West

Johannes Althusius is, by many, regarded as the father of modern federalist thought. He argued in Politica Methodice Digesta for the autonomy of his city Emden, both against its provincial Lord and the Emperor. The French theorist Huguenots developed a theory of legitimacy further in Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. Althusius developed a non-sectarian, non-theological theory of federations that prohibited state intervention at several levels, including promotion of faith.

Ludolph distinguished confederations that based on alliances from decentralized unitary and federations, characterized by 'double governments' in De Statu Regionum Germanie. Montesquieu argued in favour of confederal arrangements as it combines the small and large political units, without causing disadvantages to either, while David Hume disagreed with Montesquieu and said that smaller size is better. Jean-Jacques Rousseau critiqued Saint-Pierre's theory and said that joint forces must be stronger than any single state.

Immanuel Kant later defended a confederation in On Perpetual Peace. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay argued for the suggested model of interlocking federal arrangements. John Stuart Mill in Considerations on Representative Government, argued in favour of federations among "portions of mankind" not left to live under a common government, to prevent wars among themselves and protection against aggression. He felt that the center should be allowed to have sufficient powers so as to ensure all benefits of union. He listed three conditions for a federation, firstly, sufficient empathy "of race, language, religion, and, above all, of political institutions, as conducing most to a feeling of identity of political interest", secondly, no member unit must be so powerful as to not require the central institution for defence, thirdly, possible equality of strength among member units. Next, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Du Principe fédératif argued in favour of federalism and said it was the best way to preserve individual liberty within 'natural' communities such as families and tribes.

Federalism was rethought during and after the Second World War because the war was largely caused by impulsive nationalism, and therefore practicable alternatives to such rampant nationalism were being bred in the thoughts of scholars. During this time, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi condemned totalitarian states . After this period, literature about federalism have addressed issues such as the sources of stability and instability of a federalism, legitimacy of division of power between sub-national unit and center and distributive justice. Also, challenges to democratic theory, and the politics of recognition have been talked about.

The Indian Case

The Government of India is referred to as the Union Government. It has been established by the Constitution of India, and is the governing authority of a federal union of 28 states and 7 union territories.

There is a tiered system in the Indian Governance, and the Constitution of India decides which tier has how much executive power. The Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India has three lists, namely the Union list, the State list and the Concurrent list. Indian federalism, most notably, is asymmetric in nature. In this regard it could be mentioned that Article 370 of the Constitution of India brings to existence certain special provisions for the state of Jammu and Kashmir and Article 371 makes special provisions for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Goa, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Sikkim.

Another notable aspect in the Indian system of governance is the provision of President's Rule in which the central government takes control of the state's administration for a certain period of time during emergency situations. India has also in place, a multi-party system with political allegiances which are mostly based on linguistic, caste and regional criterions and this calls for coalition politics at the centre.

"Asymmetric federalism" essentially means federalism based on unequal powers and unequal relationships- political, administrative and fiscal, between the units present in a federation. Asymmetry in the arrangements in a federation can be viewed in both vertical and horizontal senses. Vertical when the asymmetry is between the centre and the units and horizontal when it is between the untits.

However, in this respect it is necessary to mention that even when the constitution guarantees almost equal powers to the states, in practice, in all federal systems the centre dominates in political, administrative, as well as fiscal functions. In this regard, the example of Article 3 of the Constitution can be cited , which vests the Parliament with powers to constitute new states by separating territories from the existing ones, altering their boundaries, and changing their names. The only pre-requisite for this is that the `Bill' pushing such change has to be placed in the Parliament on the recommendation of the President after such a bill has been referred to the relevant state legislature for their views, and in that case, most notably the state's approval is not necessary. One more aspect is that, the federation has not come into existence based on the principle of equality between the Union and states because the union holds the powers, and it invades the legislative and executive spheres of the states when required.

Historical Background: Evolution of Asymmetric Arrangements in Indian Federalism

The distribution of power between the Union and states and the treatment of different states in the Indian Constitution has its roots deep into numerous historical and political factors. The Cabinet Mission sent by the British Government in the year 1946 saw no good in splitting into two the undivided India into two independent nations.

It also suggested that the independent country should be governed by a fully federal constitution with the central government dealing with foreign affairs, defence and communications, and the remaining should be vested with two groups of provinces, one predominantly Hindu, and the other predominantly Muslim.

The constant insisting by the Muslim League in favour of having a separate nation for the Muslims resulted in the formation of Pakistan which is made up of Muslim majority regions of the north-west part of undivided India and eastern part of Bengal. In such a scenario, it was no longer important to create a federal government.

Therefore, the drafters of the constitution decided to have a federation with a strong Union to hold together the diverse economic, linguistic, cultural, regional entities and centralization was also thought to be important to unify the country that comprised regions ruled by the British and 216 princely states as well as territories.

During Independence

Therefore it can be seen that the asymmetric arrangement in Indian federalism has an imaginably long history and finds its roots in the way in which the British had unified the country under their rule, and later the way in which the territories and princely states under the direct control of the British were integrated in the Indian union. It is worth a mention here that the territories ruled directly by the British were easily absorbed into the Union, and the treaties of accession signed by rulers gave way to the integration of different principalities.

The provinces ruled under direct control of the British had a modicum of autonomy as well as a rudimentary form of parliamentary government when the British loosened the strong control gradually from the year 1919 onwards. The Constitution that had been adopted in the year 1951 classified the states into four categories, namely the provinces directly ruled by the British were under Part `A' states; the princely states which happened to have a relationship with the Government of India based upon treaties signed were classified as Part `B' states which included the states of Hyderabad, Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir and other princely state (in the case of

Jammu and Kashmir, special powers were given in the terms of accession); the remaining princely states joining the Union were grouped under Part `C' states; and, the areas ruled by foreign powers (French and Portuguese) and areas that have not been covered in the above three categories were brought under the direct control of the Union under Part `D' states which are also called Union Territories.

Thus, the Union of India in 1947 started off with a major asymmetry with respect to British India and the princely states and among the latter. The terms of accession differed and depended on the bargaining strength; in most cases, the princely states surrendered whatever notional sovereignty they had to the nascent country called India in exchange for a guaranteed revenue stream called "privy purses".

The nature of this bargain did not lack clarity - it was simply security and money in exchange for giving up authority or control rights. This is close to the regular view of federation as a political bargain, with the only difference being the successors of the British in India, namely, the Indian National Congress, were in an extremely strong bargaining position, easily comparable to the coalition of the princes, for example, Hyderabad, where military force ensured integration into the new union.

Assimilation of Units after Independence

Where many of the erstwhile princely states, the Part `B' states in particular continued as administrative units after their assimilation and integration into India, this continuation was not an essential part of the bargain any further. Moreover, alteration of state boundaries from the year 1953, unquestionably authorized to the centre by Article 3 of the constitution, gradually broke down this status.

The Constitution of India now allowed sub-state structures for areas closely related to some erstwhile princely states, but this had little practical bearing as the states became the only conspicuous and significant sub-national units of governance. Thus, basically the princely states did not matter as geographic entities any longer. In this regard, the outcome was completely out of the way from the standard cases of federation where the units of the federation would generally retain their own identities.

Therefore, the asymmetric arrangement was basically a recognition of the different sets of bodies and administrative institutions in the country. Therefore, the asymmetries present back in the year 1947 with respect to the princely states disappeared from the Indian federal structure.


In this paper this researcher has tried to define the meaning of the term "federalism" through the definitions given by several eminent authors and scholars over a span of several decades. From several of those definitions it could be found that authors primarily concentrate upon the vertical distribution of power and not the horizontal distribution of power between the units of a federation and also the constitution of such units although the units happen to be one of the most important ingredients without which a federal system of governance cannot exist.

Thereafter the researcher has examined the Indian system of federalism which is asymmetrical in nature and has given a historical account of the evolution of such a system in brief. In conclusion it can be said that federalism has several faces, and different countries have applied the concept of federalism in several different ways.

According to reports, 40 percent of the world's population happens to be under federal governments and it happens to be, by far, the strongest form of governance till date and no other form of government comes even close, therefore the lack of a definite definition must not be regretted because all attempts to define the vast concept within four corners would only jeopardize the versatility of the concept of federalism and constrict it within a suffocating water-tight chamber with no room to grow.

Therefore, the aim must be to always implement the concept with utmost innovativeness and efficacy and the result would always undoubtedly be a strong nation.