Nature of Federal Structure in India


Johannes Althusius, a German political theorist also known as “father of modern federalism”. The concept gained momentum and came to its true usage when the states in USA came together to form a federation and call themselves as United States of America. The term has travelled through many concepts and finally attained its political status as a system of government where shared powers are shared are not concentrated in a particular organ of the government. With the inception of democracy, adopting a federal system of government was wise in the light of diversity that India had and continues to have it. However, the system has been adopted as per the condition and status of India. the concept has been utilised and continues to be used in a sense and manner which benefits the citizens of the society and also preserves its true essence in the practice. “Federalism is a complex government mechanism. It evolved to bind several autonomous, distinct, separate and disparate political entities or administrative unit.”[1] It aims to bring about balance between centre having vested in it and organs exercising it and imparting validity from it.

Historical Background

The father of the modern federalism who gave it a political face firstly believed it in a old manner but he Althusius himself was careful to acknowledge, the first grand federalist design was that of the Bible, most particularly the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament.[2] He believed it to be an ideal system and believed that the system would be righteous in its implication and usage in its administration. The concept however had to be used in a more pragmatic manner that would be applicable in the modern times. The system that we call as a federal system of government today is rooted in the struggle of the Americans states that were British colonies once. When the oppression grew day by day, the thirteen colonies decided to come together and form a federation. But these thirteen states differed from each other from geographical composition to shared culture and history. Each state had a different economical background but all of them wanted power and wanted to become independent which could not have come easily without paying a hefty price in order to carry a nice face on the world platform. So, they agreed to come and validate the Articles of Confederation which was framed by Benjamin Franklin. After the end of the war there was again turmoil in the confederation and also struggle of power in order to prove and establish supremacy. After a long discussion and negations, in May 25, 1787, the states decided to co-exist as federations and agreed to be governed under a federal system of government. Later in September 17, 1787 a new Constitution of the United States of America came into existence with improved policies which would further require approval of delegates and finally come into full-fledged force.

Features of a federal state

A state is called or said to follow a federal system of government if it has following system of governance.

  1. Written Constitution: A state having a federal system have a written and a codified constitution.
  2. Rigid Constitution: a federal system has a rigid constitution without any provision for amendments. The constitution is the supreme document in a federal system.
  3. Dual system of government: in a federal government, the government has two tier system in the form of a central government which takes care of all central union matters and the other is state government which is responsible for all the endeavours of the state. These governments have the power to make laws according to the powers vested within them.
  4. Dual Citizenship: a federal system of government has a dual system of government i.e. a citizen can have citizenship of his/her own country and of another country as well.
  5. Decentralisation of power: a federal system of government believes in separation of power and does not support centralisation or concentration of power in any one organ of the government.
  6. Independence of Judiciary: in a federal system of government, the judiciary is independent and serves the very purpose for which it has been established without any prejudices.
  7. Bicameral Legislation: the federal system has two house Rajya Sabha or upper house and Lok Sabha or lower house which is responsible for making laws.

Indian federal features

  1. India calls itself as ‘Union of States’ and not federation as mentioned in Article 1 of Indian Constitution.
  2. India has a bicameral system of legislation and comprises of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha which along with President forms the Parliament, the law-making body of the country.
  3. India has an independent judiciary.
  4. There is decentralisation of power in India. the topics on which laws can be made or are to be made are mentioned in the lists which is given in Article 246 of Indian Constitution which divides the topics into three lists namely state list, union list and concurrent list and the authorises the respective governments to make laws.

India has a system of checks and balance which ensures that no organ interferes with the working of other organ.

  1. India has a written constitution and the document is supreme.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, member of the constituent assembly and chairman of drafting committee said that the basic principle of federation is that the legislative and executive authority is partioned between the centre and the states not by any law to be made by the centre but itself. This is the principle embodied in constitution, there can be no mistake about it. Even having said this and having these features of federalism, India shifts from time to time and exercises sone unitary features too.

Untie features of federalism

  1. Negating the feature of dual system provided by federal system, India has a system of single citizenship as illustrated in Article 5 of the Indian Constitution.
  2. Unlike federalism, India is a mixture of rigid and flexible in the process of amendments. Article 368 allows to amend the constitution as per the needs of the changing society. This has been seen in various instances like the alteration of states or increasing or reducing the boundaries of the state or making a new state as per the provision provided in the Article 3 of the Indian Constitution. Recently, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, became Union territories because of the provision provided in Article 368. This is an untie feature of federalism.
  3. While in situation of war or any other situation where president deems fit to call an emergency situation, the emergency provisions can be invoked. A very recent incident wherein Presidential rule was imposed invoking ‘national emergency’ in Maharashtra shows unitary nature of India.
  4. Instead of having a two-tier system of government, India has a three tier of government. By the 73rd and 74th amendment the third-tier i.e. the municipalities and gram panchayats came into force being mentioned in the XII schedule of the constitution.
  5. By the virtue of article 249, parliament has the power to make laws on any matter which it deems fit even if it pertains to the national interest. If the interests collide or overlap between the state and the centre, the law made by the union prevails as provided in article 246 of the Indian constitution.
  6. Though the judiciary is independent, but it is integrated at the state and centre. Also, there is a single hierarchy of courts having the doctrine of stare decisis operational.
  7. Showing another feature is in the appointment of the governors which is done by the President and not the states. The governor is appointed by President as provided in Article 155 of Indian constitution.
  8. by the virtue of Article 253, any treaty signed by India has to be implemented by states in their functioning and it is binding to be implemented.

These features show the unitary features of India, thus becoming partially unitary in nature. This shifts India from being a complete federal system and hence is also called as “quasi-federal” system of government.

Relevant Cases

in Shamsheer v. State of Punjab, the court described India as an Indo- Anglian version of Westminster model of quasi-federal adaptation.[3]

In yet another case of Union of India v. Sankalchand Sheth[4], India was described as quasi-federal government system. In yet another case of State of Bengal v. Union of India,[5] the apex court said that constitution did not any form put forth India being an absolute federal structure. In Pradeep Jain v. Union of India, the apex court expressed a non-traditionalistic yet pragmatic opinion while explaining the federal concept in the context of the specified legal system in India. India is not a federal state in traditional sense of that term. It is not a compact of sovereign state which have come together to form a federation ceding undoubtedly federal features.[6]


India being a diverse country needs different mechanisms to run the country. The amalgamation of both federal and unitary increases the efficiency of the government and also succeeds to keep the purpose of its inception. The quasi-federal nature of the Indian system of governance ensures its efficient working with peace and serenity.


[1] 1 M.P.Jain, Constitution Law 500 (7th ed).


[3] (1974) 2 SCC 831

[4] (1977) 4 SCC 193

[5] 1964 SCR (1) 371

[6] (1980) 2 SCR 831

Author: Ritisha Choudhary,
University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradunq

Leave a Comment