Cooperative Federalism

Although the Constitution of India has nowhere used the term ‘federal’, it has provided for a structure of governance which is essentially federal in nature. First of all, Constitution has provided separate governments at the Union and the States with separate legislative, executive and judicial wings of governance. Secondly, Constitution has clearly demarcated the jurisdictions, powers and functions of the Union and the State Governments. Third, Constitution has spelt out in detail the legislative, administrative and financial relations between the Union and the States.

Within this basic framework of federalism, the Constitution has given overriding powers to the Central government. States must exercise their executive power in compliance with the laws made by the Central government and must not impede on the executive power of the Union within the States. Governors are appointed by the Central government to oversee the States. The Centre can even take over the executive of the States on the issues of national security or breakdown of constitutional machinery of the State.

Considering the overriding powers given to the Central government, Indian federation has often been described as ‘quasi-federation’, ‘semi-federation’, ‘pragmatic federation’ or a ‘federation with strong unitary features’.

Indian federation should be seen in the context of its democratic system of governance at the national, state and local levels and the pluralities of its culture in terms of ethnic, linguistic, religious and other diversities which cut through the States. India is the largest democratic country as also the largest federal and the largest pluralist country of the world. While democracy provides freedom to everybody, federation ensures that governance is distributed spatially and a strong central government enables that the ‘unity amidst diversity’ is maintained and the country mobilizes all its resources to maintain its harmony and integrity and marches ahead to progress.

A strong Centre in India is therefore necessary for strong States and vice versa. This is the essence of cooperative federalism. So long as the central and governments were ruled by the same political party, the cooperative framework worked very well. Since the seventies when different political parties are in power in the centre and the states and more recently when coalition governments of national and regional parties are in power in the Centre, there are signs of stresses and tensions in intergovernmental relations between the Centre and the States.

Article 263 of the Constitution has provided for the setting up of an Inter-State Council for investigation, discussion and recommendation for better coordination of relation between the Centre and the States. The Zonal Councils set up under the State Reorganization Act 1956 provide another institutional mechanism for centre- state and inter-state cooperation to resolve the differences and strengthen the framework of cooperation. The National Development Council and the National Integration Council are the two other important forums that provide opportunities for discussion to resolve differences of opinion. Central councils have been set up by various ministries to strengthen cooperation. Besides Chief Ministers, Finance and other Ministers have their annual conferences in addition to the regular meetings and discussions of the officials of the Centre and the States to share mutual concerns on various issues.

One of the challenges of Indian federation would be how best these mechanisms of cooperative federalism can be strengthened further to promote better coordination and cooperation between the Centre and the States.