Beyond Quasi Federalism: Change and Continuity in Indian Federalism

Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
AuthorK. K. Kailash,Balveer Arora
Subject MatterTeaching-Learning Politics in India
10INP797560_F.indd Teaching–Learning Politics in India
Beyond Quasi Federalism: Change
Studies in Indian Politics
6(2) 297–302
and Continuity in Indian Federalism
© 2018 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023018797560
Balveer Arora1
K. K. Kailash2

Despite the centrality of the federal idea to both the organization and the conduct of Indian politics, it is
surprising how poorly informed most public discussions in India are about federalism. At one end,
we have a farcical denial of the federal character of India, because of the choice of the word union,
ignoring the fact that federations are nothing else than unions of states. At the other end, we have political
debates which increasingly swear by federalism, in its different shades—cooperative, competitive and
even collaborative. We therefore ask ourselves, why is it that the public imagination of what federalism
is, what purposes it serves and how it works is so far removed from the academic and scholarly discussions
on the theme? And if we were to try to bridge these two worlds, where do we begin?
The answer we believe lies in an innocuous but ubiquitous phrase ‘India is a quasi-federal country’.
There is probably no other phrase that has dotted countless undergraduate and even master’s degree
examination answer scripts year after year when asked to write on centre–state relations in India. In most
undergraduate textbooks, quasi-federal is the only link the topic of federalism has with the scholarly
world. We believe that if quasi-federal is the dominant idea that students take away from their courses on
India’s political institutions, then the understanding deficit that echoes in public discussions, media
commentaries, public speeches and policy documents is only to be expected.
This quasi-federal fixation reflects the inadequate comprehension that prevails about the vast changes
in the practice, processes and working of Indian federalism since the inauguration of the polity, when the
phrase was first enunciated. It appears that many of our venerable textbooks and commentators are
locked in a time warp, as our perception of federalism continues to be framed by an understanding of our
federal institutions that has long given way to new realities. This further means that the variety of new
ideas, perspectives and approaches in the realm of federal studies available in research monographs and
peer-reviewed journals have not made their way into the classroom. The fact that public discussion
continues to be framed in traditional juristic and constitutional terms, ignorant of the vast corpus of work
about the theory and the practice of Indian federalism, is a reflection on a singular loss in transmission
from scholarship to teaching.
Note: This section is coordinated by Rajeshwari Deshpande (
1 Professor Emeritus and Chairman, Centre for Multilevel Federalism, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, India.
2 Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, Telangana, India.
Corresponding author:
K. K. Kailash, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad 500046,
Telangana, India.


Studies in Indian Politics 6(2)
K. C. Wheare cannot be blamed for this state of affairs as the problem lies in what we have sought to
appropriate and retain from his work. Wheare’s magisterial Federal Government, first published in 1946,
has many features worthy of emulation, including its comparative lens, its cogent analysis and a remark-
able clarity of explanation. The implicit assumption in his work is that there is an ideal type of federalism
which is modelled on the structure and practice found in the United States. Writing in the dominant
formal–legal tradition of his time, he compared and contrasted the features of other countries where there
was a division of power between different levels of government with those of the United States, to not
only define and refine his ‘federal principle’ but also to certify other countries as federal or quasi-federal
(Wheare, 1963). In fact, had Wheare lived to see the development of the federal system over the last five
decades, it is doubtful that he would have stuck to his initial assessment. Repeating his description
unthinkingly today is doing a grave injustice to his scholarship, which was not static but was remarkable
for its dynamic...

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