How has Indian Federalism Done?

Date01 June 2013
Published date01 June 2013
Subject MatterArticle
Military-Madrasa-Mullah Complex 43
India Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010): 133–149
A Global Threat 43
Ashutosh Varshney is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Department of
Political Science and Watson Institute of International Studies, Brown University, Providence, USA.
How has Indian Federalism Done?
Ashutosh Varshney
Two tropes have dominated discussions of Indian federalism: fiscal and constitutional. Isolated
exceptions aside, scholars have not linked India’s federalism to comparative theories of nationalism,
or to a comparative exploration of national identities. To examine how India’s federalism has done,
we may also need to ask what kind of nation India is. Once we answer that question, the oft-assumed
binary—that the stronger the states are, the weaker the centre will be–loses its edge. Both can be
simultaneously strong. The new exception may be the problem of cross-border terrorism, which indeed
generates a binary for the new age. Secessionism also creates centre–state binaries, but that may be
more on account of how the basic ideational principles of Indian nationhood have been violated, not
followed, or about how far the historical process of nation-building penetrated the rebellious regions.
Such problems have not been about the basic flaws of Indian federalism.
State–nation, nation–state, multicultural nation, linguistic states, cross-cutting identities, cross-border
This article departs from the conventional work on India’s federalism1. Most traditional scholarship
took two forms. The focus was either on what is called fiscal federalism, or on strictly constitutional
matters. The literature on fiscal federalism revolved around resource transfers from the centre to the
states: its logic, equity and quantum. The constitutional scholarship basically laid out the division of
powers between the central and state governments, and debated whether India was a ‘centralized
federation’, a ‘quasi federation’, a system more unitary than federal, etc.
While not denying that the question of resource transfers or constitutional division of powers is
important, this article focuses primarily on the politics of centre–state relations. This is so for some obvi-
ous reasons. The pattern of resource transfers is embedded in the political currents of the time. So is the
question of how to interpret and, more importantly, apply the various constitutional clauses.
These claims can be easily demonstrated. Everyone, for example, acknowledges that the power of
states has been rising in the coalitional era of Indian politics that began in 1989. As a result, it should not
be surprising that the use of Article 356 of India’s constitution, used repeatedly by Delhi to dismiss state
governments in the 1970s and 1980s, has dramatically declined over the last decade and a half. Article
Studies in Indian Politics
1(1) 43–63
© 2013 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2321023013482787
44 Ashutosh Varshney
Studies in Indian Politics, 1, 1 (2013): 43–63
356 still exists in the constitution, but political realities are such that Delhi can use it to suspend state
governments only at its own peril.
While the coalitional era does make the country more federal, India remains highly Delhi-centric.
Most of all, Delhi continues to have remarkable control of public resources. Delhi can sometimes indeed
be helpless—and a contemporary version of that helplessness, counter-terrorism, will be explored in this
article—but on the whole, even in the coalitional era, Delhi’s powers are enormous.
Does this mean that of late, both states and Delhi have been simultaneously strong? To answer this
question, we need an understanding of the deeper dynamics of Indian nationhood. We cannot fully com-
prehend the logic of India’s centre–state relations unless we begin with a discussion of what kind of
nation India is. Is India, like France, a nation-state? Is it like the U.S. a multicultural state? Or is there
another conceptual category that is better? And what are the implications of Indian nationhood, however
one may characterize it, for its centre–state relations?
The article makes a contribution to the literature by linking theories of nationalism with Indian feder-
alism. This has not been done systematically. Some recent variants of scholarship on Indian federalism
are indeed explicitly political, not simply constitutional or fiscal, and have greatly advanced our under-
standing (Nooruddin and Chhibber, 2008; Sridharan, 1999; Stepan, Linz and Yadav, 2011; Tillin, 2007;
Yadav and Palshikar, 2003, 2009a and 2009b). But the marriage of the two literatures—nationalism and
Indian federalism—has not been fully attempted.2
In what follows, I begin with a conceptual discussion of how to think about the relationship
between federalism and Indian nationhood. Having clarified conceptual matters, the second section
will deal with the constitutional clauses pertaining to centre–state relations. The third section will then
present an overview of the vast literature on the fiscal dimensions of federalism. The fourth section will
concentrate on the reasons underlying the successes and failures of Indian federalism. The fifth section
will turn its gaze towards a contemporary topic, terrorism. It will be argued that India’s existing federal
structure is in considerable tension the requirements of national security in an age of terrorism. The sixth
section will summarize with conclusions.
A Conceptual Framework
What Kind of Federation? What Kind of Nation?
A fundamental political question has been at the heart of India’s freedom movement and post-
independence nation building: how should democracy and ethnic diversity be combined? For centre–
state relations per se, this question takes a specific form: how should democracy and geographically
concentrated ethnic diversities be brought together? Federalism, after all, is never non-territorial.3
Federal units are always territorially organized.
India’s social diversities have basically taken four forms: caste, religion, language and tribe. Of these,
language and tribe are territorially concentrated. Castes have always been, and continue to be, highly
dispersed. Brahmins are to be found everywhere, so are the lower castes or Dalits. Because they are
geographically concentrated, language and tribe became the mainstay of Indian federalism.
Before 1947, it was also claimed that Muslims were heavily geographically concentrated. Whatever
one thinks about that claim, the formation of Pakistan broke the link between territory and religion. The

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