Government For Dummies: Federalism
Let's Make Sense of The Indian System of Government
A federalist government can be imagined like the holiest of human inventions – a cake. Consider a three tiered cake – the topmost layer, the most appealing, may be the smallest, but it is usually covered with the most beautiful, delicious toppings. This is much like the Central Government.
The second layer – the intermediary, the middle layer – consisting of the state governments in our analogy – would be the part that provides structural integrity and holds the other two pieces together.
And finally comes the third layer – the panchayats, the townships, the base of the nation - the layer that is accessible to all, moist and giving, and the fragmented foundation to the behemoth that is the entire cake, or, in our example, this diverse, pluralistic, needy, new born country.
To understand how federalism rules a country, let us take the above analogy a step further – how is a multi-layered cake baked? Not as one single entity or piece, but as fragments, to be put together on completion. Now let us consider the Indian context: A federalist country; where the Constitution was drafted by the Drafting Committee chaired by Dr. Ambedkar. The nation was fresh from the freedom struggle; and riding high on the wave of infinite possibility and idealism, India went full steam ahead with the model of a federal system of governance.
What are the features of federalism?
It is a system of governance that has two or more levels of government, each level having distinct powers. It is also a system that works to bring together contradictions within a nation as large and diverse as ours.
Federalism aims to safeguard the minority within each State along with the majority view that prevails in a nation; it seeks to accommodate regional diversity, and to have a strong ruling hand over areas that could be turned into factions. It is about setting forth a strong, centralised system of unity, through the division of powers between the Union and the State. Each of the states is a discrete body, all subordinate to the Union government. This system is the reason there exists cohesion between the levels of government.
In the Indian scenario, we are a federal country by virtue of the Constitution declaring this to be a Union of States. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land – the consent of all levels of government need to be put through to make a constitutional amendment; the constitution grants jurisdiction to the courts, allowing them to look at issues; and guarantees authority to the executive, allowing administration. Part XI of the Constitution refers to the power relationship between the Centre and the States. Within Part XI are the Union, State, and Concurrent Lists. Distribution of powers is not uniform throughout the states, but powers are expressly divided in the above mentioned lists.
The Union List refers to situations when parliament has exclusive power to legislate. This encompasses defence, armed forces, atomic energy, war and peace, citizenship, banking, organisation of the Supreme Court and the High Courts, and so on. A total of ninety nine items are present in this list.
Next we have the State List, where uniformity falters. It deals with more localised issues, such as maintaining law and order, police forces, healthcare, transport, etc.
Finally, we have the concurrent list, containing items like Marriage and Divorce, transfer of property, insolvency, civil procedure, and other relatively minor dealings of the law. Laws under the concurrent list can be framed by both the Central and State governments, on a case by case basis. If a power does not come under any of the above lists, it is considered to be a residuary power, where the union government alone has the jurisdiction to legislate.
The effect of all of this is this: The central government may not undermine the powers of the state, nor may it dismiss them. The states together, stand alone, under the umbrella of the Union.