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Cooperative Federalism in India

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  • Published
    24th Aug, 2016

The Federal character of the Indian Constitution is one of its salient features, however the term ‘Federation’ has nowhere been used in the Constitution.

Constitution has provided for a structure of governance which is essentially federal in nature

It contains all the usual features of a federation, i.e. two government, division of powers, written Constitution, supremacy of Constitution, rigidity of Constitution, independent judiciary and bicameralism. However, the Indian Constitution also contains a large number of unitary or non-federal features, i.e. a strong Centre, single Constitution, single citizenship, flexibility of Constitution, integrated judiciary, appointment of state governor by the Centre, all-India services, emergency provisions, and so on.

Article 1, on the other hand, describes India as a ‘Union of States’ which implies two things: one, Indian Federation is not the result of an agreement by the states; and two, no state has the right to secede from the federation. Hence, the Indian Constitution has been variously described as ‘federal in form but unitary in spirit’.

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. 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'.

Federalism with the cultural and ethnic pluralism has given the country’s political system great flexibility, and therefore the capacity to withstand stress through accommodation. However, continuation of the same requires not simply federalism, but cooperative and constructive federalism.

A strong Centre is necessary for strong States and vice versa is the essence of cooperative federalism 

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. It is through Federation that the country mobilizes all its resources to maintain its harmony and integrity and marches ahead to progress.

Development of Cooperative Federalism Post Independence

The changing dynamics and the varied experiences that the Indian State has had like one party rule, the rise of regional parties, the formation of coalition Governments, active role of the Judiciary, have shaped the trajectory of federalism by swinging the pendulum from cooperative to confrontationist and vice versa.

It has been a trend in Indian political history that so long as the central and state governments were ruled by the same political party, the cooperative framework worked very well. But when different political parties are in power in the centre and the states and more recently when coalition governments are in power there are signs of stresses and tensions in intergovernmental relations between the Centre and the States.

Trend so far:

Cooperative in the 50s and 60s- First fifteen years after independence were marked by a democratically elected regime with a comfortable majority coupled with idealism and freshness of hope having just gained independence.

Confrontationist From 1960s To 1980s - The supremacy of the Centre broke the power of States and established a new balance or rather, imbalance between the Centre and the States. 

Cooperative in the 90s – the decade was marked by regime of coalition government of national and regional parties at the centre which were cooperative in nature  

Cooperative, Concomitant, Negotiatory and Opportunistic In the last decade - The current trends emphasize cooperation and coordination, rather than demarcation of powers between different levels of government. The basic theme today is interdependence.

Emerging Challenges for 21st Century Federalism

The new challenges facing 21st Century federalism have further necessitated the pre existing need for cooperative federalism, thereby making its practice as a form of governance all the more indispensable. 

• Multi Party System 

The states today have acquired sufficient political weight of their own through a pluralised party system enabling individual states to embark onto bilateral negotiations with the union bypassing the institutionalised bodies of collective policy framing that have proved to be ineffective, thus lending a negotiator character to our federalism.

 International Treaties 

India is making strides in the global sphere and the local governments that promote shared partnership in development have come to be noticed today. Hence, whenever development programs or any other interests of states are touched by international agreements, the well conceived demands of states should be met in order to promote truly cooperative, coordinative and multi dimensional centre state relations. 

• Environmental factors

Environmental Challenges of global nature like climate change do not recognise state frontiers. Pollution and conservation issues reflect the uncomfortable tension between decision making process of the governments at the centre-state –local levels. Disaster Management transcends inter-state boundaries too.

• Terrorism

Terrorism, militancy, organised crimes, problem of internally displaced persons, refugees – all these require that the country as a whole comes together and the institutional bodies under state governments help the centre by collectively making available the necessary information and resources.

• Voice of Separatism

The increasing voices of autonomy and separatism have vitiated the political and social fabric of the federal structure. States are increasingly harbouring feelings of deprivation and alienation and have begun viewing all problems from a narrow parochial outlook. This not only weakens the nation but also makes the land fertile for the growth of terrorism and insurgency.

• Globalisation 

Globalisation has reinforced the need for concurrence between the geographical, climatic, environmental and technological diversities inter as well as intra states so that they may link with global processes for viable and sustainable development and growth. The experiences felt at the global level are also being felt at the local level.


The relation between the centre, the states and the local tiers lies at the heart of India’s sense of nationhood and is the pre requisite for India’s progress. However, every centre-state and inter-state relation has a political dispute at its heart.  Such a dispute slowly ripens into an economic one and leads to underdevelopment, poverty and birth of negative forces.  Unless political disputes and   stagnation in the economic field is not addressed, integration and solidarity in the federal set up will not be complete. Both Centre and State governments must attend to the task of preserving our nationhood through constructive cooperative federalism which requires a great deal of commitment.

The need to come together today is not only the consequence of the new challenges facing the nation but that the same will serve as an antidote to prevent such challenges from recurring in future. Cooperative federalism alone strengthens the nation from within by enabling it to withstand adversities and challenges because of its inherent resilience and malleability.




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