Reflections on the ‘quasi-federal’ democracy [GS II]

Reflections on the ‘quasi-federal’ democracy [GS II]

CONTEXT: Events coinciding with the jubilee of India’s Independence draw attention to the federal structure of India’s Constitution,

INDIA:- which is a democratic country, where the constituent units of the sovereign state are based on language, against caste, tribe or religion etc. This structural potential for conflict needs some innovative federal craftsmanship and sensitive political management.

 The Indian Constitution keep its wide-ranging diversity within its sovereign boundries. With universal adult franchise and free and intgrated judicial system and governance, it is generally very difficult to polarise its wide-ranging diversity within any single divisive identity, even Hindutva; so that, Inspite of its operational flaws, the democratic structure and national integrity are interlinked.

 But its operational fault lines are increasingly diminishing the institutions, undermining the federal democratic structure as recent events have underscored.


  1. The uncontrollable Parliamentary sessions, where the Rajya Sabha Chairperson broke down (in August 2021), and was unable to conduct proceedings despite having marshals. 

Even after all this, the House passed a record number of Bills midway through a number of adjournments. It is quite strange but has become like a new normal.

  1. Cross-border police firing by one State against other, causing casualties, resulting in revengeful action in the form of a ban on goods trade and travel links with its land-locked neighbour.

The Union Law Minister (while in Opposition) said that Legislative disruptions are ‘legitimate democratic right, and duty’, justifying the current debate and discussion.

Legislative scenes in 1960’s-

  • Posters with labels such as ‘CIA Agent’, displayed during debates 

  • ‘Suitcases’ were transferred publicly in order to save the ruling Government

  • Honorable Members emerged from debates with injuries, on some occasions.

Legislative scenes in current scenarios:-

  • In the federal chamber, Honorable Members and Marshals are in physical contact both claiming injuries.

  • Official papers vandalised 

  • Chairpersons immobilised

  • Assuming new dimensions in Inter-State conflict

Key changes-

Rajni Kothari’s description of the single party dominance model with respect to the “Congress system” is now replaced by the BJP.

  •  Myrdall’s “soft state” is reincarnated in forged videos and new instruments of mass obstruction and enforcement.

  •  Functioning anarchy of Galbraith , now has greater criminalisation in India’s democracy, [over 30% legislators with criminal records].

  • It is now more anarchic, but still functioning, bypassing any “Dangerous Decade” or a “1984”.

  • Federal theorist K.C. Wheare analyses India as quasi-federal. WHEARE argues saying that Indian federalism, to be democratically federal, needs Institutional amendment even after being a “basic structure”. 

 Like popular voting behaviour, institutional preferences are based either on ethnic or kinship network, or like anti-incumbency, as the perceived lesser evil, on individual role-models:

  •  T.N. Seshan with respect to the Election Commission of India

  •  J.F. Ribeiro for the police 

  • Justices Chandrachud or Nariman for the judiciary.


India’s federal structure, is strengthened on the colonial ‘1935 Act’,which has :-

  •  Provincial Autonomy

  •  Attempted to democratise it by: renaming “Provinces” to autonomous “States” 

  • Transferring “Reserved Powers” to popular governance

  • Constitutionally dividing powers between the two tiers

  • Inserting federalism in the Preamble 

  • Inserting Part 3 and 4 containing citizens’ “Fundamental Rights” and “Directive Principles of State Policy” 

  • It is silent about States’ rights and their territorial boundaries 

The Indian Constitution has been amended 105 times in 70 years as compared to 27 times in over 250 years in the United States.

With ‘nation-building’ as priority, the constitutional division of power and resources remains heavily inclined in favour of the Centre, it compromises on the basic federal principle of equality among them, operationally reinforced by extra-constitutional accretion. 

Vacancies in judicial appointments are still continuing(approx 41% lying vacant), judicial promotion and transfers becoming a central prerogative. 

Indian federalism needs institutional amendment to be democratically federal.

Structural conflicts-

  • All India Services, including the State cadres.

  • The role of Governors: appointed by the Centre, a political patronage.

Thus, most of India’s federal conflicts are structural, reinforced by operational abuses.

Yet, there is no federal chamber to politically resolve such conflicts. The Rajya Sabha indirectly represents the States whose legislators elect it; this House is a major source of political and financial patronage for all political parties, at the cost of the people of the State they “represent”.

The Rajya Sabha is not empowered to neutralise the demographic weight of the populous States with larger representation in the popular chamber; it cannot veto its legislations, unlike the U.S. Senate. It can only delay, which explains the disruptions. 

Joint sessions of LOK SABHA and RAJYA SABHA do not appear as successful as expected. 


India’s federal structure is described in different ways like quasi Federal, with central tendency, sui Generis among others. Reinforcing conflicts and violence, in the democratic process. India needs to arrive at a solution where Democratic Process should be restored with the participation of opposition also in the process. Otherwise it will be a threat to national security.

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