(Sample Material) IAS PRE GS Online Coaching : Polity - "Federal System & Centre-State"

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Subject: Polity

Topic: Federal System & Centre-State

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On the basis of distribution of power, Governments can be classified into three types

  • Unitary
  • Federal and
  • Confederal

Unitary system

In a unitary government, the central government possesses preponderant authority and decision-making power. Provincial governments are the administrative arms of the central government. They do not have any constitutionally conferred powers. The powers enjoyed by them are devolved’ to them by the unitary government at its will and these powers are subject to withdrawal- partly or wholly.  In fact, the provinces can be abolished altogether. Examples, Britain, France and China.


Federation is a system of constitutional governance brought about by the voluntary agreement among states that, join together into a new federal union in which power is divided between the Union Government at the centre (federal government) and states (provinces). A written Constitution divides powers. Thus, there is a dual government with their respective jurisdictions. In case of a conflict, there is an independent judiciary to resolve the differences. Examples, India, USA, Canada, Australia, Belgium and Switzerland.

Federal system is adopted so that states can flourish with autonomy and their security is assured by the central government.

When independent states ‘come together’ voluntarily to form a larger nation where they retain their cultural identity and Constitutional powers of legislation and administration while having their security ensured by a central government, it is called ‘coming together’ type of federation. For example, the USA in this case, constituent units tend to enjoy more powers than the federal government.

When a large country decides to establish provincial governments with which it is willing to share Constitutional powers in a written manner so that the Country can hold together’, it is called ‘holding together’ federation. For example, India in this case, states are not given co-equal powers on par with the federal government.


They are nations where the provinces have maximum autonomy so much so that they can become members of international organizations, have flag and may even secede.

Motives of federating units

There is a range of expectations on the part of the federating units to come together.

The political motives are

  • security from external and internal threat
  • additional central assistance when required
  • political stability while keeping a separate cultural and ethnic identity

In the economic sphere the federating state can expect

  • access to a larger national market
  • financial assistance from federal government
  • transfer of resources from other states in case of underdeveloped states etc.

While the core of federalism is seen in the Indian polity, there are some unfederal  features.

The Case of India

In India, holding together federation formed differently from the American experience of coming together. ‘Holding together’ federations as in India is a framework that is adopted for the sake of unity of the country and national integration. It is a response to a specific historic situation. Constituent Assembly prescribed federalist model so that the country can be held together’ in the face of the challenges in the form of centrifugal forces; rapid and balanced development; reorganization of states etc. Therefore, compared to ‘coming together’ federation like the USA, Indian federation does not confer high level autonomy on the states.

States did not bargain and create a federation as in the USA. There were only three states at the time of Independence and the others were created according to the Constitutional provisions.

India is essentially a federation though in our case the provinces did not join together voluntarily. Federalism is a prescription for our multi-diverse country to pure pluralist polity.

While the core of federalism is seen in the Indian polity, there are some features that are unfederal or unitary , which are seen to be necessary for national security, integration and development, particularly in the light of the experience of partition. They are:

  • States can be created and abolished without their consent
  • Strong Centre
  • Single Constitution
  • Flexibility of Constitution in amendment
  • No equality of state representation in Rajya Sabha
  • Emergency Provisions
  • Single Citizenship
  • All India Services
  • Parliament’s authority over state list
  • More number & more important subjects in union list
  • Appointment & Removal of Governor
  • President’s veto over state bills
  • Residuary powers are with the Union parliament
  • There is no dual citizenship- of province (state) and the country unlike in the USA
  • There is a unified system of audit which is under Union control
  • Unified and hierarchical judiciary
  • Elections are held for assemble under the authority of the Election Commission that is appointed by the Union Government

Federal Features of the Constitution

  1. Dual polity i.e. centre & state
  2. Written Constitution
  3. Division of power in 3 lists
  4. Supremacy of the Constitution
  5. Rigid Constitution
  6. Independent Judiciary
  7. Bicameralism i.e. two houses in the parliament

However, all the basic features of federalism are found in the Indian Constitution Since there are strong unitary features as well, it is called quasi-federation. It must be clarified that the fact that in Art. 1 of the Constitution India is described as a Union of States’ only stresses the unity among the provinces and not have any unitary implications for our polity. Dr. Ambedkar explained that the expression India is a Union of states’ in Art. 1 is chosen to mean that we are a union at the time of Independence and that it is not a result of the voluntary Coming together of the provinces.

No particular significance need be attached to word ‘Union’, since it is used in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, which is a federation. During the Constituent Assembly discussions, BR. Ambedkar mentioned the above examples and stated that ‘the description of India as a Union of States, though its Constitution is federal, does no violence to usage’.
There is no model federal State. One can only determine whether a constitution is basically federal or unitary. The Indian Constitution is basically federal, but with strong unitary features. Therefore it is described as ‘quasi-federal’ ‘unitary with subsidiary federal features’, ‘a federation with a strong centralizing tendency’, etc.

The Constitution framers opted for a mix of strong Central control with adequate provincial autonomy in their concern for the unity and integrity of the country in the face of partition of the country, a strong centre was preferred. Strong centre is found to the necessary to coordinate policy and action among the federal units. At the same time, there is enough scope for autonomy of States in the Indian Constitution.

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