One Party System and its Impact on Federalism in India

    Federalism represents one of the most important features of the Indian Constitution and political system. Indeed, federalism is a part of the basic structure¹ of the Constitution. Although the extent to which India can be considered a federal nation is contested², this does not take away from the fact that the Constitutional scheme dictates a division of power between the Centre and the States.

    Introduction

    However, India’s model of “centralized federalism” has come under the scanner for a long time and now, its efficacy has been questioned. Centralization has led to the Central Government acquiring a huge amount of power and leaving State Governments dissatisfied. However, despite the fact that federalism in India is not as rigid as that in the United States, there is still some separation of powers and the States do have power on certain issues.

    However, this paradigm is further challenged by a common occurrence in Indian democracies: when the same party is in power at both the national and the state levels. This is not just a historical analysis of, for example, the time the Congress dominated both levels of government, but also of the present day, when the BJP is beginning to come into power in many states.

    Such a situation has real-world consequences, especially on the functioning of federalism. This article will try to understand the impacts of one-party rule at all levels on federalism. Before proceeding into this, the article will study the constitutional breakdown of federal powers.

    Federalism In The Constitution

    Part XI of the Indian Constitution deals with the “Relations between the Union and the States”. Article 246 states the powers to enact laws: the Parliament can enact laws on any subject in the Union or Concurrent List, while the State Legislatures can do so for all subjects in the State or Concurrent List. However, if there is a clash between the Centre and the State on any law on a subject in the Concurrent List, the Central law will prevail.³ Further, Parliament has the power to legislate on subjects on the State List in “national interest”.⁴

    Parliament also has the power to make laws on residuary subjects not mentioned in either list.⁵ Additionally, Article 250 states that Parliament can legislate on any subject on the State List in the period of a state emergency. 

    Chapter II of Part XI deals with Administrative Relations. Like the remainder of Part XI, this Chapter has a clear bias in favour of the Centre. According to Article 256, the State needs to ensure that it executes all laws passed by Parliament. Article 257 allows the national executive to grant directions to the state executives as and when it deems ‘necessary’. The remainder of the Part contains provisions to deal with inter-state water disputes, which are notoriously violent at times.

    This clearly demonstrates the odd constitutional structure of India, something that will be elucidated in the next section.

    India’s Peculiar Federalism

    India has a model of “centralized federalism” that is qualitatively different from the state-centric federalism that is found in nations like the United States. This system has been referred to as ‘quasi-federal’.⁶ However, this is not the only consideration with respect to the Indian system.

    Soon after Independence, the Congress became the most powerful political party in the nation. It was the leading force during the freedom movement and enjoyed broad support all around the country. Therefore, it was no surprise when there was a Congress landslide, winning⁷ 364 of the 489 seats. For decades afterward, the Congress continued to have this sort of dominance.

    Rajni Kothari elaborately captures the system that existed⁸. He defines the system as a “one party dominance”. In such a system, there is a ‘party of consensus’ and a ‘party of pressure’. The party of consensus was the dominant force in the country, and the main opposition it faced was internal. In this particular case, the Congress leadership’s primary challenge was party cadre and leadership at a state level. The other opposition groups were simply to pressure the Central Government into ensuring it did not ignore public opinion.

    However, this model obviously did not last, as eventually regional parties grew significantly stronger and displaced the Congress from its uncontested prominence. However, such a model is still worth keeping in mind, considering the meteoric rise of the BJP in recent days, and the manner of its interaction with the rest of the political system.

    All in all, India’s federalism is not only unnaturally national-focussed, but also carries a peculiar political system. In this light, the next section will be briefly tracing the evolution of federalism in India.

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    Indian History Through The Lens Of Federalism

    From 1952 to 1967, the INC was the uncontested major party. This was for mainly two reasons: Nehru’s popular appeal and unique method of functioning, and the massive Congress supporter bases at the state level.⁹ These all eventually wore out though, especially after the internal power tussle that occurred with the coming of Indira Gandhi. However, in this period, since many of the States were also under the control of Congress, a lot of state-centre disputes were resolved internally.

    However, this period was not to last, as post-1967 many anti-Congress regional parties began to come into power. There was also the eventual Congress split. Although Indira Gandhi won a thumping victory in 1971 and the Congress never really lost its position at the national level all this time, the decline of the party was clear. Indira Gandhi replaced the Cabinet with loyalists, and access to top leadership was lost. Hence, no significant regional leaders had a chance of emerging. Furthermore, a crop of regional parties were emerging in several states. This led to a gradual decline of voter share of the Congress at a national level.¹º There was also a lot of conflict between the Centre (the Congress) and states ruled by non-Congress parties, where the Centre often invoked President’s Rule under Article 356 to dismiss these other governments. The Janata Party did much the same when it came to power at the national level. This continued till 1984, and was often marked by violent uprisings in many states against the Congress’ centralizing tendencies.

    This took some form of a change in 1984, when the now Rajiv Gandhi-led government tried to cooperate to some extent; but even this did not meet with much success. This took a sudden turn with the Congress’ huge loss in 1989. Even though the BJP was ascendant, it did not have enough power to take reins at a national level, and so a coalition of anti-Congress parties came into power. However, these were extremely unstable due to infighting and competing regional objectives. Stability was only restored when the National Democratic Alliance or the NDA and United Progressive Alliance or the UPA emerged near the turn of the century. This also portended the multiparty era, where there was cooperation at a multiparty level.

    All this changed in 2014, when the BJP won a massive victory and the NDA came into power. This foretold a return to the days of the “party of consensus”, as more than half of India’s states are also under the control of the BJP. Though the BJP speaks the language of ‘cooperative federalism’, there have been considerable complaints from non-BJP states. However, the BJP continues to face stiff resistance from states. The future, however, cannot be guessed, as many are predicting a victory in West Bengal for the BJP, a state it has never won before.

    Tensions In Federalism Due To Party Differences

    There have been several challenges with regards to federalism, both historically and contemporarily. Historically, most political differences have ended up with the dismissal of the regional government, especially before the fall of the Congress nationally and the landmark judgement of SR Bommai vs. Union of India¹¹. This undermined the spirit of federalism to a huge extent, as democratically elected regional governments were dismissed en masse.

    There are also contemporary issues. Two stand out in the current atmosphere. The first issue was the delay in payment of The Goods and Services Tax or the GST and of the implementation of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, 2003.¹² The background is as follows: The introduction of the GST involved the states ceding a large amount of its taxation power. In return, the Central Government had promised to make up the revenue shortfall for a period of five years, up till 2022. However, the Government was unable to do so, especially during the COVID-19 Crisis. As a result, the current outstanding payment amounts to Rupees 2.35 lakh crore. Of this amount, the Centre argues that only 97,000 cr rupees directly arises from the shortfall and the rest was due to an “act of god”. The Centre provided two options to states in this backdrop: To sell debt securities worth 97,000 crores in the market, with the Central Government trying to keep yields stable, or to do so for the entire 2.35 lakh crore amount on far less favourable terms. There was a huge furore over this, with many Opposition-ruled states demanding that the Centre borrow instead, but they eventually had to yield.

    The second is the issue regarding the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA). Although Article 256 mentions that States need to ensure all laws passed by the Parliament are applied, there is considerable controversy, as West Bengal and Kerala¹³ are among the few states that have refused to implement the law. This issue has not yet been settled, and since the CAA has been constitutionally challenged, how this particular issue pans out remains to be seen.

    Lastly, there is also the erosion of autonomy within parties. In the above two instances, it is clear how the opposition faced to various centre initiatives has come from parties from the opposition at a state level. The BJP’s state cadre does not pose a significant challenge to the central leadership like the Congress once did, though, and a lot of state leaders have to toe the party line in order to ensure their position in the party. This has led to a significant weakening of the nation’s federal spirit. The GST deadlock, for example, failed to see more support from the states because many of the states were from the same party and hence could not speak out, even though borrowing may as well be financially disastrous. This has led to a mockery of federalism. Although Indian federalism does admittedly favour national-level bodies over state-level ones, this arose from a practical consideration of the threat of separatism. However, this does not take away from the fact that there is still some federalism and some separation of powers at state and centre levels. State Governments exist to ensure that their voices and concerns are heard effectively at a national level, and not to simply roll over due to party considerations. This reduces the overall bargaining position of states, resulting in the Centre wielding more power to make unilateral decisions. At a deeper level, there is a systematic erosion of state autonomy. In states ruled by the BJP, the Centre is given more leeway when it comes to schemes. As a result, Centre-State interactions have changed in the long term, which might have negative repercussions down the road. This is another huge impact of having the same party at both levels.

    Conclusion

    Federalism represents a key part of any democratic setup. The conception of federalism in India has admittedly been different from that of other nations like the USA. The history of the nation has also been unique, with many instances of Centre-state friction. This has resulted in unique harms, such as the undermining of federal values and the weakening of bargaining power of states. However, the central concern is that the same party at both levels fundamentally defeats the purpose of federalism itself.

    References:

    [1] S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, 1994 AIR 1918.

    [2] K.C. Wheare, Federal Government. (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), 28.

    [3] The Constitution of India, art. 254.

    [4]The Constitution of India, art. 249.

    [5] The Constitution of India, art. 246.

    [6]K. Venkataraman, ‘Explained: India’s asymmetric federalism’ The Hindu (11 August, 2019) available at <https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/the-forms-of-federalism-in-india/article28977671.ece>.

    [7] Shubham Ghosh, ‘Looking back at the general elections: 1952-2004’ OneIndia (28 October, 2013) available at <https://www.oneindia.com/feature/looking-back-at-past-lok-sabha-elections-1952-2004-1331872.html>.

    [8] Kothari, Rajni. “The Congress ‘System’ in India.” Asian Survey, vol. 4, no. 12, 1964, pp. 1161–1173. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2642550. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.

    [9] Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar. “From hegemony to convergence: Party system and electoral politics in Indian states”. Journal of Indian School of Political Economy,15(1–2), (2003):5–44.

    [10] James Manor. “India and After: The Decay of Party Organisation in India”, Round Table, No. 272, (1978):315-324.

    [11] S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, 1994 AIR 1918.

    [12]Suresh Seshadri, ‘The Hindu Explains | What is the GST compensation due to States?’ The Hindu (05 Septemeber, 2020) available at <https://www.thehindu.com/business/Economy/what-is-the-gst-compensation-due-to-states/article32531827.ece>.

    [13] Sneha Mary Koshy, ‘Won’t Implement CAA, Says Kerala Chief Minister After Amit Shah’s Pledge’ NDTV (14 February, 2021) available at <https://www.ndtv.com/kerala-news/kerala-on-caa-wont-implement-citizenship-act-says-pinarayi-vijayan-after-amit-shahs-pledge-2370093>.


    BY DEBAYAN BHATTACHARYA | NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, DELHI

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