The socio-political-economic realities of today are putting considerable strain on the principles of federalism and functioning of the governments. Time has probably come to tweak the cogs, and better the nation’s economic machinery

Undoubtedly, India has emerged as a major industrial, economic and military power. At the same time, its soft power has also been ascending. This has resulted in empowerment of the political class with contradicting voices pulling society and the polity in opposite directions. At the same time, the rising socio-economic inequality has created frictions between different groups in the society. The nation, after six decades of independence, is witnessing significant changes in all walks of life and faces new set of challenges needing new and innovative responses.
The country has also been transiting from a feudal culture to an industrial society. The process is slow but it is pushing citizens and inhabitants to often co-exist with value norms of both feudal as well as industrial societies. This has resulted in generating friction and fissures in society and pressure points in the polity.
The process has also given birth to parallel and multi-layered discourses in polity and society. Further, the nation has been simultaneously witnessing the emergence and growth of regionalism and strong identity politics. States are increasingly assuming significance in the backdrop of more and more political parties occupying the political space which till 1967 was primarily the turf of the Indian National Congress. Today, regional parties are in power in nine of the 28 States of the Indian Union. The two national parties—Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party—are in command in the remaining 19 states.
Coalition politics has today acquired proportions that were unimaginable at the time of formation of the independent India.
At present, three parallel discourses on Centre-State dynamics exist in the public domain. The first one talks about retaining the present federal structure with some amendments to the Constitution to make it more relevant to present day requirements. They justify this with the argument that the nation building process is not yet complete and serious challenges continue to confront the nation. This view receives support from the Congress, and some other sections that see country and society as one and not as an aggregate of regional identities. In the past, the BJP was also a strong votary of this viewpoint.
The second discourse stresses that the principle of federalism needs to be redefined. States need to be empowered more in the backdrop of the changing nature of polity, economy and society. The Centre’s role as defined in the Constitution needs to be curtailed and restricted. This view is supported largely by regional parties, regional leaders and the Left parties. Lately, BJP has also supported this view.
This was well highlighted in the debate in the two houses of Parliament on the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill 2011 wherein the principle of federalism featured prominently.
Even though foreign policy is the prerogative of the Central government and the Constitution does not allow the states to take initiatives in these matters, the West Bengal government challenged that on sharing the waters of river Teesta by stalling the bilateral treaty with Bangladesh and causing a major embarrassment to the Manmohan Singh Government.
While Mamata Banerjee emerged as a recent interventionist in the field of foreign policy, there have been other voices in the last few years that have been arguing in favour of the role of states; particularly, states with an international border are vocal on issues which directly or indirectly impact them.
Similarly, when the issue of border trade with China came up for discussion, Sikkim’s views were sought. Tamil Nadu has on a number of occasions demanded the Centre’s intervention in Sri Lanka and created serious problems for foreign policy makers at the Centre.
The third discourse suggests a relook at the Constitution which means redefining federalism and also changing the form of government at the Centre. The demand was made in ’70s and ’80s when political parties and a cross section of civil society were arguing in favour of a presidential form of government in place of the present parliamentary form of government.
One can safely assume that the third discourse could be meditated upon at least after the nation-building process is unarguably over. At the same time, the deepening of democracy and assumption of power by different regional parties in various states implies that the second discourse has assumed vital significance for the country.
In the light of the second discourse, the time may already have come to review the constitutional arrangement with the objective of creating enough room for economic development of states without compromising the overall national interest?
It is here that the model of “cooperative federalism” that has been discussed and debated could be one of the guiding principles in the evolution of redistribution of powers and responsibilities between the Union and States.
In this context, constructive use of the institutions like the National Development Council and Inter-State Council (set up as recommended by the Sarkaria Commission) could play a useful role in resolving some of the contentious issues between the Centre and the States.
(This is an excerpt from a paper published by Dr. Satish Misra and Mr. Surendra Singh, at
About the authors: Dr. Satish Misra, a Ph. D, from Humboldt University (Berlin), has over 40 years of active journalism to his credit. He was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has worked for radio, television and the print media including Patriot, The Tribune, Amrita Bazar Patrika and Deutsche Welle.
Surendra Singh is Honorary Advisor to Observer Research Foundation, former Cabinet Secretary and Special Secretary (Commerce) to the Government of India, and former Executive Director of the World Bank.
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