January 25, 2024


Federalism is a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units. In India, federalism is enshrined in the Constitution, which provides for a division of powers between the central government and the states. This system is designed to ensure that both levels of government have their respective spheres of authority and autonomy, while also working together for the common good of the nation.

The Indian constitution also contains provisions that make it unitary in nature or tilt the balance of power in favour of the central government. Due to this blend of unitary and federal features, India is sometimes called quasi-federal in nature.

The present article aims to analyze the concept of federalism in India, define what is federalism in India, and define the meaning of federalism in India.


Following are the typical features of a federal form of government.

  • Power is divided between a central authority and other local units, such as states or provinces.
  • Both the central government and the regional governments have their own spheres of authority, and they each have the power to make and enforce laws within their respective areas of jurisdiction.
  • This division of powers allows for a degree of autonomy for the regional governments while also maintaining a unified national government.
  •  Federalism is often seen as a way to balance the need for a strong central authority with the desire to preserve regional diversity and local governance.


India’s choice to adopt a quasi-federal system in its Constitution can be attributed to a variety of historical, political, and practical considerations. These can be classified into the following headings.

  1. Diversity and Pluralism: India is a country with immense linguistic, cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. The framers recognized the need to provide a degree of autonomy to states to accommodate this diversity and ensure that regional aspirations and identities were respected.
  2. Administrative Efficiency: While acknowledging the importance of decentralized governance, the framers also recognized the need for certain centralized powers to maintain administrative efficiency and national cohesion. A completely federal system might have led to fragmentation and inefficiencies in decision-making and governance.
  3.  Historical Context: India’s colonial history and the experience of British rule also played a role in shaping the constitutional framework. The need to balance central authority with regional autonomy was influenced by the desire to avoid replicating the highly centralized nature of colonial rule.
  4. Pragmatic Considerations: Given the challenges of nation-building and the need to address socioeconomic disparities across regions, a quasi-federal approach was seen as a pragmatic way to balance local autonomy with national development goals.


The provisions for federalism in the Indian Constitution can be traced under the following provisions.

  • Written constitution is a typical feature of federalism.
  • Supremacy of the Constitution also promotes the idea of federalism.
  • Part XI (Articles 245-263). These provisions establish a clear division of powers between the Union (central government) and the states, and also provide for the establishment of a system of intergovernmental relations to facilitate cooperation and coordination between the two levels of government.
  • The Constitution delineates three lists – Union List, State List, and Concurrent List – which specify the areas in which the Union and state governments have exclusive or concurrent jurisdiction.
  • The Constitution also provides for the establishment of institutions like the Inter-State Council and the Finance Commission to facilitate cooperation and coordination between the Union and the states. These institutions play a crucial role in ensuring that the principles of federalism are upheld and that the interests of all levels of government are taken into account in decision-making processes.
  • Independent Judiciary (Articles 124-147): The Constitution establishes an independent judiciary to interpret and enforce the laws, which is a characteristic of federal systems.
  • Bicameral legislature, having two houses i.e. Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is also a feature of federalism.
  • Flexibility of Amendment provision also make the Indian Constitution as certain provisions can’t be amended without first obtaining the consent of central government.


Following provision make Indian Constitution unitary in nature-

  • Article 1 specifically states India to be a union of states.
  • Parliament has been given power to alter, add to the boundaries of states.
  • Single Citizenship (Article 5-11): The Constitution provides for single citizenship for the entire country, which is a unitary feature.
  • Integrated Judiciary (Article 124-147): The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over both central and state laws, which is a unitary feature.
  •  Emergency Provisions (Articles 352-360): The Constitution provides for emergency provisions that allow the central government to assume a greater degree of control during times of crisis, which is a unitary feature.
  • Greater law making power to Parliament also adds to the unitary feature of Indian Constitution.


Over the years, the Supreme Court of India has played a significant role in interpreting and upholding the principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution. The Court has delivered several landmark judgments that have shaped the contours of federalism in India.

In Kesavananda Bharati case (1973), the Supreme Court held that federalism is a basic feature of the Constitution and cannot be altered through constitutional amendments. This decision affirmed the significance of federalism as an essential aspect of India’s constitutional framework and established it as a principle that cannot be compromised.

Another significant ruling is the S.R. Bommai case (1994), in which the Supreme Court laid down guidelines for the imposition of President’s Rule in states. The Court held that the power to dismiss a state government and impose President’s Rule should be exercised sparingly and only in exceptional circumstances, thereby reaffirming the autonomy and integrity of state governments within the federal structure.

In more recent years, the Supreme Court has also addressed issues related to fiscal federalism, particularly in cases concerning the distribution of resources between the Union and the states. In cases like State of Tamil Nadu v. Union of India (2018), the Court has emphasized the need for a fair and equitable distribution of resources to ensure that states have adequate financial autonomy to fulfill their responsibilities.

However, very recently in 2023 in Re: Abrogation of Article 370, the Supreme Court has seem to taken a departure from its earlier decisions and stated that the nature of Indian constitution is essentially unitary in nature by upholding the abrogation of Article 370.


Federalism is a fundamental aspect of India’s constitutional framework, providing for a division of powers between the central government and the states. The provisions for federalism in the Constitution, along with Supreme Court rulings, have helped shape and uphold this system of governance. However, the recent ruling by the Supreme Court tends to shake this concept of federalism in India. The continuous efforts by the courts must be laid towards expanding the scope of federalism, and not to move towards in a more unitary form of government.

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