Bharat is a large and diverse country, and has been divided for mostly administrative reasons into a number of states. These states have been created, dissolved and divided by Parliament using the provisions of the all-important Article 3 of the Indian Constitution which states that, “Parliament may by law (a) form a new state by separation of territory from any state or by uniting two or more states or parts of states or by uniting any territory to a part of any state; (b) increase the area of any state; (c) diminish the area of any state; (d) alter the boundaries of any state; (e) alter the name of any state:
This means that the Central government can, without reference to any of the concerned states it has created by the provisions of this very Article, recreate, dissolve or divide these states. This Article also underlines the fact that Bharat, that is India, is a Union of states and not a Federation.
The term ‘Union’ has a distinctive meaning in the Constitution and signifies that our states had no specific characteristic or feature, as on 15 August 1947, which suggested any kind of autonomy, far less sovereignty. At the time of independence, India consisted of the provinces of British India and, next the Princely States. The former were created purely for administrative and other conveniences by the colonial power. Orissa and Bihar were separated from Bengal, and Sind from Bombay, for example. Burma and Ceylon were even detached completely from the Indian Empire in the early 20th century.
It was well recognised by 1950 that the provinces and other parts of British India would need to be reconfigured in due course, which in part, led to Article 3 being framed the way it was. The three big presidencies of British India, namely Bengal, Bombay and Madras were very diverse in many matters and administratively very cumbersome to operate because they were far flung in terms of area. The Princely States were more compact and usually culturally and linguistically more uniform, although some large ones like Hyderabad and Kashmir were quite diverse in themselves. A reorganisation was clearly required and took place in stages, notably in 1956 and later in 1966; other changes in the boundaries of the North Eastern states took place even further down the line. The formation of Telangana from a larger Andhra Pradesh took place as recently as 2014. Sometimes, erstwhile Princely States or parts of them were merged with parts of British India to create a new state. Karnataka is a prime example. It includes the whole of princely Mysore, parts of princely Hyderabad, and parts of erstwhile Madras and Bombay presidencies.
This sort of arrangement in independent India where constituent states were created at the pleasure of the Central authority is very far from the mischievous interpretations given to the phrase “Union of states” by individuals like Rahul Gandhi and M. K. Stalin. The former, in a speech in Parliament, earlier this year said that, “India is described in the Indian Constitution as a union of states and not as a nation. One cannot rule over the people of a state in India. Different languages and cultures cannot be suppressed. It is a partnership, not a kingdom.” By any objective standard, this statement is erroneous and misleading. Firstly, the comment that India is not a nation is absurd, even ludicrous. Further, India is not a kingdom with hereditary monarchs. Nobody is trying to suppress any language or regional identity. M. K. Stalin, clearly echoing the words of Rahul Gandhi, has his own interesting interpretation of the word “union” which is not the meaning intended in the Constitution.
Significantly, words like “federation” and “federal” do not figure in our Constitution. Above all, they do not appear in the Preamble. India is not a federation if one goes by the constitutionally accepted meaning of the word. A federation is a country where more or less sovereign States (notice the use of the capital ‘S’ here, to distinguish this word from the version we use with a small ‘s’ signifying our 28 states that are but creatures of Parliament) come together and surrender some or all of their sovereignty for the common good of the bigger entity, the Federation. The U.S.A., Switzerland and Germany are textbook examples of a federation. The word “Union” was used in our Constitution to describe our country so as to distinguish us from a “Federation”, which we are not.
Elements of federalism crept into our governance structures simply because of the great size and diversity of Bharat. We have been described as being pseudo-federal, quasi-federal and so on. None of these definitions confer on our states the authority to do what they please in the name of language, caste, religion, diversity and culture. Above all, they do not give the right to any state to secede from the Union, a fact that should be well noted by some of our larger, more politically troublesome states that seem to think that they are exalted manifestations of some regional characteristic that stands higher than the national ethos. The recent statement by the son of the above mentioned M. K. Stalin about destroying Sanatana Dharma falls within this motley collection of false and destructive statements that seem to have no intent other than the complete break up of Bharat into innumerable pieces, simply to dislodge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from power at the Centre.
The Centre and the states have clearly demarcated responsibilities that are laid out in Schedule VII of our Constitution and these responsibilities are enumerated in the Central, State and Concurrent Lists that date from the colonial era and keep getting modified from time to time. Nobody rules over anybody in India, whatever be the manner in which Rahul Gandhi might choose to depict the situation. Possibly his statement has Freudian undertones of a wannabe Emperor of India ruling the country from Lutyens Delhi. His idea of a “partnership” between the Centre and the states is both misleading and mischievous.
Using tricks of the English language and the Tamil language, a picture is being painted of our 28 states (not to mention the Union Territory of Delhi) as being a number of sovereign entities parleying independently with the Centre to evolve a mutually agreeable arrangement for governance. This is very far from the truth. Our present Constitution is strongly weighted in favour of the Centre. B. R. Ambedkar himself recognised this, and approved. Above all, a strong Centre ensures national security, a robust defence setup and a uniform fiscal system. In the context of the first two points, the fact that large states like West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu all have terrestrial or maritime international boundaries should not be lost on anyone. The consequences of too much decentralisation in say, the North East or in the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh are again all too obvious.
In this background, the BJP government's efforts to centralise power have been met with mixed reactions. Some have criticized the government for undermining the ‘federal’ structure of the Indian Constitution (whatever this might mean), while supporters of the Central government have argued that centralisation is necessary to ensure India's progress. Those who support the BJP government's centralisation efforts argue that it is necessary to address a number of challenges facing the country. The inevitable fact of the matter is that whenever a single party commands a majority in the Lok Sabha, power flows naturally to the Centre. This simple fact should be borne in mind by our several opposition parties who claim that the present set up is majoritarian. The parliamentary democracy system with first-past-the-post elections is by definition majoritarian. It is just that coalition governments have existed at the Centre for so long before 2014 that many have come to think of majoritarian governments as somehow being dictatorial, fascist and Nazi-like. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, India is a large and diverse country, with a wide range of regional and cultural differences. A more balanced Centre-state power sharing approach can help to ensure that all regions of the country are treated fairly and that national policies are implemented effectively.
Second, centralisation can help to improve efficiency and reduce corruption. When there are multiple levels of government, there is a risk of duplication of effort and inefficiency. Centralisation can help to streamline government operations and make it easier to implement policies.
Third, centralisation can help to strengthen national security. In a centralised system, the central government has more control over the security forces and can coordinate their efforts more effectively. This can help to improve the country's ability to respond to threats, both internal and external.
The BJP government's centralisation efforts have already had a number of positive outcomes. For example, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been able to investigate and prosecute terrorist cases more effectively under the NIA (Amendment) Act, 2019. The government has also been able to crack down on terrorist organizations like the Popular Front of India (PFI) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019. Again, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has been able to investigate corruption cases against state government officials more effectively under the CVC (Amendment) Act, 2021.
A study by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) found that centralisation has been a key factor in India's economic growth since independence. The study found that states with higher levels of centralisation have grown faster than states with lower levels of centralisation.
Another study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) found that centralisation has helped to improve the delivery of public services in India. The study found that states with higher levels of centralisation have better performing public services than states with lower levels of centralisation. One might term this as the success of the ‘double engine sarkar’ at work
While there is always the risk that centralisation could be used to suppress dissent and concentrate power in the hands of the central government, it is our considered opinion that the BJP central government, given its onerous responsibility in governing a vast, diverse country like Bharat, has so far used its powers responsibly. Nothing is perfect but the centrifugal impulses that originate from states where languages other than Hindi are spoken, are still too troublesome in terms of the ways in which such impulses may impact on national security and protection of our borders.
It is a measure of the responsible behaviour of the Central government with regard to its relations with the states that it has rarely invoked the draconian provisions of Articles 355 and 356 in the last nine years.
Centralisation is a necessary and positive development in India. The BJP government's centralisation efforts have helped to improve the delivery of public services. For example, the government's One Nation, One Ration Card scheme has made it easier for people to access food grains under the Public Distribution System, regardless of where they live in the country. The government's Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana scheme has also helped to bring millions of people into the formal banking system.
Centralisation has also helped to promote economic development. For example, the government's Make in India initiative has helped to attract foreign investment and create new jobs in the country. The government's Goods and Services Tax (GST) has also helped to create a unified market in India, making it easier for businesses to operate across state borders. That the states have been given so much power in setting up norms for the collection of GST is another strong confirmation of a balanced Centre-state relationship.
As examples of autonomy given to states in countries with a responsible federal structure, one might mention Italy where the cultural and linguistic differences have been prevalent for a couple of centuries just like in the Indian subcontinent. For example, the Aosta Valley is an autonomous region in Italy that is home to a large French-speaking population. In the same way, South Tyrol (another autonomous region in northern Italy) has a large German speaking population. The region has its own government and legislature, and it is responsible for a wide range of matters, including education, healthcare, and taxation. Another example is the state of Hawaii which is located offshore from the mainland U.S.A in the Pacific Ocean and is home to a diverse population of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The state has its own government and legislature, and it is responsible for a wide range of matters, including education, healthcare and environmental protection.
The population of India varies significantly from state to state. For example, Uttar Pradesh has a population of 241 million people, while Mizoram has just 1.3 million. This stark difference in population presents a number of challenges for the Indian government in terms of Centre-state relations, as it must try to ensure that all states have fair access to goods, facilities and services. A possible solution is to reconfigure the Rajya Sabha so that it has the same number of elected representatives from each state. The Senate in the U.S.A. with exactly two directly elected members from each state could be the model. The present Rajya Sabha structuring is based on indirect elections with a collegium and is far from satisfactory.
Overall, India's governance system is a unique one in that there are certain federal elements that have been shaped by the country’s history, culture, and diversity. Our system has its own challenges, but it has also been successful in ensuring generally that all states in India have access to adequate resources and services. It is important that citizens become more aware of the nuances of Centre-state relations and avoid being misled by unscrupulous politicians in the run up to several Assembly elections and the all-important Lok Sabha election next year.
Gautam R. Desiraju and RIshi R. Mishra are in the Indian Institute of Science
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