Is Federalism an Essential Feature of Indian Democracy?


Democracy sprung from the idea of justice, equality, and liberty, is the panacea for all social ills caused by the arbitrary actions of the monarch, who has wielded absolute power that the ruler-ship lacked any sort of supervision. After World War II, the world has thrust into the democratic structure of government after realizing the significance of egalitarianism that brought peaceful coexistence, which was absent in the monarchial form of government. The word democracy doesn’t merely be comprehended only with relation to periodic elections and the power of the voters; it is wide enough to encompass a variety of principles ranging from federalism, judicial activism, citizen participation, and freedom of expression to the rule of law. The preamble of the Indian Constitution declares India to be a democratic country, since then the spiraling debate is on whether democracy is an illusion in India, if not, whether is India fulfilling all the requirements of democracy. One of the crucial and underlying features of democracy is federalism, the concept of federalism and democracy are inherently consistent and work hand in hand to uphold the common cause.

The notion of federalism centers on the Doctrine of Division of Powers, where the union and the state government operates in their own sphere, which implies that no government holds the central authority, hence union government abandons its controlling influence over states. Though the Indian constitution is perceived to be federal and democratic, the status quo is that the federal nature of the constitution itself is been questioned. Nevertheless, through a catena of cases the judiciary has affirmed that the Indian constitution is federal and cannot be overturned as it forms the bedrock for Indian democracy. It was rightly said by Justice P.B. Sawant in the Case of S.R. Bommai v. Union of India that Federalism, Secularism, and Democracy are the basic features of the Indian Constitution, which was further elaborated in the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala that the basic characters of Indian Constitution viz. Federal character underpins the Division of Powers and falls under the ambit of the Doctrine of Basic Structure, thus cannot be abrogated at any cost.

Democracy and Federalism

The word democracy is derived from the Greek words ‘Demos’ and ‘Kratos’ implies ‘People’ and ‘Rule.’ Democracy is the form of government, the origin of which is traced back to Athens. Though there is a general misconception about the meaning of the words freedom and democracy, as these phraseologies have been used interchangeably, both are not one and the same. In a democratic country, citizens are vested with the greater power used directly by them (Direct Democracy) or through their representatives (Representative Democracy) elected under a free electoral system. Hence, democracy could be the epitome of freedom; the set of principles about freedom, as well as institutionalization of freedom, hence does not denote freedom per se. To the common knowledge, in all democracies, people exercise their political power through majority rule; it is to be noted, which itself does not connote that the majority could oppress the minority. Thus, democracy does not overlook the rights of minorities, but rather guarantees and serves to protect their rights.

On the other hand, the word federalism has its origin in the Latin word ‘foedus’ means ‘covenant, pact and treaty.’ Federalism is the political structure, which promotes the division of power between the two levels of government i.e. central authority and state authorities. The Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances are the two crucial principles upon which a federal form of government is built. These principles provide that the three branches of government viz. legislative, executive, and judiciary have vested with separate powers, where one organ shall not intervene in the working sphere of the other. It is also pertinent to note that though this principle of constitutional law ensures that no organ exceeds its authority, it also bestows these governmental organs with the power to carry out prompt governing mechanisms so as to ensure that the principle of Separation of Power is not violated. According to the traditional classification, a constitution may be either unitary or federal. In the Indian context, while placing the reliance on the ratio decidendi of the case Ram Jaway v. State of Punjab, the principle of Separation of Power has not fully been accepted in India, but it was overturned in the case of Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Ram Narian, where the court has elucidated its significance and held its prominence since then it has become an integral part of Indian quasi- federal governance. As held in the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, federalism is the basic structure of the Indian constitution and shall never be altered.

Democracy and federalism are perceived to be mutually supportive and complementary to each other. The essential characteristics of federalism viz. two-tier governments, division of power, the supremacy of the constitution, independent judiciary and bicameral legislature, and so on are hard to uphold in an undemocratic framework. There is a long-standing that whether Indian federalism is ‘Centralised Federalism’ or ‘Democratic Federalism,’ because, the changing Indian political climate is also changing the mutually reinforcing nature of democracy and federalism. Hence, the interaction between the both must be comprehended as dynamic not static.

Federalism: Why Union Government, Why not Central Government? 

The federalism principle backing a democratic form of government works to preclude despotism. Nevertheless, the existing state of affairs is raising a leading question in the minds of every citizen of India is still India a democratic country or just an electoral autocracy prevailing in the disguise of democracy? It will never be a res integra question, because it is apparent that in recent days state governments are being subordinated to the union government, which itself is against the founding principle of federalism. While the other features are democracy viz. Liberty, Fraternity, Rule of Law, Separation of powers, Free and Fair Election, Political Equality, Collective Responsibility, and Populace Sovereignty are remaining surreptitiously never been a subject of debate, mainstream scholars are calling India’s Federalism and Democracy into question. It is also relevant to place the emphasis on the report of a Sweden-based research Institution named V-Dem Institute, which aims to indicate declining democracy in countries worldwide. The report labels India as an ‘Electoral Autocracy’ and professes that India is no longer an ‘Electoral Democracy’.

The international research institution while analyzing the quality of government in various countries solely dedicated a chapter to India and named it “Democracy Broken Down: India.” The serious matter of concern is why India is said to be a pseudo-democratic country, the reasons are highly evident with the dropped rank in the Press Freedom Index, 2022 released by Reporters Without Borders, which is the reflection of the proliferation of cases of booking journalists, Political Party Members, Advocates and So on, whoever criticizes the operational lassitude of the Union Government under Sedition. The Fundamental Right to Speech and Expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution is continued to be curtailed despite the protracted condemn from the judiciary with the collective note that Criticism on the Government is not Anti-India.

Mainstream Opinion and Criticisms

If a country is claimed to be federal, it must have a rigid constitution and dual government polity, which affirms the division of power between different levels of government, the same is monitored by an independent judiciary. However, one should not lose sight of the fact that India is a Quasi Federal Country because India is a federal nation with unitary bias. The distribution of power between the union and the state is incontrovertibly unequal, where every resource belongs to the Union Government, which has the power to supersede, or even dissolve the state government if its operation is not in line with the direction of the Union Government. Though the dissolving power is constitutionally bestowed under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, which provides that if there is a failure of Constitutional machinery in a state, upon the advice of the president the ‘President Rule’ could be brought. But the provision is susceptible to rampant misuse, because the majority of individuals so far elected as President of India are nominees of ruling parties, so there are high chances that if a party ruling in the center does not want an opposition to rule at a state, it may dismiss the elected government by taking advantage of Article 356, where the President may not overturn the ruling parties decision.

Nevertheless, the phraseology of ‘Central Government’ is nowhere mentioned in the Indian Constitution, instead, the constitutional framers used the term ‘Union Government’ just to underline the fact that the Distribution of Powers between state and union is the essential feature of federalism is the cornerstone principle of Democracy shall never be disturbed because of false interpretation of the constitution.


To conclude, federalism is undoubtedly the overarching principle of Democracy, yet if it is a country-specific study limited to India, the emergency provisions and other similar unitary features of the Indian constitution are impeding India’s federal journey. To ensure the welfare of the citizens, the governments shall quit power play and aid one another for the collective growth and well-being of the country.



Snegapriya V S

A third-year student of law at Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT School of Law), budding first-generation lawyer cum legal researcher with multiple publications in various web journals and portals on different subject matters of law in issue. Being a zealous-natured person with thoughts enrooted in epistemophilia has boosted my passion for research writings by interpreting diversified legal facets. As a perceptive observer and reader, I pay greater attention to the overlooked legal fields where divergent challenges might arise, that include cyber law, environmental law, consumer law, and several constitutional provisions. Besides, I prioritize construing legal problems with social psychology. My dream and vision are to catch myself as a skilled legal adroit.