ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Federalism and Democracy in Today’s India

A look at the implications—for both democracy and federalism—of the return of centralised leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after three decades in which political and economic power had flowed away from Delhi, shows that although states have been empowered in recent decades by economic and political decentralisation, India’s federal institutions place relatively weak checks on the power of a government led by a party that has attained a majority in the national Parliament.

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewer, and participants at the King’s workshop in June 2017, for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

Federalism and democracy are typically seen as mutually supportive. Federalism depends upon a constitutionally enshrined division of power between at least two levels of government: a system of territorial representation that accommodates diverse identities and interests, and a separation of powers with an independent arbiter such as a Supreme Court to adjudicate on disputes between levels of government. These are hard conditions to uphold in undemocratic settings. In turn, classic theories of federalism see it as offering important protections to democracy by preventing the tyranny of majorities and protecting a degree of self-rule for minorities. However, federalism’s implications for democracy are not straightforward. One reason for this is that federal institutions come in many shapes and sizes.

The model of federalism that India’s Constituent Assembly designed seven decades ago empowers the central government, creates strong interdependence between the centre and states, and in some important respects has relatively weak safeguards for the autonomy of states.1 The country has undergone a deep process of federalisation since the 1950s during which time its internal borders have been reorganised to accommodate the demands of linguistic and other ethnic minorities, and power has flown away from Delhi as a result of political and economic decentralisation. Yet, the return of a dominant national party in power at the centre from 2014 has raised new questions about the interactions between federalism and democracy in India. How far does federalism in India temper majoritarian trends within its democracy? Can a party with a nationwide majority centralise policymaking processes and challenge the autonomy of the states? Would it be good for India’s social and economic health—its ability to pursue goals of national economic development—if the central government was re-empowered in this way?

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Updated On : 17th Aug, 2018
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