What we mean by 'federalism'

Some of our readers who read our posts [1, 2] about Jaswant Singh's expulsion from the BJP asked us to clarify what exactly we mean by 'federalism'. So here goes.

India is a union of linguistic states. These states are, even to this day, ruled with a very strong central government. The states themselves have hardly any power, and the central government keeps key portfolios which should ideally be kept by the state governments. This makes India a pseudo-federal country. We argue that India should become a true federal country with the central government retaining only federal portfolios such as defense and giving up all other powers (such as education) completely to the states.

This concept of India as a federal country of linguistic states is relatively new, and certainly not the 'loose federation option' which Jinnah, Nehru and others had before them. In those days, it was only the Muslim League which pressed for as much powers as a 'federal state' warrants - with other heads of state such as the Maharaja of Mysore simply giving up their powers to the Government of India in exchange for money (called 'Privy Purse'). Of course, there were states such as Hyderabad which had to be annexed to India in a military operation. It is therefore right to say that the federation talked about then was a federation of states carved out either on the basis of religion or on the basis of existing power divisions between different kingdoms. However, the federation we're talking about now - and the only federation which makes sense for a secular country such as India - is a federation of states based on language.

The Congress in those days was against any sort of federation - even the sort we're talking about here - because it was their belief that a strongly centralized polity is necessary for India's unity and integrity (apparently Gandhi himself wasn't opposed to federalism). The BJP, of course, remains against any federation because of their ideology that recognizing diversity is encouraging disunity - a flawed concept. They'd rather bury the diversity and spread the wrong word among the literate and illiterate that all languages of India have Sanskrit for their mother - utter nonsense and conforming to blatant reality avoidance.

The point we'd like our readers to take away from the whole Jaswant Singh episode is this: irrespective of the type of federation, the fact is that both the BJP and Congress have a strongly centralized polity in their DNA. For their own reasons, both want all the power to be concentrated in New Delhi - and that is a serious mistake.

While both BJP and Congress think that concentration of power at New Delhi is a means of ensuring India's unity and integrity, it is high time both come around to question that assumption - because such concentration of power is resulting in a destruction of diversity - which threatens to destroy unity itself. Also, India's pseudo-federal system is coming in the way of the development of the states, and we can't turn a deaf ear to the fact that underdeveloped states have a greater 'ability' to fight amongst themselves and cause a threat to India's unity and integrity. Developed states, on the other hand, behave like adults and have a greater ability to maintain peace, unity and integrity in India.


Shashhh said...

Would giving up all the powers to underdeveloped and "rogue" states such as UP and Bihar benefit India?? How to address such cases? Can you please write more on how to implement this in India?

Jockey said...


It's not giving up 'all the powers' which is being talked about here. It's giving up non-federal powers. Departments such as defense must remain with the federal government at New Delhi.

Now does it benefit India if "'rogue' states such as UP and Bihar" are given the powers that they need? Of course - none of the 'granted powers' will involve anything with which they can harm other states. Perhaps you're thinking that they will wage war on other states? That power is not granted as part of the 'federalization process'.

Shashhh said...


I understand that key portfolios like defence will not be given to the states in federalism.
What I was talking about is the abuse of power (whatever more power gets distributed in federalism) by rogue states, rather the leaders of rogue states.
It may be true that it won't harm other states, but my concern was, will that be good for India, as a country?

Jockey said...

With more power to the states, more good men & women will rise up to fill the ranks. Today, the states have no power and therefore good men & women don't go to state-level politics. That's why it's infested with corrupt people today.

Besides, if men and women don't rise to the occasion in 'rogue states', it's not a case for punishing non-rogue states with the burden of the former.

Thennavan said...

What Union Minister Mr. Kabil Sibal means by Federalism:

While addressing the Council of Boards of Secondary Education, our minister has strongly told that HINDI, the National Language according to him, should be taught in all schools across the country. This is his idea of federalism, rather non-federalism which reminds of the following points-

1) Mr. Kabil Sibal, a senior minister of the Central Government and also a senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, openly and blatantly lies that Hindi is the National Language. God only can save the Government and the Supreme Court.

2) Normally, the policy of non-Hindi people, especially South Indians, is 'Live and Let Live'. On the other hand, the very basic nature of Hindi people is 'Rule or be ruled'. They don't know how to live peacefully with others. That is the reason why North India was mostly ruled by outsiders.

3) For Hindi people, India and its larger interest is of least importance when compared to Hindi and/or Hindustan (not India).

4) Both the Congress and the BJP are anti-federalist. Congress is certainly no less than the BJP regarding the centralist views. Even BJP is more reliable because they are more open whereas Congress does the same sort of things stealthily. Congress has not even got absolute majority in the parliament but has only gained some more seats this time. Still they dare do these sentimentally sensitive but really unimportant things.

5) Unless the non-Hindi states, especially South Indian states, get their act together, they have to succumb to Hindi, the National Threat to the other languages and their people.

Radha said...

The anti-hindi imposition riots in Tamil Nadu were due to the non-federal policy, which in turn paved way to the demand for separation then from the Union. But the then Nehru government debarred any party that wanted to secede from contesting elections. Since then the so-called regional parties in TN have been fighting - at least that is in their election manifesto - to get autonomy. Both the major political parties in TN have 'promised' to include Tamil and other Indian languages as official languages of the Union in addition to Hindi and English. If more state governments demand in unison to have their language -official only at the state level - also be official at the Union level, we can save our languages. But in order to so, we need people who love their language/who believe that their language is inferior to none to come to power and 'use' the power rightly.

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