Federal system of Government

Governments are classified into unitary and federal on the basis of the nature of relations between the national government and the regional governments. By definition, a unitary government is one in which all the powers are vested in the national government and the regional governments, if at all exist, derive their authority from the national government. A federal government, on the other hand, is one in which powers are divided between the national government and the regional governments by the Constitution itself and both operate in their respective jurisdictions independently. Britain, France, Japan, China, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Spain have the unitary model of government while the US, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Argentina have the federal model of government. In a federal model, the national government is known as the Federal government or the Central Government or the Union government and the regional government is known as the state government or the provincial government.

The specific features of the federal and unitary governments are mentioned below in a comparative


Table  13.1 Comparing Features of Federal and Unitary Governments

Federal Government Unitary Government

  1. Dual Government (that is, national government and

regional government)

  1. Single government, that is, the national government which may create regional governments
  2. Written Constitution
  3. Constitution may be written (France) or unwritten (Britain)
  4. Division of powers between the national and regional government
  5. No division of powers. All powers are vested in the national government
  6. Supremacy of the Constitution
  7. Constitution may be supreme (Japan) or may not be supreme


  1. Rigid Constitution
  2. Constitution may be rigid (France) or flexible (Britain)
  3. Independent judiciary
  4. Judiciary may be independent or may not be independent
  5. Bicameral legislature
  6. Legislature may be bicameral (Britain) or uni-cameral (China)

The term ‘federation’ is drived from a Latin word foedus which means ‘treaty’ or ‘agreement’. Thus, a federation is a new state (political system) which is formed through a treaty or an agreement between the various units. The units of a federation are known by various names like states (as in US) or cantons (as in Switzerland) or provinces (as in Canada) or republics (as in Russia).

A federation can be formed in two ways, that is, by way of integration or by way of disintegration. In the first case, a number of militarily weak or economically backward states (independent) come together to form a big and a strong union, as for example, the US. In the second case, a big unitary state is converted into a federation by granting autonomy to the provinces to promote regional interest (for example, Canada). The US is the first and the oldest federation in the world. It was formed in 1787 following the American Revolution (1775–83). It comprises 50 states (originally 13 states) and is taken as the model of federation. The Canadian Federation, comprising 10 provinces (originally 4 provinces) is also quite old—formed in 1867.

The Constitution of India provides for a federal system of government in the country. The framers adopted the federal system due to two main reasons—the large size of the country and its sociocultural diversity. They realised that the federal system not only ensures the efficient governance of the country but also re-conciles national unity with regional autonomy.

However, the term ‘federation’ has no where been used in the Constitution. Instead, Article 1 of the Constitution describes India as a ‘Union of States’. According to Dr B R Ambedkar, the phrase ‘Union of States’ has been preferred to ‘Federation of States’ to indicate two things: (i) the Indian federation is not the result of an agreement among the states like the American federation; and (ii) the states have no right to secede from the federation. The federation is union because it is indestructible.

The Indian federal system is based on the ‘Canadian model’ and not on the ‘American model’. The ‘Canadian model’ differs fundamentally from the ‘American model’ in so far as it establishes a very strong centre. The Indian federation resembles the Candian federation (i) in its formation (i.e., by way of disintegration); (ii) in its preference to the term ‘Union’ (the Canadian federation is also called a ‘Union’); and (iii) in its centralising tendency (i.e., vesting more powers in the centre vis-a-vis the states).


The federal features of the Constitution of India are explained below:

  1. Dual Polity

The Constitution establishes a dual polity consisting the Union at the Centre and the states at the periphery. Each is endowed with sovereign powers to be exercised in the field assigned to them respectively by the Constitution. The Union government deals with the matters of national importance like defence, foreign affairs, currency, communication and so on. The state governments, on the other and, look after the matters of regional and local importance like public order, agriculture, health, local government and so on.

  1. Written Constitution

The Constitution is not only a written document but also the lengthiest Constitution of the world.

Originally, it contained, a Preamble 395 Articles (divided into 22 Parts) and 8 Schedules.  At present (2013), it consists of a Preamble, about 465 Articles (divided into 25 Parts) and 12 Schedules.

  1. Division of Powers

The Constitution divided the powers between the Centre and the states in terms of the Union List, State List and Concurrent List in the Seventh Schedule. The Union List consists of 100 subjects (originally 97), the State List 61 subjects (originally 66) and the Concurrent List 52 subjects (originally 47). Both the Centre and the states can make laws on the subjects of the concurrent list, but in case of a conflict, the Central law prevails. The residuary subjects (ie, which are not mentioned in any of the three lists) are given to the Centre.

  1. Supremacy of the Constitution

The Constitution is the supreme (or the highest) law of the land. The laws enacted by the Centre and the states must confirm to its provisions. Otherwise, they can be declared invalid by the Supreme Court or the high courts through their power of judicial review. Thus, the organs of the government (legislative, executive and judicial) at both the levels must operate within the jurisdiction prescribed by the Constitution.

  1. Rigid Constitution

The division of powers established by the Constitution as well as the supremacy of the Constitution can be maintained only if the method of its amendment is rigid. Hence, the Constitution is rigid to the extent that those provisions which are concerned with the federal structure (i.e., Centre–state relations and judicial organi-sation) can be amended only by the joint action of the Central and state governments. Such provisions require for their amendment a special majority of the Parliament and also an approval of half of the state legislatures.

  1. Independent Judiciary

The Constitution establishes an independent judiciary headed by the Supreme Court for two purposes:

one, to protect the supremacy of the Constitution by exercising the power of judicial review; and two, to settle the disputes between the Centre and the states or between the states. The Constitution contains various measures like security of tenure to judges, fixed service conditions and so on to make the judiciary independent of the government.

  1. Bicameralism

The Constitution provides for a bicameral legislature consisting of an Upper House (Rajya Sabha) and a Lower House (Lok Sabha). The Rajya Sabha represents the states of Indian Federation, while the Lok Sabha represents the people of India as a whole. The Rajya Sabha (even though a less powerful chamber) is required to maintain the federal equilibrium by protecting the interests of the states against the undue interference of the Centre.


Besides the above federal features, the Indian Constitution also possesses the following unitary or non-federal features:

  1. Strong Centre

The division of powers is in favour of the Centre and highly inequitable from the federal angle.

Firstly, the Union List contains more subjects than the State List. Secondly, the more important

subjects have been included in the Union List. Thirdly, the Centre has overriding authority over the Concurrent List. Finally, the residuary powers have also been left with the Centre, while in the US, they are vested in the states. Thus, the Constitution has made the Centre very strong.

  1. States Not Indestructible

Unlike in other federations, the states in India have no right to territorial integrity. The Parliament can by unilateral action change the area, boundaries or name of any state. Moreover, it requires only a simple majority and not a special majority. Hence, the Indian Federation is “an indestructible Union of destructible states”. The American Federation, on the other hand, is described as “an indestructible Union of indestructible states”.

  1. Single Constitution

Usually, in a federation, the states have the right to frame their own Constitution separate from that of the Centre. In India, on the contrary, no such power is given to the states. The Constitution of India embodies not only the Constitution of the Centre but also those of the states. Both the Centre and the states must operate within this single-frame. The only exception in this regard is the case of Jammu and Kashmir which has its own (state) Constitution.

  1. Flexibility of the Constitution

The process of constitutional amendment is less rigid than what is found in other federations. The  bulk of the Constitution can be amended by the unilateral action of the Parliament, either by simple majority or by special majority. Further, the power to initiate an amendment to the Constitution lies only with the Centre. In US, the states can also propose an amendment to the Constitution.

  1. No Equality of State Representation

The states are given representation in the Rajya Sabha on the basis of population. Hence, the membership varies from 1 to 31. In US, on the other hand, the principle of equality of representation of states in the Upper House is fully recognised. Thus, the American Senate has 100 members, two from each state. This principle is regarded as a safeguard for smaller states.

  1. Emergency Provisions

The Constitution stipulates three types of emergencies—national, state and financial. During an emergency, the Central government becomes all powerful and the states go into the total control of the Centre. It converts the federal structure into a unitary one without a formal amendment of the Constitution. This kind of transformation is not found in any other federation.

  1. Single Citizenship

In spite of a dual polity, the Constitution of India, like that of Canada, adopted the system of single citizenship. There is only Indian Citizenship and no separate state citizenship. All citizens

irrespective of the state in which they are born or reside enjoy the same rights all over the country. The other federal states like US, Switzerland and Australia have dual citizenship, that is, national citizenship as well as state citizenship.

  1. Integrated Judiciary

The Indian Constitution has established an integrated judicial system with the Supreme Court at the top and the state high courts below it. This single system of courts enforces both the Central laws as well as the state laws. In US, on the other hand, there is a double system of courts whereby the federal laws are enforced by the federal judiciary and the state laws by the state judiciary.

  1. All-India Services

In US, the Federal government and the state governments have their separate public services. In India also, the Centre and the states have their separate public services. But, in addition, there are all-India services (IAS, IPS, and IFS) which are common to both the Centre and the states. The members of these services are recruited and trained by the Centre which also possesses ultimate control over them. Thus, these services violate the principle of federalism under the Constitution.

  1. Integrated Audit Machinery

The Comptroller and Auditor-General of India audits the accounts of not only the Central government but also those of the states. But, his appointment and removal is done by the president without consulting the states. Hence, this office restricts the financial autonomy of the states. The American Comptroller-General, on the contrary, has no role with respect to the accounts of the states.

  1. Parliament’s Authority Over State List

Even in the limited sphere of authority allotted to them, the states do not have exclusive control. The  Parliament is empowered to legislate on any subject of the State List if Rajya Sabha passes a resolution to that effect in the national interest. This means that the legislative competence of the Parliament can be extended without amending the Constitution. Notably, this can be done when there is no emergency of any kind.

  1. Appointment of Governor

The governor, who is the head of the state, is appointed by the President. He holds office during the pleasure of the President. He also acts as an agent of the Centre. Through him, the Centre exercises control over the states. The American Constitution, on the contrary, provided for an elected head in the states. In this respect, India adopted the Canadian system.

  1. Integrated Election Machinery

The Election Commission conducts elections not only to the Central legislature but also to the state legislatures. But, this body is constituted by the President and the states have no say in this matter. The position is same with regard to the removal of its members as well. On the other hand, US has separate machineries for the conduct of elections at the federal and state levels.

  1. Veto Over State Bills

The governor is empowered to reserve certain types of bills passed by the state legislature for the

consideration of the President. The President can withhold his assent to such bills not only in the first instance but also in the second instance. Thus, the President enjoys absolute veto (and not suspensive veto) over state bills. But in US and Australia, the states are autonomous within their fields and there is no provision for any such reservation.