The Indian federalism has much to learn from the United States federal structure

Garga Chatterjee 


Not all human beings have heard Donald Trump’s name. This is true about the citizens of the Indian Union too. Many citizens of the Indian Union have not ever heard Narendra Modi’s name either. That is just reality. However, some have heard of Trump and they have heard of him in varying degrees. That degree represents the degree to which America and the whites actually control the mindscape of Indian Union’s brown citizens. So, the most Trump-engaged section of this group of browns is not happy at Trump for various reasons. But they are not alone. Many citizens of the USA also feel similarly. And since the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America, what is at display is some serious vociferous opposition to the new incumbent. And they are pushing back and trying to protect their rights that they believe that Trump might take away. And they might succeed.


Opposition Democratic Party’s governor after governor (a post akin to a Chief Minister in a state of the Indian Union) has stood up and said that they will make sure that Trump’s wish cannot run wild in their own state. And they can succeed, since the law and constitution enables them to protect themselves from the whims of a centrally elected demagogue, just on the basis of a simple majority of everyone while most people of quite a few states may not want his policies to affect their life. The federal character of the US constitution ensures that democratic bottom-up protection against central demagoguery. Trump may be the most powerful person in the world but inside the US, but individual states have significant autonomy, so that they can be governed by the wishes of the people of the state and not by the wishes of outside people.


Thus, when many across the world are seeing in Trump and his support base the rise of a regime that is semi-fascist in intent and possibly action, the federal structure of the US constitution gives autonomous powers to the states to govern themselves in most matters, thus lessening the effect of a change in central power. It acknowledges that a US state is a political unit and its government is much closer and representative of the sentiments and wishes of the people in terms of most affairs that govern their life. It’s the government that should matter. Also, the federal structure and significant power to an individual state means a more representative government, since if most people of a state vote against the central winner, say Trump, then they don’t have to be subject to his policies on many crucial matters on which they disagree with him. In short, a deeper democracy.


Today, the Union government at Delhi is ruled by a party by dint of its majority in the Lok Sabha. The BJP has won an outright majority of the seats with under 32% of the vote. Even in the form its alliance, the NDA, it represents less than 40% of the voting citizens of the Indian Union. Many states simply had nothing much to do with Modi and his BJP, both of which are extremely unpopular in these states. Thus, the similarity between the extremely divisive reactions that Trump and Modi invoke has some parallels. The sad bit is, the states of USA that disagree with Trump have more protections against Trump than the states of the Indian Union that disagree with Modi have against him. This difference lies in the much robust federalism of USA and the so-called federal structure of the Indian Union that is federal only in name but undemocratically centralized in all legal senses and practical purposes.


Let us understand that by a few key differences between the Constitution of India and that of USA vis-à-vis the question of federalism.


In the US upper house, the Senate, which is a council of states, has equal representation from each state. Thus each state is considered an equal partner with an equal vote irrespective of population, just like the United Nations. In the Indian Union’s upper house, the Council of States or the Rajya Sabha, the number of seats allotted to the states is not equal but is according to population, and hence, is not fundamentally different from the Lok Sabha. In short, the states are not considered equal. The more populous is stronger.


Unlike USA, which has a concept of state citizenship in addition to US citizenship, Indian Union has no legal concept of a West Bengal citizen or a Tamil Nadu citizen, in addition to the citizenship of the Indian Union. In the US constitution, the mandate and powers of the Union government is much, much smaller than the Union government of the Indian Union. In the US constitution, residuary powers lie with the individual state. Thus, the US constitution says, ‘the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States.’ This is a huge difference that in time progressively empowers states of the USA and makes the states of the Indian Union into menial vassals of New Delhi.


States of USA have full control over education – Union has nothing to do with it. States make their own family laws, electoral laws and various such laws and even has its own state supreme court which is the apex court for many matters. The US Supreme Court is not the apex court for all legal matters. For many matters, the apex body is the state supreme court. States levy their own income tax and it has all powers to change such income tax rates and various other tax rates. In short, in terms of making law, levying taxes, making policy and various other issues, an individual state of USA has far, far greater power than an individual state of the Indian Union.


Given the incomparably greater diversity and ethno-linguistic difference between the various states of the Indian Union, the reality should have been the exact opposite. The USA has been the aspirational model for certain key sectors of South Asian elites. As far as the Indian Union is concerned, it shall do well to do away with the absurd centralization of power it has, which assumes the multi-national, multi-lingual Indian Union to be more homogeneous than White Caucasian majority USA. If Indian Union wants to learn from USA, it should learn what a real federal structure looks like. The present rights that individual states of USA have are much, much greater than the present rights of individual states of the Indian Union. This shameful situation must change.