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India in Transition

CASI Election Conversations 2024: Louise Tillin on How Indian Federalism Has Evolved Under the BJP

Louise Tillin & Rohan Venkat
April 8, 2024

Why are debates over federalism and centralization particularly relevant in India’s 2024 general elections? How have quotas for women representatives—which will soon be in place at the national level—altered Indian politics? What are the elements of India’s “techno-patrimonial welfarism,” which has been a key plank of the current government’s success? What do we now know about how misinformation is used by political players in India?

As millions of Indians set out to vote over the next two months, India in Transition brings you CASI Election Conversations 2024, an interview series featuring renowned scholars reflecting on the factors and dimensions of politics, political economy, and democracy that will define India’s 2024 election.

In the first interview of the series, CASI Consulting Editor Rohan Venkat speaks to Louise Tillin, Professor of Politics at the India Institute, King’s College London, about her research on Indian federalism—including Tillin’s effort to push back against the idea that India is only “quasi-federal,” how economic considerations were a bigger factor in how India’s federal structure was designed, and how the last 10 years of centralization have shifted our understanding of India’s federal underpinnings.

Rohan: Tell us about the broader questions that have animated your research over the years.

Louise: There are two main themes that have run through my work. The first is thinking about the territorial structures of the Indian state, and the second is thinking about the nature of social policy welfare, and particularly the politics of welfare. The first theme–thinking about territory and federalism–my interest in this actually goes right back to the late 1990s when I used to work for the BBC as a South Asia analyst. This was the heyday of national coalition governments and the emergence of what appeared to be a new model of confident, multi-ethnic federalism in which regional and national parties govern together. And that really piqued my interest in understanding Indian politics. So, my work has looked at questions such as, how do political regions come into being? How are the boundaries of states defined and when and why do they change?

I’m also increasingly interested in the boundaries between state and national power. So, how have relationships between the central government or the federal government and state governments changed over time? What space do states have, both fiscally and politically, to shape autonomous policy paradigms? And that then merges into the second set of questions and issues that have animated my research around welfare.

One of the things I've thought quite a lot about is whether or not India has subnational welfare regimes, especially in the heyday of political regionalization. Whether states started to craft distinctive social policy regimes such that you actually start to see states taking very different decisions about what they prioritize politically in terms of social welfare.

I've also been interested in how changing patterns of social welfare provision have altered the nature of electoral politics. That stemmed from asking whether, when state governments provide public goods more effectively, does that make citizens or voters less susceptible to clientelistic inducements—attempts to buy their votes, when institutions function better in providing basic entitlements? Some of my work a while back now, working with Oliver Heath in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh suggested that, for instance, the reforms to the PDS that took shape in Chhattisgarh did start to nudge the way that people thought about the value of their vote in contrast to MP where PDS foodgrains were delivered less effectively. And then I've also worked on questions of the politics of welfare at a national level. So, what have been the political motivations, the political drivers, of different anti-poverty welfare initiatives, especially under the UPA government?

That led into the big book project I've just finished. I've been working on it for the last 7-8 years. It is a longer-term history of welfare in India at the all-India level. There's a lot of state level stories in that book. But I really realized as I was working on welfare politics over the last 10-15 years or so, that for all the excitement, for instance, about the rise of rights-based conceptions of welfare, we had a very ahistorical understanding of the origins and thinking about different ways of doing welfare in India. I was mystified for a long time about why India had come to enact such strong provisions of social security in what we now know as the formal sector, for organized sector workers. And there was really no work that explained the origins of those schemes, which have come now to define the boundaries of what's formal and what's informal in the economy. So, the book that I've just finished traces that history back to the late colonial period. It's a hundred-year history of welfare in India.

Rohan: It’s a big sweep of things, and today I think we’ll only have the time to dip into the federal side of your work. One of the things you've talked about is this idea that India is often referred to as “quasi federal.” Where does India stand as a federal system and what did we think about it before, say, the last decade?

Louise: This is something I've really sought to push back against in a lot of my recent work—this notion that India somehow has an “only quasi” form of federalism or a diminished form of federalism, because the word doesn't appear in the Constitution and, therefore, there's a kind of slipperiness to the way that we think about India's status as a federal system. And I think that slipperiness has really come into view since 2014 and the return of a dominant party system—the return of a party which has a numerical dominance in the National Parliament. This has unsettled, I think, what had appeared to be quite well settled shibboleths about Indian federalism: that Indian politics was essentially federal because of the nature of political regionalization and because of the embedding of the need for national coalition governments that brought together national and regional players; that all of this somehow meant that federalism was an inevitable feature of India's landscape.

Then, all of a sudden, you have a big shift in parliamentary politics that can lead very quickly to rethinking what had appeared to be established facts. And so, the recourse to the quasi-federal label has never really gone away. It's always been there as a subcurrent of thinking about defining Indian federalism, but I think it's become much more prominent since 2014 because of the wider ways in which the federal idea is being rethought and contested.

Rohan: What is that broader argument that says this idea is mistaken?

Louise: The term “quasi federal” goes back to K.C. Wheare, the constitutional scholar in the late 1950s and early 1960s, who defined the new model of federalism that had been designed in the Indian constitution as “quasi” because of the ways in which it departed from earlier models of federalism in which the idea was that there were clearly delineated separate spheres of authority between central or federal governments and constituents subunits of the federation.

India appeared in quite important ways to violate that principle. It did so most prominently through Article III of the Constitution, which enables the central government to redraw the boundaries of states, and also through the emergency provisions, especially the provision for President's Rule, Article 356.

I think there were a number of problems now, if we look back at that argument. The first is that even those federations which seem to have defined the “separate spheres” model of federalism, most notably the US, have themselves moved away from a “separate spheres” model. And in very important ways, they have seen the empowerment of the federal government to intervene in the affairs of states. These are still active subjects of debate in the US, for instance.

But in the Indian case, I think the unfortunate definition of India as only quasi federal at its origins led scholars and observers of India to lose sight of what was paradigm-defining about Indian federalism. India was the first country to establish a new model of federalism after the Second World War. And in doing that, it actually learned from the problems that were being faced in other, more established federations, especially to lay the foundations for the development of welfare states and the seeing through of the promises that political leaders had made to their citizens during the war.

India learned from those debates. Its constituent assembly and debates that preceded the constituent assembly was shot through with reference to what was happening in other well-established federations. And so, the recourse to a heavily centralized model of federalism in India's case wasn't simply the continuity with colonial era emergency provisions and a heavily empowered central government. It was also an attempt to do something that would arguably enable the central government to do things that might also be considered progressive: to regulate internal competition within India's national economy and to lay the foundations to introduce things like social security for industrial workers that countries like the United States and Canada at the time were finding very difficult to do because of the decentralized nature of the federal system and the number of veto points this established for introducing those kinds of policies. My argument really is that we need to actually recover the purposes of Indian centralism in order to understand the distinctive nature of Indian federalism rather than simply seeing it as a diminished form of something else.

Rohan: That gives us a good opportunity to dig a little bit more into one of your recent papers, which argues that it wasn't just the fear of secession and the post-Partition concerns about nationhood that drove India's more centralized federalism system. It was their economic considerations as well.

Louise: This is a paper which actually came out of the big book project. For a long time, the dominant interpretation of the origins of India's strongly-centralized model of federalism lay in the assumption that in the aftermath of Partition, the constituent assembly was concerned about empowering the center in order to prevent a future balkanization or breaking up of the Indian nation. The strong center as a bulwark against secessionism. And that was certainly there as a theme in the constituent assembly debates. But, like others who have revisited some of these debates, I also think there was more to the nature of the centralism that we see in the Indian constitution. And the work that I've done has really been to trace back where some of the provisions for social and economic planning came from and why they helped to create an empowered central government.

And that actually predates the constituent assembly and goes back to debates that took place around the time of the formulation of the Government of India Act in 1935 when there was a growing concern both amongst moderate labor leaders in India, nationalist politicians, and, to some extent, among industrialists, that there was a form of interprovincial economic competition starting to take place in India, which was leading to a race to the bottom in wages for industrial labor, especially in the cotton textiles industry. And that this was both generating industrial unrest and putting a lot of pressure on the more established centers of the cotton textiles industry, especially in Bombay, which had been undercut on labor costs by newer upcountry mills.

So, there was an amendment to the 1935 Government of India Act that was pushed by the Labor Party in Britain. It was the only subject which was moved from what became the state list of the Seventh Schedule to the concurrent list. And this was on social security to enable stronger national coordination of this form of economic competition. There's more in the article, obviously, but it's really tracing the ways in which some of these currents of thought were already shaping the way that the Government of India Act panned out. Of course, we all know how much the constitution of India borrowed from the Government of India Act, but I think we perhaps know less well some of the stories that helped frame the Government of India Act and its implications for the nature of federalism.

Rohan: That's super interesting, and I think given ongoing debates about where labor fits and how states should be dealing with them, it remains a relevant point. Let’s jump forward a little bit then. As you mentioned at the top, there was a sense in the regionalizing period of Indian politics that further federalization was inevitable and that has now been challenged. How have scholars who look at Indian federalism changed their minds or seen the development of the last decade?

Louise: The story of the last decade has obviously been one of growing centralization. Quite a sharp move away from the pre-2014 era in which political regionalization was manifest in government in New Delhi. And we can list off a number of ways in which that centralization has been manifest, whether through the creation of whole series of what Yamini Aiyar and I called in an earlier article "One Nation policies." Policies that really hue to a slightly more unitary conception of India; whether that's “one nation, one tax,” which has manifest itself in the Goods and Services Tax regime; whether that's “one nation, one ration card,” “one nation, one electricity grid,” and of course, the debate about simultaneous elections, “one nation, one election.”

Beyond that, there has been a style of political leadership that is much more centralized and much more personalized, and which, in many ways, has driven a partisan polarization between the central government and the states and a more zero-sum equation between the central government and the states than that which existed pre-2014. In a whole series of ways, the central government has used extra parliamentary mechanisms to put pressure on opposition-ruled states: the increasing politicization of the governor's office, the increasing use of the Enforcement Directorate to take action against opposition politicians.

Alongside that, we need to remember that there's a political economy story. We've seen growing economic concentration, the emergence of a small number of national champions with close connections to the central government, which have increasingly overshadowed the space for regional capital.

Rohan: Before this decade, some saw federalization as being an inevitable feature of the way Indian systems are laid out, but the last 10 years have challenged that.

Louise: If we look back to the 1989 to 2014 era, that period of political regionalization, in many ways, wasn’t actually years in which there was a great deal of strengthening the institutions of federalism or even really articulating the idea of federalism. Most national coalition governments were held together through a series of opportunistic bargains between regional parties and their national counterparts. And we saw coalition governments rise and fall on the basis of calculations that regional parties were making about advantage in their own regional political arenas, much less by way of coalitions among states to advance the general rights of states or to institutionalize or embed structures of intergovernmental relations, which, if they had been better entrenched, might be playing quite a different role today.

The glaring example there is the Interstate Council, which came out as one of the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission on Interstate relations in the late 1980s, but really fell into abeyance pretty much during that era of coalition politics because most of the mechanism for managing federal center-state relations was taking place between political parties and not in well institutionalized spaces. I think we can really see in hindsight how weakly entrenched the institutional landscape of federalism was in that period of supposedly inevitable federalization.

The other thing that has come into much clearer relief in the last 10 years has been the question of federal design. It's not a coincidence that I and others have been going back to understand the origins of India's centralized model of federalism and trying to recover the ideas that animated that design. But the reality is that the constitution itself, by design, places relatively few checks on a party which has a parliamentary majority, particularly if you think of the design of the Rajya Sabha. India’s upper house looks very different than the Senate in the US or the Brazilian Senate, for instance, where states are represented on an equal basis. These are chambers that were really designed to empower states and to defend states' rights. The Rajya Sabha wasn’t designed in that way. Its composition mirrors the Lok Sabha, and it doesn't represent a separation of powers in the same way that you see in the US system, whereby federalism itself can appear as a check on the president. The parliamentary system of federalism that India has adopted looks very different. So, there are far fewer institutional checks by design in India.

Over time, the nature of parliamentary federalism in India has actually meant that India has been able to do things that have strengthened federalism. This is hard to get one’s head around. We started off thinking about why India was described as a quasi-federal system by K.C. Wheare. It was because of Article III [which allows the center to carve out new states]. But without Article III and without the empowerment of the central government to create states often against the wishes of their parent states, would we have seen something like linguistic reorganization of state boundaries in the 1950s? Would we have seen the creation of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, and Jharkhand in 2000? Would we have seen the reorganization of Assam?

All of those we might see as actually having given life to Indian federalism, as a set of political institutions that have both expressed and enabled the accommodation of sociolinguistic and ethnic diversity, which might not have been possible if India had not adopted this “quasi federal” model and had gone for something that looked more like an American style model of federalism in which the rights of founding states were recognized as being preeminent.

But the flip side is what we've seen in the period since 2014, which is that flexibility, that centralism can also be used by a central government to do things we might see as being damaging to the federal fabric. I didn't mention in my earlier answer the abrogation of Article 370, of course, but that is probably the clearest example of something that is possible within India's constitutional design, but that has really started to pick away at what some scholars had assumed were core elements of India's federal design—not only that the design of state boundaries reflected linguistic, cultural, ethnic differences, but also that some states within that picture might have special status or an asymmetric status in the Constitution. So, I think those questions, those dilemmas which go to the heart of the nature of India's constitutional design, have become much more apparent in the more recent period.

Rohan: You mentioned both institutionalization and articulation as being lacking in the more federalizing period prior to this—1989 to 2014. Would you say the same is true of the centralization of the last 10 years then, or is it appearing to be both institutional in character and also being discussed and advertised more clearly as centralization?

Louise: That's a really good question. Both in the more federalizing period and in the more centralizing period, we haven't seen explicit shifts in jurisdiction. The Seventh Schedule [which defines the division of powers between center and states] hasn't been amended in the last 10 years, but obviously we've seen a pronounced shift in political culture in where decisions are made and how they're made, and as you say, a different set of ideas that are used to justify those things. We have seen important institutional change, the abrogation of Article 370 perhaps being the most important in the landscape of federalism, but actually not the only major change.

The introduction of the GST regime, as well, was one of the most important changes we’ve seen in institutionalizing a certain kind of federal relations. The GST regime actually could have offered a moment to strengthen the architecture of intergovernmental relations, i.e. the institutional space for negotiation between the central government and state governments. But by virtue of the way that voting rights were designed on the GST Council, which has meant the central government is able to overrule state governments and also what one might describe as the “culture” or the “spirit” of decision making on the council which has not really imbibed what Michael Burgess called “the federal spirit,” a culture of reciprocity and mutual respect and self-restraint between the parties to a federal bargain between the central government and state governments. I don't think we've really seen that operating within the GST regime. So, I think the GST regime is something of a missed opportunity for deepening a culture of federalism.

Rohan: And as you point out in the One Nation paper, and also talk of a “double engine sarkar” [the BJP ruling at both central and state levels], the talk of One Nation policies makes much clearer the explicit articulation of this being a good thing. It's not centralization by stealth, but a deliberate effort to popularize them.

Louise: Yes, very much. Modi came into office in 2014 talking of trying to create a “Team India” to encourage states to work together in the national interest, using the language of cooperative federalism. I think over time that has really been overshadowed because this is not states working together on an even playing field in order to determine the national interest. This is states being cajoled either through incentives or through coercion to pursue the national interest as defined by the central government. So, I think that's quite different than some of the rhetoric around a “Team India” that Modi came into office with, and as a former chief minister himself.

Rohan: What about President's Rule and also other interventions from the Centre, that you've studied in attempting to understand this shift over the last decade?

Louise: Some of the thinking I've been doing on this has been prompted by a comparative project that scholars in South Africa have been leading, which is to try and understand a curious absence in the global comparative literature on federalism. What constitutional and political mechanisms do federal systems have to enable the intervention of federal governments in lower tiers of government? This led me to go back to histories of the use and abuse of President's Rule in India. That's a history that really shifted from the mid-1990s onward with the Bommai judgment of the Supreme Court. But then to think about what the afterlife of Bommai has been and what kinds of federal interventions take place today. In the last 10 years, we've seen two attempts to use President's Rule in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh knocked back by the courts, but probably the most consequential was the placing of Jammu and Kashmir under President's Rule before the abrogation of Article 370 and the state's bifurcation. And I think what I would describe as the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the abrogation of Article 370, which came late last year, is very striking on this question in that it upheld the constitutionality of doing something as consequential as changing the status of a constituent state of the Indian Union, not only by removing the degree of autonomy that it supposedly enjoyed under the Constitution, but bifurcating it as well, while the state was under President’s Rule.

To do that while the state was being ruled under President's Rule and not just by chance, but because the BJP at the state level had withdrawn from a coalition government necessitating the recourse to President's Rule. For the Supreme Court to rule that there was nothing constitutionally to prevent such a decision being taken while the elected government of the state was in abeyance, I think is pretty astonishing and it really does push us to think about the safeguards for federalism, that are or are not in the Constitution, and also the ways in which the courts have, over time, interpreted those safeguards.

Rohan: Going into this election and beyond, could you tell us a little bit about what you or other scholars who look at Indian federalism might be looking ahead to?

Louise: The big question is delimitation, of course. The revision of the drawing of parliamentary constituencies or the allocation of parliamentary constituencies per state, which is due to take place by 2026. Due to a rather funny Emergency era quirk, the allocation of seats per state in the Indian Parliament has been frozen according to the 1971 census for almost the last 50 years. And in 2026, the clause that has governed that distribution of parliamentary seats will expire. We don't know yet exactly how the real limitation or delimitation will take place. But the expectation is that the exercise is likely to lead to those northern states, in which population growth has taken place at a more rapid pace, to see their position in parliament proportionally increase at the expense to some extent—and this is what we don't know—of southern states which have had lower rates of population growth since the early 1970s.

Politically, of course, this is potentially dynamite because those faster growing northern states are the stronghold of the BJP, whereas those southern states that have seen slower population growth are now really the stronghold of opposition parties at the state level. They're also arguably the engines of the Indian economy. These are richer states which pay more into the center through taxation, which is then redistributed to poorer northern states. So not only will delimitation open a very thorny set of political questions about the distribution of political power within the federal system, it's also reopening a debate about the kind of bargain that underpins India's fiscal federal system, and how that is handled after the elections is going to be of paramount importance to the future of Indian federalism.

I don't think it's a done deal yet, and I think the ways in which decisions are made are likely to be shaped by the election outcomes, but we know that it's possible that there'll be an overall expansion of the size of the Lok Sabha. Is there scope within that to compensate to some extent southern states for the loss proportionally of their standing vis-à-vis northern states? There's another set of questions that haven't really been engaged in at all about what kinds of compromises could be thought of in the Rajya Sabha to compensate for a change in the composition of political power in the lower house. I'd like to think that this is a moment where you could have a federalizing solution to a political conundrum where you could actually undertake a more federalizing reform to the Rajya Sabha in order to offset changes in the Lok Sabha. But I'm a realist. I don't necessarily foresee this happening, but those are the kinds of questions that I'll certainly be looking out for after the elections.

I think the other trend or question to be thinking about after the elections is at a more cultural or ideological level. We've seen, over the course of the last parliament in particular, the much more confident or strident recourse to, on one hand, definitions of the national interest or emphasis on the question of a national rather than state-led interest. But also the question of what it means to see India as a civilizational state and one with an empowered majority religion. What does that mean for the ways in which the fabric of federalism might start to be changed?

It is only relatively recently that the BJP has accommodated itself to federalism. If you think back to the 1950s and 1960s, the era of linguistic reorganization, its forerunner, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was explicitly opposed to linguistic reorganization. I wrote about this in my book, Remapping India. In the 1950s, the Jana Sangh referred to linguistic reorganization as reflecting a distorted Western concept of multi-nationalism. In the 1960s, it called for India to be both formally recognized as a unitary state, but also for power to be decentralized to the so-called janapadas, the 120 odd administrative districts that had been identified in a series of Sanskrit texts.

I think there are elements of the civilizational thinking about India or Bharat, the strains of a more organic conception of national unity, of a Hindu social order. These kinds of themes are becoming much more prominent. We saw them being articulated with the inauguration of the Ram Mandir and the resolution in parliament following that. In all sorts of ways, we're going to see the more forceful expression of India potentially as a Hindu state come into conflict with the idea of India as a multi-ethnic federal state. And that will also be bound up with the politics of the delimitation process. That's why many observers see federalism as one of the critical battlegrounds, without wanting to resort to hyperbole here, but to see federalism really as the front line of the battle for the heart of India's democracy.

Rohan: Over the last 10 years, are there pieces, papers, interventions by other scholars on the question that you've found useful in pushing our thinking on this further?

Louise: There haven't been a huge number of books on Indian federalism, qua Indian federalism, but there have been several big books that have engaged with the Indian constitution, which I think have been important. So, I think especially in Madhav Khosla's book, India's Founding Moment, he has another kind of argument about the origins of India's centralized federalism. This is also an argument that Arghya Sengupta engages within his recent book, The Colonial Constitution. I differ with Sengupta in the way that he understands the origins or the consequences of centralism, but I think both of these books are trying in different ways to make sense of the nature of centralism in Indian federalism. Someone who hasn't published much yet, but I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does publish, is the historian Sarath Pillai who's based at the University of Pennsylvania. He's doing some really interesting work on the ideas of federalism that were circulating in the late colonial period, especially in the princely states.

That is terrain that has been so understudied, but is so crucial because if we think about the actual origins of federalism, this wasn't simply the coming together of a set of British-ruled provinces. The original impetus for a form of federalism in the 1935 Government of India Act was bringing together British provinces with the princely states. So, thinking about the ideas of federalism, the conceptions of sovereignty that were circulating amongst princely states is so crucial to understanding the contested ideas of federalism that have informed constitutional design in India.

Apart from that, there's a book that came out on the role of the governor last year, which I think was also much needed. There's been so little work on the role of the governor, and yet it's such a curious provision of the constitution. This office that was established, which endowed the person of the governor with very ill-defined discretionary powers, why that came about and why it persisted and whether it should continue to persist are such important questions. But there's been so little thinking of them. So, this book, Heads Held High by Shankar Narayanan, Kevin James, and Lalit Panda, is really worth the read.

Rohan: Finally, I always like to ask for three recommendations—in this case, for those interested in the question of Indian federalism.

Louise: One is to read and think comparatively because we learn so much about India by understanding the way that federalism works elsewhere. One interesting set of debates that may become relevant in India are debates about hourglass federalism. This is a model of federalism with a hollowed out middle and empowered central government and empowered local governments. There's some interesting comparative work on hourglass federalism, which might be of interest to people thinking about what kinds of futures we might envisage in India, like a recent piece by Michael Breen and Ian Payne, which looks at how that plays out in Nepal, on India's doorstep, in South Africa, and Canada, and elsewhere.

A second recommendation is to perhaps go back to some of the classics. I think of books like Daniel Elazar’s Exploring Federalism, thinking about federalism at a conceptual level. What does it mean? Elazar reminds us that the roots of the term “federalism” lie in the Latin term “foedus,” which means “covenant” and the term “fides,” which means “faith and trust.” Out of that comes Michael Burgess's idea of the federal spirit. But what kind of moral compact goes into federalism and how that might be animated or recovered in India, I think, are interesting questions to think through.

Perhaps a third recommendation is not a recommendation for a piece of reading, but it's just the reminder to think and to reason historically. Federalism has always been a contested and shifting idea in India, not a settled one. And centralization and decentralization are not one-way streets. These patterns take place cyclically. So, thinking historically, thinking comparatively, and going back to some of the classics would be my three recommendations.

Louise Tillin is Professor of Politics at the India Institute, King’s College London.

Rohan Venkat is the Consulting Editor for India in Transition and a CASI Spring 2024 Visiting Fellow.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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