India’s post-colonial constitution introduced a new approach to federalism that was then – and has been – termed a diminished or “near” form of federalism. Indian federalism was nuanced, the argument goes, because it moved away from the idea that federal and regional governments should each have independence in their own sphere of authority, and because it gave to the central government strong prerogatives of interference in state affairs.
After a phase of political regionalization between 1989-2014, in which India seemed to be on an inexorable path of deepening federalism, the election of the BJP government led by Narendra Modi – with an absolute parliamentary majority in the Center – returned the centralizing potential of the Constitution of India in sight once again.
Here, I explore the historical antecedents of India’s distinctive form of federalism. As Madhav Khosla recently arguedIndia embarked on a remarkable path of constitutional innovation alongside democratization in the mid-20th century, the significance of which was “paradigmatic” for the 20th century. The significance of the Indian model of federalism conceived at that time was no less paradigmatic.
Going back to the historical background, it is possible to see that Indian federalism was not a diminished form of an earlier form of federalism, but rather a new form of federalism intended to address the challenges facing India at the time. of its independence from colonial rule. .
It has often been argued that India’s centralism stems from the Constituent Assembly’s concern to keep the nation united after partition. Khosla adds to this the argument that the centralizing tendencies of the Indian Constitution were also an integral part of its democratization project, with a strong central authority crucial to the project of liberating individuals from local patterns of domination.
Political economy factors
Drawing on my research for a book on the history of state and welfare in India, as well as older work on Indian federalism, I explore here some of the political economy factors that also influenced the choice of federal design in India. Specifically, i will suggest that the distinctive elements of Indian federalism were shaped at their origins by the desire among sections of Indian capital, labor leaders and nationalist politicians to build a national economy, overcoming the risks that interprovincial economic competition posed to industrial development throughout India. level.
By the turn of the 20th century, interprovincial competition within India’s cotton textile industry – its largest industrial sector, along with jute – had intensified a “race to the bottom” in labor costs and conditions. work. Operations have become increasingly unprofitable in India’s oldest textile hub, Mumbai, where industrial unrest has escalated in protest of wage cuts, layoffs and attempts to ‘rationalize’ .
While some employers, union leaders (including BR Ambedkar) and Indian National Congress politicians reacted to the deterioration in industrial relations, they argued – in different ways – for a centralized state that would allow the coordination of labor policies and social security that could be applied throughout India rather than imposing higher costs on employers in some areas but not in others.
Competition from low-wage regions has reduced the space for individual provinces, like Bombay, to experiment with policies such as contributory social insurance – emanating from the new International Labor Organization – that would impose additional costs on local employers.
As i show based on archival research, the Indian government’s laws of 1919 and 1935 were amended at the last minute under pressure, respectively, from the International Labor Organization and the British Labor Party (pushing the views of the National Federation of Trade Unions of India ) to ensure that freedom of action is preserved. coordination of labor policy by including it in what has become the competing list of the Constitution.
This took place to the dismay of the colonial authorities who repeatedly avoided national industrial and labor policies, preferring a decentralized laissez-faire approach rather than an interventionist one. In the early 1940s, these constitutional provisions were accompanied by the creation of national labor conferences, the precursor of a standing tripartite committee made up of employers, workers and the state to negotiate industrial relations and labor policy. work at the Center.
When the Constituent Assembly then drafted a Constitution which based its division of powers on the Government of India Act, 1935, it was not a simple appropriation of a colonial constitutional project or the adoption of a reduced version of federalism. Indian constitutional architects deliberately adopted a variant of federalism suited to the political and economic conditions they faced in the mid-twentieth century.
In its choice of a centralized federal conception, India sought to anticipate some of the problems of collective action that arose in decentralized federations, such as the United States or Canada, where the pressure for state- Comprehensive welfare provision was growing, but competition between states hampered the adoption of policies such as unemployment insurance or pensions that would increase labor costs in one region but not in others.
The antecedents of centralism in Indian federalism are not simply a matter of historical debate. They are important today because they continue to shape the context in which national and regional political power and decision-making authority are asserted and contested. Ironically, perhaps, the BJP government led by Narendra Modi has in some ways reversed the view of centralism as an enabling force for policy coordination across India.
The Modi government encouraged state governments to deregulate and amend central labor laws governing the small but politically mobilized organized sector in order to overcome decades-old obstacles to national-level labor law reform.
Simultaneously, however, the central government has centralized the design and demand for credit for social assistance and direct benefit schemes for the unorganized sector that state governments had previously played a key role in designing and implementing.
These twin approaches weaken the Centre’s regulatory role in preventing a ‘race to the bottom’ in working conditions for workers, while also diminishing the incentives and capacity of state governments (especially those led by parties. opposition) to cooperate with the Center to improve service delivery social protection programs for the unorganized sector. But the very fact of these Center-State entanglements in the realm of welfare reflects the deliberate choices of the architects of the Indian Constitution, who saw that welfare should not be the preserve of either the Center or the States alone.
Louise Tillin is professor of politics and director of the King’s India Institute.
The article was first published in India in transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.