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Indian union and American federalism

Although the histories, levels of economic development, and critical issues of India
and the U.S. are different, the confrontational party politics in their political
systems pose similar challenges. Both countries can learn from the experience of
federalism of the other to take their national agendas forward
BY Neelam Deo


When the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress
threatens to sue the Democrat president over his alleged abuse of power while enforcing
healthcare reforms, as he did in July, it is time to examine the problems that American
democracy is confronting.
Does the fault lie in the design of the American federation, or in the practice of necessarily
confrontational two-party politics? Or is it located in the rapid socioeconomic changes
wrought by globalisation? These questions can be asked of most democracies, including
India, which shares several features with the American political system.
Although the levels of economic development and divisive issues are vastly different in each
country, both India and the U.S. can learn from the experience of federalism of the other in
taking their national agendas forward.
In his first address to the Lok Sabha on 11 June 2014, when Prime Minister
Narendra Modi referred to cooperative federalism, as a former chief minister
of Gujarat he probably had in mind the actualisation of the powers of the state.
The central government has curtailed this by, for example, using its power to
raise and control the bulk of tax revenue.
By adopting more consultative and consensual centre-states relations, Indias
political architecture can move closer to the system introduced by u.s.
President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression in the 1930s. In this
system, the federal, state, and local governments operated cooperatively and
not in their own silos.
The political system of a country is a combined outcome of its geography, history, and
interactions with neighbours. The American federation evolved through the countrys war of
independence, the civil war, and the civil rights movement. The Indian union was formed

after Independence from British rule in 1947. The constituent states began to seek and
obtain greater powers only after the weakening of the Indian National Congress, which had
led the Independence movement.
America was born out of Europeansinitially Britonsfleeing religious persecution, and a
shortage of jobs and food. Thirteen separate colonies were established as the Confederate
States of America; they selected George Washington to lead them in a war of independence
against the British Empire. But this was a weak union that almost fell apart after the
subsequent victory, amid squabbles over settling debts incurred during the war, and over
power-sharing among the 13 erstwhile colonies.
The Indian union, conversely, was designed with a strong centre. This was considered
necessary to preserve the new and fragile country in the face of myriad problems set in
motion by Independence and by Partition on religious grounds into India and Pakistan. The
centre has also had to overcome powerful fissiparous regional tendencies.
The U.S. became a federation only after the end of the civil war in 1865. The war has been
romanticised as a war for the abolition of slavery, but it was actually waged to preserve the
union. It did abolish slavery, but it also ensured that states could not exercise their
(technical) right to secede. This is quite different from the Indian union of states, which the
Constitution mandates is indissoluble in perpetuity.
The separation of powers in the U.S. at the federal level, and in India at the central level,
operates through three branches: the executive (the president and administration in the
U.S.; the prime minister and the Cabinet in India); the legislative (the House of
Representatives and the Senate in the U.S., the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in India); and
the judicial (the Supreme Courts in both countries). Each is replicated in the states in both
Policy areas are separated into central, state and concurrent lists. Defence, foreign relations
and the issuing of currency stays with the centre, while policing and land use devolves to the
states. In the American structure, the president has the power to agree or veto bills, and
appoint his Cabinet, ambassadors and senior officials only after obtaining the approval of a
Senate that has two representatives from each state. The Congress is vested with the power
of the purse and the power to declare war.
This arrangement sought to limit the powers of the federal government. But it has become
the cause of the ongoing dysfunction of the Congress because of the hostility of the
Republican party towards Democrat President Barack Obama.

A similar absence of working relations between the two main national parties in India, the
Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, has meant that Parliament is often unable to
conduct legislative business because of near-daily interruptions by the opposition parties of
the day.
The U.S. Supreme Court has performed a significant role in the exercise of civil rights in the
evolution of the American federation. Although the end of the civil war also meant the end
of slavery, it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted during Lyndon Johnsons presidency,
and the parallel civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., to steer the U.S.
towards a progressive breakdown of racism.
In contrast, the Constitution of India guaranteed equal rights to everyone regardless of
caste, creed, and gender from the moment it was adopted in January 1952. The actual
implementation of these rights for religious minorities, women, and the scheduled castes in
India remains a work-in-progress.
After the period of struggle over civil rights in the American federation, the main tussles
between the centre and the states are over social issues such as gender rights and abortion,
gay rights, welfare programmes like Medicare, and gun control laws. Issues of law and order
such as border protection in Texasare also discussed. In most instances, the divergent
lines are the ideological polarisation between Democrats and Republicans. This makes
compromise increasingly difficult.
In India, revenue-sharing and the implementation of centrally-mandated welfare
programmes such as MNREGA are major points of departure between the centre and state.
The two national parties also confront each other over accommodating the aspirations of
different religious and caste groups even as economic growth challenges traditional social
In both democracies, the degree to which their version of federalism is
effective depends on the extent of compatibility between the countrys political
actors. In the U.S., polarisation is on the rise, possibly because the institutions of
democracy created centuries ago are no longer adequate to address current issues.
In India, the political machinery must address the continuing challenges of secessionist
movements and unresolved problems with neighbouring countries. The demands of a
growing middle class and a better educated, digitally-connected youthful demography in a
slowing economy plagued by corruption are also becoming louder.

These, and other challenges, can be addressed only if the central and state governments
work together more harmoniously than in the past to craft policy frameworks and
administrative structures that are suited to the complex economic space India inhabits in
the globalised world today.