To federate is to join together. Friendship is the basis of all federalism at any level.
When there is diversity, unity with others is mutually beneficial for them in some aspects; and so they federate or come together on those aspects.
Translated in terms of governments, a federal government is one where certain diverse entities have some common interests.
And the body that oversees and executes these elements that are of common benefit as mutually agreed is called the federal government. Thus, diverse entities retain their autonomy in some aspects of their existence and cede some autonomy as other entities also do, to a common body.
Unless there is nothing to gain for each participant in an interaction, there is no reason to join together or come together.
This combination of own autonomy and ceded autonomy for own benefit, this structure of separate autonomy, is typically called a federal structure.
The federal structure is part of the basic structure of the constitution of India, that is, it cannot be changed by parliamentary legislation.
This is because the basic structure is said to be comprised of qualities that are so fundamental to the formation of the Indian Union that no degree of majoritarianism can override it.
Overriding the basic structure, which also includes things like secularism besides federal structure, destroys the very basis for the existence of the Indian Union.
More than 80% of the world’s population lives under federal or semi-federal administrations.
At its core, federalism, as an ideology, is an agreement between friends.
The friends may be big and small, rich and poor, fat and thin, but they come together due to friendship. All true friendships are based on equality based on dignity.
If a fat friend forces his wishes on a thin friend or if a poor friend steals from a rich friend, there is no more friendship.
Federalism is not majoritarianism
Similarly, at the level of federal government, the abuse of ceded powers by taking from a rich less populous constituent to give to a more populous one, without the explicit consent of the rich, populous one, is not federalism, but another version of crude majoritarianism.
Federalism is based on consensus, not on the basis of the wish of a gang of constituents, ganging up on other constituents. When that happens, it is tyranny at work. In the so-called federal system of the Indian Union, the finance commission unleashes exactly this sort of tyranny on its rich, progressive constituents to subsidise the more populous basket cases of the so-called Hindi belt.
The separation of powers in the Indian Union’s federal system is a much debated topic. Much of the debate actually took place before the 1947 Partition.
During those debates, strong non-Congress ruled provinces had their say and thus the agreement that was reached was one the basis of the cabinet mission plan.
In that plan, defense, external affairs, currency, and communication were to be the fief of the Union or federal government. Every other power was to be with the states/provinces.
This crucially included residuary powers, that is, anything that was not mentioned.
This is important since the list of residuary powers increases with time as new realities crop up with the passage of time.
All states of the US, all provinces of Canada, all nations within the UK have separate flags -- something that is unthinkable in the Indian Union
After Partition, this underwent a sea-change and the Indian Union constitution, dictated by a massive congressite majority, led by upper and middle Gangetic plain leaders, ended up with a super-centralised centre with almost all important powers. States were reduced to mere vassals, with very limited elastic revenue sources of their own.
Since the adoption of the constitution of India in 1950, the story has been one of constant chipping away of the meagre powers that remained with the states.
A toxic majoritarianism
The behaviour of the Congress and the BJP are not fundamentally different in this regard, except that BJP drives the same centralisation process under the garb of PR gimmicks like “co-operative federalism” and also with an eye towards its toxic majoritarianism of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.
Its definition of the first citizen is the Hindi-speaking Hindu male of the upper and middle Gangetic region (Hindustan). Everything else is an appendage.
The resources of all other states are thus extracted to service the material economic interests of this group and the ideological-security anxieties of this group. Dissent from this system is branded as anti-national.
Subject after subject has been transferred from state list to concurrent list (where centre prevails if difference with states arise).
In state subjects, Delhi interferes, coerces, and blackmails -- thus hollowing out the executive authority vested in state governments with regards to the state list. Federalism in the Indian Union has thus reached a serious crisis point.
A comparison with other entities with federal structure like the US, Pakistan, Canada, Australia, or UK -- some of them being models on which the Indian constitution is based upon -- will reveal how fake the federalism practised in the Indian Union is.
A separate flag
In Pakistan, residuary powers are with provinces. It has learned a bit if not enough from the Bangladesh episode.
Through the 18th amendment, it has essentially abolished the concurrent list to transfer subjects to the provinces. In the US, states enjoy huge powers which have prevented the tyranny of Donald Trump being actually felt at the state level.
In Canada and the UK, constituent parts have been allowed referendums on independence and have near sovereign provincial parliaments with massive revenue powers.
Even Sri Lanka, with its history of genocide against Tamils and the Tamil national aspiration, has Tamil in most government documents including its passport.
All states of the US, all provinces of Canada, all nations within the UK have separate flags -- something that is unthinkable in the Indian Union.
This just goes to show their deep anxiety about the fragile nature of unity that actually underlies paeans to “Unity in Diversity.”
A federal system is like a marriage.
Unless each partner has autonomous rights, including the right to separate from what is perceived by one partner to be an unequal, abusive relationship -- what exists then is not a marriage but forced cohabitation. In such a system, domestic partner abuse is the norm.
Indeed, it is the only guarantor of the stability of such a “marriage” -- the federalism practised in the Indian Union is not much different.
Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac.