• Lex Specialis

Nature of the Indian Constitution – Federal, Unitary, Quasi-federal

Ajay T.K.

Introduction to the Constitution

The Indian constitution was brought into force on 26 January 1950. It is the Supreme law of the land and the constitution reflects upon the years of struggles and as[irations of the people of the country which was subject to colonial rule. A constitution is a document having special legal sanctity which provides for, the framework and principal functions of all the organs of the Government of a State and declares the principles governing the operations of those organs. The Indian constitution consists of features adopted from other constitutions around the world. B.R. Ambedkar was assigned to draft the constitution and he borrowed a few elements from various other constitutions to draft the Indian Constitution. The Constitution is the very basis on which the laws of the country gain sanctity. The Constitution is the living document, whose interpretation may change as the time and circumstances change. Constitutions play an important part in every political system, because they provide the basis for the orderly resolution of disputes. The basic powers and framework of the key political institutions and actors are found in a constitution.

Federal System of Government

Federal system of government is the one form of government that divides the powers of government between the center and its states. The constitution of the United States follows the federal form of government, also known as federalism. Under federalism, power is divided between the center and the state, the United States government believes that federalism is a compromise between the state and center. A federal government is one in which powers are divided between the national government and the regional governments by the Constitution itself and both operate in their respective jurisdictions independently.

Unitary System of Government

Unitary system of government is a form of government where the sovereign state is governed as a single entity. The center is the supreme authority and the administrative divisions or states have powers that the central government has delegated to them. England, France, Japan, Sri Lanka are examples of Unitary Form of governments. federal form of government authority and power distributed between centre and the constituent units. Even in a Unitary form of Government there might be a lot of decentralization of authority but we cannot claim it as a federal system.

Quasi Federal Nature of the Indian Constitution

The Indian Constitution is a borrowed constitution from multiple existing constitutions. For some, the Indian constitution has a federal element and for the other it has a unitary element. The Indian Federal scheme while incorporating the advantages of a federal structure, yet seeks to alleviate some of its customary weaknesses of rigidity and legalism. It does not therefore follow strictly the conservative or traditional federal pattern. Now, we must understand the quasi federal nature of the Indian Constitution by comparing the features of both the federal system and unitary system of the government. Federalism or Federal Structure is a complex governmental mechanism of a country which seeks to establish a balance between the forces working in favour of concentration of power in the centre and those urging a disposal of it in a number of units. A federation is a political contrivance to reconcile national unity with state rights. Its originality lies in the fact that power at once is concentrated as well as divided.

Features of Federalism in the Indian Constitution

  • Dual Polity -

The constitution establishes a dual form of government, union and the state government. The Union Government has the power to deal with the matters of national importance like defence, foreign affairs, currency and communication and so on. The State government has the authority to guide the respective states with respect to the matters such as public order, agriculture, health, local government and so on. The whole federal system continues to revolve around the concept of federalism.

  • Supremacy of the Constitution -

The constitution is the Supreme Lex, it is considered as the law of the land. The laws enacted by the Union and the states have to comply with the provisions of the constitution. The Courts have the power of judicial review if laws are of conflicting nature.

  • Division of Powers -

The Constitution Divides the powers of the Union and the State over certain matters. This is clearly defined in the Union, State and Concurrent lists. The Union List consists of 97 subjects of national importance such as Defence, Railways, Post and Telegraph, etc. The State List consists of 66 subjects of local interest such as Public Health, Police, Local Self Government, etc. The Concurrent List has 47 subjects such as Education, Electricity, Trade Union, Economic and Social Planning, etc. On this List, both the Union government and State governments have concurrent jurisdiction. However, the Constitution assigns those powers on the subjects that are not enumerated under Union List, State List and Concurrent List to the Union government. Such powers are known as Residuary Powers. If there is any dispute about the division of powers, it can be resolved by the Judiciary on the basis of the constitutional provisions.

  • Written Constitution -

A written constitution is one of the most important aspects of a federal system. The USA, Canada and Australia have written constitutions just like India. Also, a Unitary state cannot exist without a constitution as well. But, the Indian constitution is not rigid. It is a unique blend of rigidity and flexibility. The Indian Constitution has had its share of amendments to help the growing society and changes it can bring on.

  • Independence of Judiciary -

The Supreme Court of India has the power to review the laws passed by states and unions. The judiciary has the power to interpret the constitution and to maintain its sanctity. The Judiciary has the power to uphold the spirit of the constitution. The judiciary also has the powers to resolve disputes between the Union government and the State governments on the constitutional and legal matters related to the division of powers.

  • Sovereignty of the amending body -

Both the centre and the state governments derive their powers from the constitution. Therefore, the sovereign power rests with the body that can amend the constitution.

Unitary Features of Indian Constitution

  • Strong Centre -

The Union List has more subjects than the State List. As a result, more important subjects have been included in the Union List. The Center has the powers to override the Concurrent List. The Centre also has the residuary powers and thus the Constitution has made the Centre strong.

  • Central Government’s control over state territory -

States have no rights of territorial integrity, the parliament can by unilateral action change the area, boundaries or name of any state.

  • Single Constitution -

In India, the Constitution embodies not only the constitution of the Centre but also the constitution of the States. Both the centre and the states must operate in this single frame. Also, the Indian constitution is highly amenable to the changing society.

  • Unequal representation of the state -

In a Federal system, the states are represented equally with regard to the upper house where India has the Rajya Sabha, which prevents it from giving equal representation to all its states.

  • Emergency Provisions -

During an emergency, the Central government becomes all powerful and the states go into the total control of the Centre. It converts the federal structure into a unitary one without a formal amendment of the Constitution. This kind of transformation is not found in any other federation.

  • Single Citizenship -

India adopted the system of single citizenship. There is only Indian Citizenship and no separate state citizenship. All citizens irrespective of the state in which they are born or reside enjoy the same rights all over the country. The other federal states like the US, Switzerland and Australia have dual citizenship, that is, national citizenship as well as state citizenship.


The Indian Constitution has a quasi - federal system. “It doesn’t really matter whether the Constitution is in consonance with the textbook rules of federalism as long as it serves the purpose” that is what Supreme Court said in Kuldip Nair v Union of India, in that case the issue was that in Rajya Sabha elections earlier there was a domicile requirement which was removed by an amendment in 2003 and then it was argued that the amendment violated federal spirit. SC said that a particular kind of federalism or a US type of model may not be part of the basic structure of Indian Constitution. The Indian Federalism is unique in nature and is tailored according to the specific needs of the country. Federalism is a basic feature of the Constitution of India in which the Union of India is permanent and indestructible. As we can see from the features mentioned above, the centre holds power over its state, this shows a federal structure. But, the aspects of flexibility, citizenship and other elements show that the constitution has a spirit of Unitarianism. Hence, the constitution shows a quasi-federal nature.


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