Reflections on the ‘quasi-federal’ democracy

Aswini K Ray
Events coinciding with the jubilee of India’s Independence draw attention to the federal structure of India’s Constitution, which is a democratic imperative of multi-cultural India, where the constituent units of the sovereign state are based on language, against competing identities such as caste, tribe or religion. This built-in structural potential for conflict within and among the units, and that between them and the sovereign state, need imaginative federal craftmanship and sensitive political management. The ability of the Indian Constitution to keep its wide-ranging diversity within one sovereign state, with a formal democratic framework is noteworthy. Possibly, with universal adult suffrage and free institutions of justice and governance it is nearly impossible to polarise its wide-ranging diversity within any single divisive identity, even Hindutva; so that, despite its operational flaws, the democratic structure and national integrity are dialectically interlinked. But its operational fault lines are increasingly denting liberal institutions, undermining the federal democratic structure as recent events have underscored.
Some fault lines
First, the tempestuous Parliament session, where the Rajya Sabha Chairperson broke down (in August 2021), unable to conduct proceedings despite the use of marshals; yet, the House passed a record number of Bills amidst a record number of adjournments. Second, cross-border police firing by one constituent State against another, inflicting fatalities, which also resulted in retaliatory action in the form of an embargo on goods trade and travel links with its land-locked neighbour.
The upcoming crisis in Indian federalism
 Such unfamiliar events of federal democracy are recurrent in India, except their present manifest intensity. Legislative disruption was described by a Union Law Minister (while in Opposition) as a ‘legitimate democratic right, and duty’. In the 1960s, the Troika around Lohia claimed its right to enter Parliament on the Janata’s shoulders to exit on the Marshals; posters with labels such as ‘CIA Agent’ were displayed during debates; ‘suitcases’ were transferred publicly to save the government; occasionally, “Honorable Members” emerged from debates with injuries. This time, in the “federal chamber”, “Honorable Members” and Marshals are in physical contact — both claiming ‘casualties’ — official papers vandalised and chairpersons immobilised. Even inter-State conflict has assumed a new dimension.
Key changes
Such empirical realities have led scholars to conceptualise India’s “Post-colonial democracy”, and federalism, differently from their liberal role-models. Rajni Kothari’s “one party dominance” model of the “Congress system” has now been replaced by the Bharatiya Janata Party;
(To be contd)