Asymmetric Federalism in India: Balancing Diversity and Unity


Asymmetric federalism in India” emphasizes unequal power-sharing arrangements within a federation, has become a prominent topic in Indian politics.

Understanding Asymmetric Federalism

Asymmetric federalism describes a federal system where the central government and constituent units (states/UTs) possess unequal powers and relationships across political, administrative, and fiscal domains.

Dimensions of Asymmetry:
Asymmetry can be vertical (between the Centre and states) or horizontal (among states/UTs themselves).

Asymmetry can arise from the constitution itself (e.g., specific articles) or evolve through established conventions within the federation.

Asymmetric Features of Indian Federalism

  1. Vertical Asymmetry (Centre-State Relations)

Strong Centre:
The Indian Constitution vests significant power with the central government:

Article 3:
Unilateral power to alter state names and boundaries.

Articles 352 & 356:
Provisions for National Emergency and President’s rule, granting the Centre increased control over states during such periods.

Article 248:
Residuary powers of legislation lie with the Parliament, allowing it to legislate on unforeseen subjects.

Union List:
The Constitution assigns key subjects like defense, foreign affairs, and currency to the Centre.

Concurrent List:
The Centre can override state laws on subjects in the Concurrent List.

Parliamentary Supremacy:
The Parliament has the power to make laws for certain subjects even in the State List under specific circumstances.

Emergency Powers:
During emergencies, the Centre gains extensive control over state administration.

Integrated Judiciary and Single Citizenship:
India has a unified judicial system and a single citizenship, strengthening central authority.

Governor’s Appointment:
The Governor, appointed by the President, acts as the Centre’s representative in the state.

All India Services (IAS, IPS):
These services provide the Centre with a significant degree of control over state bureaucracy.

Integrated Election Commission and CAG Audit:
Both the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) are central bodies responsible for conducting elections and overseeing state finances, respectively.

  1. Horizontal Asymmetry (Variations Among States/UTs)

State Classification (1950 Constitution):
The Constitution initially classified states into four categories (Part A, B, C, and D) with varying degrees of autonomy. This classification has evolved over time.

Unequal Rajya Sabha Representation:
Representation in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) is based on population, leading to unequal weightage for states with smaller populations compared to those with larger populations.

Part VIII of the Constitution:
This part deals with Union Territories (UTs) and establishes distinct federal arrangements for them compared to states. Many UTs lack legislatures and ministerial councils.

Special Provisions for North-Eastern States (Art 371A-371J):
These articles grant enhanced autonomy and protection to several north-eastern states, recognizing their unique socio-cultural identities.

Schedule 5 & 6:
Schedule 5 provides for the administration and control of Scheduled Areas and Tribes in certain states, while Schedule 6 establishes autonomous districts and regions in specific north-eastern states.

Variations within UTs:
Puducherry and Delhi have legislatures, while other UTs do not. Puducherry also has a unique “non-contiguous” territory with enclaves located within other states.

Article 371:
This article empowers the Governors of Maharashtra and Gujarat to establish separate development boards for specific regions within their states.

Article 370 (Abrogated):
This former article granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, including its own constitution and definition of “permanent residents.”

  1. Fiscal Asymmetry

Vertical Asymmetry:
The Finance Commission periodically recommends the share of states in central tax revenues. The 15th Finance Commission recommended a 41% share for states in central taxes for the 2021-26 period.

Horizontal Asymmetry (Devolution Among States):
The Centre allocates resources to states based on various criteria like income distance, demographic performance, forest cover, and ecological factors. This ensures that states with greater needs receive proportionally more resources.

Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS):
The Centre implements various development schemes in collaboration with states. These schemes often involve differential funding patterns, with special category states receiving a higher share of funding compared to normal category states.

Need for Asymmetric Federalism in India

Accommodation of Plurality and Diversity:
India’s vast and diverse population necessitates a federal system that can accommodate the unique needs and aspirations of different regions and communities. Asymmetric federalism allows for flexibility and caters to the specificities of various states.

Integration and Accommodation:
It enables self-rule for states within the framework of a shared national identity. By providing greater autonomy to regions with distinct cultures or languages, asymmetric federalism fosters a sense of ownership and participation in governance.

Protection of Minorities:
In states with concentrated minority populations, asymmetric federalism can provide these groups with greater control over their affairs and safeguard their cultural and linguistic identities.

Addressing State-Specific Issues:
Different states face unique challenges and require tailored solutions. Asymmetric arrangements allow states to focus on their specific priorities and develop policies that best address their local needs.

Strengthening Federalism:
Asymmetric federalism, when implemented effectively, can promote decentralization of power and decision-making. This fosters a more participatory and responsive governance system.

Salad Bowl Approach:
This metaphor emphasizes the importance of recognizing and respecting cultural differences within a unified India. Asymmetric federalism allows states to retain their distinct identities while still being part of the larger nation, similar to the various ingredients in a salad bowl retaining their individual flavors while contributing to a delicious whole.

Criticisms of Asymmetric Federalism

Erosion of National Unity:
Excessive asymmetry can potentially weaken the sense of national unity and create a sense of “us vs. them” between states.

Inefficiencies and Disparities:
Unequal resource allocation and variations in administrative practices across states can lead to inefficiencies and exacerbate existing disparities in development.

Potential for Misuse:
Granting excessive autonomy to certain states could lead to situations where powerful regional leaders misuse their power or hinder national integration efforts.

Challenges in Implementation:
Effective implementation of asymmetric federalism requires a delicate balance between accommodating regional aspirations and ensuring national coherence.

The Way Forward

Striking a Balance:
Finding the right balance between central authority and state autonomy is crucial. This balance can be achieved through effective dialogue, cooperation, and a commitment to national unity while respecting regional diversity.

Strengthening Institutions:
Robust institutions like the Finance Commission and Inter-State Council (ISC) play a critical role in ensuring equitable resource allocation and mediating inter-state disputes.

Evolving Needs:
The nature of Asymmetric Federalism in India might need to adapt over time as India’s socio-economic landscape changes and regional aspirations evolve.

Transparency and Accountability:
Mechanisms for transparent and accountable governance are essential to ensure that Asymmetric Federalism in India is not misused.


Asymmetric federalism is a complex but necessary feature of the Indian federation. Understanding its various dimensions, justifications, and potential pitfalls is crucial for future civil servants who will play a vital role in ensuring its effective implementation. By striking a balance between national unity and regional aspirations, asymmetric federalism can contribute to a more inclusive, equitable, and responsive governance system in India.

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