The 2019 Indian general elections and the demise of political federalism?

Published: 6 August 2019

The 2019 Indian general elections took many by surprise. In spite of a lacklustre economic performance, the Bharatiya Janata Party increased its parliamentary majority. For the first time in India since 1984, a single party crossed the 300-seat benchmark in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. A lot of ink has been spent already on what could have triggered this decisive win. Analysts have pointed at the ability of the BJP to occupy the ideological centre ground in Indian politics, focused on ‘development’ (mainly infrastructure), opposition to lower caste reservations and rising support for Hindu nationalism. The latter became more prominent during the campaign following a terrorist attack in Kashmir, just six weeks before the vote was underway. Others have emphasized how the BJP’s close connections to business (and media) in tandem with a change in party funding legislation helped it to build up an electoral war-chest, the likes of which have not been seen in Indian electoral history. Some scholars pointed at the ties of the BJP with organizations of the Hindu right, most notably the millions who belong to the Hindu Volunteers Organization or RSS. They assisted the BJP during the campaign and helped to mobilize turnout. Finally, analysists identified the degree of trust which voters have continued to place in Narendra Modi, India’s highly combative Prime Minister, and the lack thereof in his main political opponent, Rahul Gandhi; the youngest heir to the Congress Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. 

Whatever triggered the 2019 outcome, the implications thereof for the nature of center-state relations in India cannot be underestimated. For long, India’s federal system has operated ‘in the shadow of hierarchy’ (Heritier). Constitutionally-speaking, India is a union, not a federal state. The distribution of competencies is stacked in favor of the centre, which preoccupies the field of legislation and taxation. The central government also determines citizenship and it can legislate in state matters when deemed in the national interest. Most controversially, provided certain conditions are met, the centre can suspend the autonomy of a state government by triggering so-called President’s Rule (Article 356). 

Yet, the general consensus is that the ‘pluralization’ of the Indian party system between 1996 and 2014 and the liberalization of the Indian economy pushed many of these ‘centralizing features’ to the side. Liberalization reduced the effectiveness of the central state in tying state governments to national spending priorities. Where it did so, Chief Ministers, especially of economically performant states which by now could access (foreign) credit markets complained of undue central interference. This was the case more evidently for Chief Ministers who represented state-based parties or parties in national opposition. In turn, the pluralization of the party system made successive union cabinets dependent on the support of state-based parties who used their bargaining power to effectively institute a form of political ‘shared rule’ (albeit it selectively). The changed political context also emboldened the Indian Supreme Court in its policing of President’s Rule, an issue it entirely avoided in prior decades, due to its highly political nature. 

The aftermath of the 2014 general elections brought home the extent to which ‘decentralization’ in India had been contingent on party political relations and that with the gradual assertion of BJP dominance, the shadow of hierarchy would assert itself once more. This became visible in attempts to displace opposition-ruled states by activating President’s Rule (though at least in the short run stopped by the Supreme Court). Under the guise of ‘competitve-cooperative’ federalism, centralization was also manifested in a drive to make states compliant with centrally-set targets in the implementation of so-called national development schemes. The NITI Aayog, which replaced the Planning Commission, nearly lost its full capacity to allocate shared cost programs. So whatever input state governments acquired through their participation in so-called Regional Councils in the NITI Aayog, they lost by ceding full control in the financing of these programs to the central ministry of Finance, which - unlike the NITI -  does not incorporate state actors into its decision-making. Centralization tendencies have also been visible in how the BJP has positioned itself in relation to asymmetric arrangements, particularly Art 370/35 on the basis of which Kashmir acquired a special status and in the party’s push to organize congruent national and state assembly elections. Finally, the BJP itself has become more internally centralized with power unquestionably centered around a small inner core group headed by Modi and his trusted lieutenant, party president and now Home Minister Amit Shah. 

Constitutional constraints have stopped the BJP from pushing centralization even further. Parliament alone cannot simply repeal the special status of Kashmir, although the BJP is challenging as it unilaterally introduced parliamentary legislation on 5 August 2019 to revoke Kashmir’s special status and bifurcate it into two centrally controlled union territories; Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Changing some aspects of India’s territorial design (such as the distribution of tax resources across levels) requires a constitutional amendment with the consent of absolute or two third majorities in both federal chambers and a majority of the state legislatures. Furthermore, the Supreme Court (which oversees its own appointments) developed a controversial ‘basic doctrine’ which renders certain constitutional amendments, a.o. those that seek to undermine the ‘federal’ nature of India, inadmissible. 

At this point in time, the BJP does not yet control an absolute majority in the Rajya Sabha, India’s indirectly elected second chamber. But this may change if the party does well in forthcoming state assembly elections. With Congress in disarray after its poor electoral performance and subsequent resignation of Rahul Gandhi as party president, a two third majority could be within reach. Since the 2019 general elections, the BJP has already flexed its muscles and used its money power to poach Congress MPs in Goa and Karnataka; in the latter case, dislodging a JD(S)-Congress government from state power. The BJP also appeared to query certain conventions which underpinned the functioning of Indian federal democracy. It created a stir by suggesting that the next Finance Commission, an expert commission advising on the distribution of shared tax revenues, use the 2011 and not the 1971 population census as its basis. The former works to the advantage of the northern Hindi-belt states (the traditional stronghold of the BJP) but harms the Southern states which interpret the use of the 1971 census as a reward for their more effective birth-control policies. The BJP is also pushing to promote Hindi more, at the expense of English, which alienates those states in which regional languages are prevalent, especially the Southern states given that their Dravidian languages have little in common with Hindi. 

The American scholar William H Riker once said that the decentralization of a state is directly linked to the decentralization of its party system. His findings are corroborated insofar as India appears to be centralizing in tune with the reemergence of a dominant party system. Yet, the decentralized party system which preceded it may have yielded a more decentralized federal system in practice only. In failing to put the Indian state on a more decentralized constitutional footing, regional parties acquiesced in keeping the shadow of hierarchy alive. By 2019, India is living up to its label as a ‘union state’ once more, as the centralizing features of its constitution are crowding out federalism once more.  


Wilfried Swenden is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh and was from 2015-2018 Co-Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the university. He has published widely in the field of comparative federalism and Indian politics and policy. 

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