On August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address from Red Fort emphasised that “cooperative competitive federalism” is the need of the hour. If states are cooperative, how can they also be competitive?

On Constitution Day on November 26, as the nature of Indian federalism continues to evolve, it is worth recalling the debates in the 1940s of the Constituent Assembly. The genesis of many contemporary challenges to the concept can be traced to the apprehensions and beliefs expressed by the men and women who drafted the Constitution, laying down the fundamental principles of how India is to be governed.

The term “federalism” is associated more with the United States where specific provinces came together to form a nation. But what does it mean in the Indian context? In the Indian Constitution, “federalism” has a different valence, indicating more than a mode in which the states of the Union are held together.

Seventy-three years ago when the Constitution was adopted, the word “federalism” found a mere 75 mentions in the Constituent Assembly debates about framing the document – even though their discussions ran close to 3.6 million words. Besides, those 75 mentions were made by only 13 people in the 299-member assembly.

As it turns out, it was not a vehement defender of state autonomy, but a strong integrationist – Brajeshwar Prasad, a Congressman from Gaya – who used the word “federalism” the most: he mentioned it 35 times in the course of the debates. He also accounts for 29 of the 159 times the phrase “provincial autonomy” was used in the assembly.

Prasad used these words to warn of the dangers these concepts could pose. “Provincial autonomy [in the 1935 Government of India Act] led to the vivisection of the country,” Prasad claimed. “Federalism will lead to the establishment of innumerable Pakistans in this sub-continent.”

Federalism also presented itself in conversations related to language, the nature of the Union, the state and concurrent lists, tribal autonomy, emergency provisions, village governments and the finance commission.

JJM Nichols Roy, Congress member from the East Khasi Hills, spearheaded the demand for autonomous governance in the tribal regions and hence indirectly attested for a tiered, or federal, system of governance in scheduled areas.

The members of the Constituent Assembly were discussing the Indian federation amid the bloodbath of Partition, the invasion of Kashmir by Pakistan, and the hard-pressed challenge of integrating princely states. For Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru and chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution BR Ambedkar, national unity seemed more important than autonomy to the states.

The decision to adopt such a unitary character with a limited federal nature was made broadly due to four reasons. With looming demands for Partition, an emphasis on unity would help allay concerns of further disintegration and separation.

Besides, in a deeply inegalitarian and hierarchical society like India’s, with differences rooted in caste identities, a unitary impulse would help forge a national identity. Giving the Centre redistributive powers would also help build a welfare state. Finally, this would help mitigate inter-region inequalities by allowing broader interventions to override narrow, parochial concerns.

Despite this, Ambedkar assured the Constituent Assembly, “The Constitution is a Federal Constitution…The Union is not a league of states, nor are the states the agencies of the Union, deriving powers from it.”

Federalism, a feature of the basic structure of Constitution, has infinite possibilities of Centre-state relations, coordination and negotiation. In the new millennium, Indian federalism continues to evolve as it confronts new political equations, fiscal considerations, socio-cultural changes and administrative questions. These debates – largely about fiscal federalism, political federalism, and cultural federalism – echo the arguments of members of the Constituent Assembly members seven decades ago.

Fiscal federalism

Today’s controversies about fiscal federalism, for instance, were foreshadowed by Odisha lawyer Biswantha Das’s warning in August 1949 during a discussion about the distribution of funds between Centre and states. Das cautioned that the “provinces will get scant justice” and the “Centre might monopolise sources of taxation”. As it turns out, a strong Centre with a command-and-control approach over tax regime and funds devolution now seems to have done just that.

In 2015, the 14th Finance Commission recommended that the share of states in taxes collected by the Centre should be increased to 42% from 32%. However, the Centre subverted this by levying more cesses and surcharges that are a part of an indivisive tax pool.

For the past decade, the revenue of states has been stagnant at 6% of the gross domestic product, or GDP, as they cannot raise tax revenue from indirect taxes that have been subsumed in the Goods and Services Tax. State VAT, or value added tax, and Central Sales Tax that were collected and retained by the states have now been subsumed under GST.

The ability of states to spend more on education, health and public order is limited by the fact that their relationship with the Centre is that of a principal and delegates rather than a partnering, facilitative one.

Political federalism

The conflicts about political federalism as reflected in tussles between governors and state governments in West Bengal, Kerala and other opposition-ruled states had also been predicted in the Constituent Assembly. All-India Muslim League member Nawab Muhammad Ismail Khan had noted that in matters of Centre-state relationships it is the “character of the personnel” who run the government that really counts.

Members such as Congress member from Central Provinces and Berar HV Kamath, Kottayam Congressman PT Chacko and Thakur Das Bhargava from Hissar warned that provisions in the Constitution would make state governments “complete vassals” of the Central government. These provisions, they said, were “criminal in nature” because they were very likely to play to the whims of the Central government.

Cultural federalism

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s rhetorical emphasis on ideas like “one nation-one national language”, “one nation one election”, “one nation one exam” and the like is an attempt to create a homogenous society and polity that contravenes the spirit of federalism.

At its heart, federalism is not just a system of devolving powers and resources to the states but also an idea that is inherently anti-hierarchical – embracing difference rather than shunning it. For instance, while making a case for tribal autonomy, leader of the Adibasi Mahasabha Jaipal Munda also argued against the prohibition of liquor saying that for Adivasis, “no religious function can be performed without the use of rice beer”.

Some articles in the Constitution allowed for an asymmetrical federalism, aimed at preserving the uniqueness of the regions by guaranteeing them the Union’s involvement but not interference. Consequently, cultural federalism in principle allows for the possibility of harmonious existence of multitudes of identities and ideas.

While the forces that led to the Constitution having a centralising character were understandable given the anxieties of Partition, those factors do not exist any longer. In 21st century India, continuing emphasis on the nation’s unitary nature is in some ways disrespectful of the ethos of the Constitution. If Central and state governments work together as consultative and facilitative partners, the Union of India will truly be enriched.

November 26 is Constitution Day.

Saumya Gupta is a Fellow at Centre for Legislative Research and Education FLAME University. Shivakumar Jolad is Associate Professor of Public Policy at FLAME University, Pune.