Citing the many fronts on which the Centre is currently clashing with the states – over the Goods and Services Tax compensation, the new farm bills, the politicisation of the Central Bureau of Investigation and much more – Louise Tillin recently declared that this is a “defining moment for the future of Indian federalism.”

Tillin is the director of the India Institute at the King’s College London, and author of Indian Federalism. She has spent years studying the interaction between the Centre and states in India, and how the country’s federal compact operates differently from other prominent federations.

I spoke to Tillin about her research into the factors that led India to choose a centralised model of federalism, how the Narendra Modi era upended conventional wisdom on the regionalisation of Indian politics, and what further research she would like to see.

This is one of a series of conversations on Indian federalism on The Political Fix, a newsletter on Indian politics and policy that brings you an interview with an expert every week.

How did you come to study India – and federalism in particular?
I first came to India in the summer of 1998 when I was an undergraduate history student, and I had just started to dip my toe in studying Indian history. I spent a month or so in North India. And from that point on, it was a process of really falling ever more deeply interested in understanding India.

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I joined the BBC and I worked initially as a political analyst in Westminster, but quite quickly moved into world affairs analysis and became a South Asia analyst.

The late 1990s were the beginnings of the consolidation of coalition governments in India. And as I was called on to provide analysis on India, very quickly I realised that I couldn’t say much on Indian politics without understanding the process of political regionalisation.

And, of course, the late 1990s were a time of renewed conflict with Pakistan, so all of these things piqued my interest in better understanding the dynamics of regionalism in India and South Asia more generally.

I then spent a couple of years studying in the [United] States, in Philadelphia, which was the birthplace of American federalism. And that was the point at which my journalistic brush with South Asia kind of hit the road in terms of interacting with comparative theory on federalism and politics, and continued into a PhD programme.

It was a consequence of when I started spending time in India and the kinds of questions that I was starting to think about, both in terms of conflict resolution, but also just the reality of electoral politics which was changing in the late 1990s, early 2000s, which really drove me to study political life from from the bottom up.

In 2000, I went on to study the question of the redrawing of internal political boundaries, in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. I spent considerable time in those places understanding the changing territorial structure of the state and the way that intersected with the social and political movements of the period in North India.

And that is sort of how my academic interests emerged.

Could you let me know how that led you to the India Institute at King’s College, and what the focus of the institute is?
I joined King’s almost 10 years ago, when [former director] Sunil Khilnani had just arrived at the India Institute, as part of the first team of academic staff who were brought to King’s to make it a reality. And it was and remains a very exhilarating place to work.

We had quite a lot of scope to be entrepreneurial, to bring scholars together across disciplines and work outside the conventional confines of disciplinary departments and the silos that those create, and really helped to make the India Institute one of the preeminent places for the study of contemporary India in Europe. Of course, building on and deepening lots of partnerships with colleagues and other institutions in India and elsewhere in the world.

I took over as director just over a year ago. Today, at the Institute, we have a flourishing research environment. We have colleagues working on questions that range from the politics of the vernacular – my colleague Dr Anastasia Piliavsky has a major five-year European Commission grant to build a repository of the everyday ethnography of political language.

You’ve recently had my colleague, Professor Christophe Jaffrelot, the current Avantha Chair, on the Political Fix, for an interview. Christophe’s work is well known. He’s just finished a major study on the Emergency and has many other projects ongoing. I also have other colleagues working on new projects on the future of UK-India trade relations, post-Brexit and many other subjects.

And we have a very wide network of affiliates and staff members based in departments across the university at King’s who work on India from different perspectives and are part of the wider environment fostered at the Institute.

We also have dozens of PhD students, and a new master’s programme in global affairs, which brings our teaching about India into conversation with the teaching our other colleagues do on Brazil, on China on Russia, on the Middle East, on sub-Saharan Africa, to offer students the ability to study global affairs from a non-Western perspective.

And so I see the India Institute as advancing the study of contemporary India, while we are also really trying to build comparative, collaborative conversations with other colleagues who work on other regions.

I’ve learned a lot, for instance, in my own work thinking about Indian federalism through dialogues with colleagues at King’s who are scholars of Brazilian politics. So those comparative conversations enrich what we can learn about the political and social transformation of India.

That’s a useful jumping-off point to ask about your big-picture view of Indian federalism [expanded on in the Oxford India Short Introduction to Indian Federalism], which has often been described as unique. How do you see Indian federalism compared to examples from around the world?
Indian federalism has long been understood as a distinctive model of federalism. Perhaps for too long seen as a diminished, or to use KC Wheare’s term, a quasi form of federalism, because of what, at the time, appeared to be the rather unusual centralising characteristics of the Indian Constitution.

What I’ve tried to do in my work is to really think about where some of those unique characteristics in the Indian constitution come from. And in fact I have a new paper that’s just coming out about the origins of this centralised federalism in India.

But I also think it’s important to try and situate India’s approach to designing federalism within the comparative context of a new set of federal constitutions which were coming into being from the mid 20th century, which were having to grapple with quite a different set of questions from those in the world’s older federations, such as the United States.

The simple heuristic, which Alfred Stepan offered us to distinguish some of the different patterns of federalism that we see in the world today, is the distinction between the “coming together” model that is represented by the United States where previously autonomous polities decide to pool their sovereignty in order to come together as a federation.

And those models are quite distinct from the kind of “holding together” model which India represents, where a decision was taken or ratified in the constitution-making process to devolve power in certain ways in order to hold together in recognition of diversity in India.

So rather than a decentralised model, where powers of residual authority lie with the units within the federal system, India at its founding embraced a much more centralised model of federalism. That has often been explained by the impact Partition had on the Constituent Assembly, and the desire to build a strong Centre to instil a strong sense of civic nationalism and help prevent parochial attachments driving further secessionist tendencies.

But it also reflected two other important things. One of those is democratisation. Madhav Khosla in his recent book sketches the way the choice to have a centralised federal system in India was deeply connected to the introduction of universal suffrage, and the understanding that a strong central state was necessary to challenge structures of social dominance and caste dominance at the local levels.

I think the other reason, which is one that I’ve been unearthing in some of my more recent work, links to India’s political economy and the attempt to create a strong central authority in order to regulate interprovincial economic competition.

So there were a number of features which pushed towards a much more centralised model in India, which marked it as different from the world’s older federal systems, but also in a sense, showed a path to the future of federalism in the wider range of countries which have since adopted federal constitutions.

I think today something like 40% of the world’s population lives in federal countries, and many of those federal systems share similarities with the Indian system in marrying the possibility of a strong central authority with a form of territory-based representation which recognises diversity.

And so of course that generates a particular set of tensions. I think it marks India out as having adopted a distinctive approach to federalism, not one that should necessarily be seen as a diminished one. Even at a point of history in which that kind of federal spirit, to use Michael Burgess’s expression, is under great strain.

We’ll come back to this great strain, but first tell us a little bit about this new paper that looks at the political economy of Indian federalism.
The paper comes out of a wider research project that I have been working on for the past few years, which focuses on the history of India’s welfare regime. This book project traces the origins of India’s social welfare architecture.

As I delved into the early history of Indian engagement, for instance, with the International Labour Organisation, and into the debates that were shaping up, particularly in Bombay, about India’s textile industry, about the regulation of labour, and the responses to new forms of industrial action, I started to realise that the economic geography of industrialisation in the early 20th century produced quite an uneven playing field, especially within the cotton textiles industry.

As industrialists, provincial administrators and labour leaders in Bombay began to debate ideas about social security and social insurance and the extent to which they were suitable for a country like India, at its stage of industrial development, there was growing concern about whether any provincial government should take unilateral action in ways that would increase labour costs in one part of India in the absence of coordinated central action in this field.

In Bombay, which was starting to experiment with forms of social security, starting with maternity benefits that came quite early, there was also pressure to think about sickness insurance for industrial workers. But industrialists in Bombay were very concerned that if such measures placed additional costs on employers they would be placed at a disadvantage compared to other regions, where newer mills had lower labour costs.

The debates about labour laws and the ways in which they might be introduced in India were from the early stage shaped by this concern about the uneven playing field for industry, particularly the cotton industry in the absence of any central coordination.

And these debates were kind of bubbling away as the 1935 Government of India Act was being framed. And in fact the Government of India Act was amended in order to strengthen the ability of the central government to coordinate in the economy if it chose to do so.

The arguments about the need to strengthen the national economy really grew in the years preceding and then during the Second World War. And by the time of Independence and the convening of the Constituent Assembly, there was a fairly settled consensus in favour of the idea of a centralised state, as also reflected in the Bombay Plan, that would have the capacity to regulate and to produce the conditions for a more level playing field.

That’s what I look at in this paper coming out quite soon.

That sounds fascinating, and we’ll have to talk about it when it’s out. For now though, back to the strain on Indian federalism you mentioned. What makes you think that the situation we’re currently in is not just politics as usual and a more challenging point for Indian federalism?
It’s important to take the long historical view of this. Cast your eyes back even seven, eight years ago, when there was the sense that despite the centralised character of the constitution, India was in practice moving towards a fully fledged de-facto federal state in which a pattern was being produced and reinforced both by the regionalisation of politics, the emergence of regional parties, but also the process of economic liberalisation and closer global integration.

Both the political and economic stories were helping to embed the federal order in India, despite what might appear to be the weaker protection of federalism in the constitution. I think many observers in the 2000s and early 2010s saw that process as a kind of inexorable process, that India was federalising in a profound way.

That was reinforced by Supreme Court judgments that helped maintain the balance between the power of the Centre and state governments. A give and take between national and regional parties found institutional space in the negotiations of coalition government, and the logic of ever deeper federalism seemed to be almost inescapable.

Since the election of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in 2014, some of those fundamental assumptions about the nature of India’s political culture have been challenged. I wrote last year about the fragility of Indian federalism and now we see in a number of ways that what had seemed settled compromises have been opened up.

Look at the very profound ways in which political power has been re-centralised, in which the central government, even if it doesn’t directly infringe on the affairs of states, squeezes the space that states have to make autonomous policy decisions, implementing policies at the state level in a way that they can claim credit for and finance policy decisions.

So in all sorts of ways, the autonomy of states that had developed a certain character through the course of the 1990s and 2000s is under pressure.

At the same time, of course, we have seen, with the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomous status, the much more determined pursuit of the projects of Hindutva and elision of some of the embrace of diversity that had seemed so unshakable. And then developments on the fiscal side. It’s only five years ago that the 14th Finance Commission oversaw a marked increase in fiscal decentralisation.

But we’ve certainly moved quite far from the environment in which that decision could be made. The GST council when it was set up was hailed as potentially a new space for cooperative federalism, in which the Centre and states would be bound to work together, moving away from the idea that the Centre and states should play adversarial roles, and instead be constructively brought into a system of cooperation with each other.

We’ve seen within a year of its establishment the very profound dysfunction of the compensation debate. And so I think on a whole host of fronts, the idea of federalism has come under much more pronounced strain, especially in the last year, since the 2019 elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his meeting with chief ministers in June | Photo: PTI

In the paper you wrote with Yamini Aiyar earlier this year, you essentially predicted that this would get worse, in part because as the BJP pushes “One Nationism”. As credit attribution gets more centralised, not only would the BJP work less with others, there would be less incentive for states to play nice with the Centre.
I think we’re seeing that play out at the moment. The decision of a number of states to withdraw the permission for the CBI to investigate in their states or their disagreements over farm bills, including the ongoing tensions with state governments like Punjab, like the stoppage of of rail transport into that state – on any number of dimensions we’re seeing tacit cooperation between central government and state governments starting to break down and state governments pulling away from cooperation.

That was absolutely a scenario that Yamini Aiyar and I were sketching in the paper – that so profoundly centralising the claiming of credit for the Central government, rather than sharing the credit, risks a scenario in which states cease to have incentives to work with the Centre on shared priorities.

The central government has looked for new delivery mechanisms that essentially enable it to bypass state governments, whether that’s the use of Aadhaar-linked technology or the different kinds of distribution networks that something like the Ujjwala scheme relies on. The Centre will look for ways to bypass having to cooperate with state governments, but there are many areas in which Centre-state cooperation is really central to the essential functioning of government.

You wrote recently about how you were struck by Modi’s promise of a “double-engine government” as a campaign phrase in Bihar [implying that voters would be better served if state and Centre were run by the same party] and the implications of that for federalism. What alerted you to the phrase?
I hadn’t seen Modi use this phrase in other states elections. Maybe I’ve missed it. But I was struck really by the fact that the promise of double-engine governance is being offered to voters, the idea that having a state government that works effectively with the central government in their interests relies on political alignment.

It’s a logical extension of the way that political dynamics have been developing in the recent past, but it is a far cry from the idea of cooperative federalism.

And so as partisan divides are sharpened, this also sharpens the conflict between the Centre and states. It really exposes the fact that there aren’t too many institutional structures for intergovernmental relations. Especially since the dismantling of the Planning Commission. We know what a problematic beast it was.

But, and this is what Yamini Aiyar has pointed out in other writings, problematic as it was, it offered an institutional framework in which policy priorities and fiscal priorities could be fleshed out. And that kind of structure really doesn’t exist elsewhere.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bihar Chief Minister at a joint rally in Bihar on April 2, 2019.

This is a point I’ve seen you made repeatedly. That despite the political regionalisation that happened in the 1990s, which led to deeper federalism, it was always implicit – as in coalitions – rather than through the building of more federal institutions.
If you look at the Interstate Council, which was one of the outcomes that the Sarkaria Commission recommended in the 1980s, it’s a great shame that in the years of routinised coalition government, more wasn’t done to embed the Interstate Council as an institutional space for Centre-state relations.

It really was coalition governments, as well as institutions like the Planning Commission, that provided the space. But I think some of that opportunity to reset and re-institutionalise the Centre-state relationship after the Sarkaria Commission was really lost, ironically, in a phase when political life seemed to be moving towards deeper federalism.

I wonder – and this is something that Neelanjan Sircar has written about – if it’s possible to disentangle the centralisation of governance and the BJP’s centralising tendencies at the political level, or whether they go hand in hand.
Neelanjan’s writing and thinking on this is very interesting. In a sense, what he is pointing to is the possibility that the BJP’s drive to centralise at the level of the central government is undermining the ability of its state units to successfully fight elections. It’s an interesting way to think through the puzzle that, at a time in which the BJP seems to have achieved a very clear degree of dominance at the Centre with perhaps a degree of ideological dominance, it has lost a number of state elections up until the recent results in Bihar.

It’s actually ironic, because it probably makes life more difficult for longer-term alliance partners, and long-running chief ministers like Nitish Kumar, who built a position of authority as chief minister by being able to claim credit for government programmes, even when they were centrally financed, centrally sponsored.

And once the kind of logic of claiming credit migrates to the Centre, those elements of what’s been a winning political strategy even for BJP chief ministers starts to fall apart. And so, I see the two things working hand in hand, centralisation in government and within the BJP party system.

At the start of the year, I wrote that the 2020s may be marked by Centre-state battles in India, particularly with an eye on the delimitation scheduled for 2026. But, here at the end of 2020, we’re already seeing a major breakdown in federalism – farm bills, the GST compensation fight, the CBI sanction withdrawal, even things like how the lockdown was implemented. How do you see this playing out now?
I think you were very prescient back at the beginning of the year, suggesting that it could be a defining issue for the foreseeable future. We’ve got the report of the 15th Finance Commission to be tabled relatively soon, which may change the formula for state fiscal transfers. We’ve got, as you say, the next debate that will follow – the delimitation of parliamentary constituencies.

Both of these are issues which are likely to arouse the concerns of southern states. And we already saw these issues feed into the coming together of the mahagathbandhan of the 2019 elections. That coalition around some state issues didn’t get as much traction partly as a result of Balakot and many other things that changed the tenor of the 2019 campaign.

But I think the fundamental elements of what might bring most non-BJP Opposition parties together around a common platform remain in place. And I think the question is the extent to which a forward-looking debate on the nature of Indian federalism might emerge from those more opportunistic political alliances.

It’s quite telling to remember that in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 there was barely a whimper among many regional parties in speaking out against that change. There is still a sense in which the debates about what India’s federal character is are taking place within a landscape framed and shaped by the BJP’s dominance of the ideological agenda.

And so whether regional parties and other non-BJP opposition parties can find a new language that brings the more quotidian irritants in Centre-state relations (of which there are many) together with a kind of recognition that Indian federalism is also part of an expression of India’s great societal diversity and the foundations of politics of accommodation and co-existence, whether those two things come together to really facilitate a more far-reaching debate on the future of India, is what I’m looking out for.

It will be interesting to see who emerges as leading players in articulating what a future vision of Centre-state relations should look like. Or whether these become distributive struggles that reflect the economic geography and inequality in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and union Home Minister Amit Shah | Photo: PTI

Maybe the answer to this question is the failure of journalists, so I might be setting myself up – but one of the maxims of Indian federalism is that the dominant party, whether the Congress in earlier years, or the BJP today, tend to be so strong that federal demands often play out intra-party. Yet I don’t feel like we understand how this works in the current BJP. From an academic perch, do you feel like you have a good sense of how federalism is playing out within the BJP, outside of the non-BJP states vs Centre battles we know better?
It’s a very interesting question. And I’m not sure actually there’s been that much research. There’s a tendency to understand the BJP today as a Modi-dependent political party, that does not give much space to the emergence of other leaders. In the recent past the BJP had the ability to build itself up and take back power at the national level by building on local level leadership like Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh or Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh.

We’ve entered a period in which state elections can be fought without a BJP chief ministerial candidate and it’s Modi’s image that is dominant. Chief ministers are parachuted in after an election outcome. And one wonders what bargaining power those chief ministers have when their appointment is really a gift of the Centre, and their election win takes place on Modi’s electoral coattails.

That takes us back to thinking about Indira Gandhi and her relationship with chief ministers in the 1970s and the 1980s, and the emergence of the first regional political parties that really challenged the Congress party. Leaders like NTR and others really grew out of the spaces that were opened up for political opposition by the top-down nature of the Congress organisation.

And I think in terms of researching these questions for the BJP, it’s still early days.

What research would you like to see on Indian federalism and in this area?
There are a lot of questions emerging from India’s changing economic geography that have implications for federalism. As we move out of a period of closer global integration into a period of greater protectionism, what does that do to the economic autonomy of the states? There are also pressing questions around inter-regional inequality within India which are likely to look more pronounced as we come through the Covid-19 pandemic.

We don’t yet really have a complete sense of what the medium-term impacts of Covid-19 might be on the rate of poverty reduction, and what needs to be done to alleviate the forms of economic inequality seen between states and individuals as well.

I think a renewed understanding of the political economy of Indian federalism will be important. And I think you’ve already touched on the political dynamics that political scientists need to understand better, such as how bargaining takes place within the BJP and then within other parties, across levels of a multi-level political system.

Is there one misconception about Indian federalism that you find yourself frequently having to correct?
I took a bit of slack a good 10 years ago for suggesting that Indian federalism had not quite come to terms with asymmetry in the way that proponents of asymmetric federalism often assume. It was often said that the Article 370 and Kashmir’s autonomous status in the Indian Union, along with the autonomy provisions in North East India, meant that India stood out as a country that had managed to design forms of asymmetry that has enabled it to accommodate the idea that certain regions should have a special status within the Constitution.

This is a debate that has played out in many other countries. There is a long-running debate of whether Quebec should be recognised as having a special status in Canada, or Catalonia in the Spanish case.

I wrote an article back in 2007 and I said, well, yes, India does have these forms of autonomy in the Constitution, but it’s a mistake to think they are unproblematically embedded. And Article 370 is often being obeyed more in the breach and eroded essentially over time and perhaps we ought to be a little more cautious in how well we understand India as representing a form of asymmetric federalism.

I was slightly lambasted then for those views. But I feel recent events have borne them out.

What three recommendations do you have for those interested in learning more about Indian federalism?
On recent changes in Indian federalism – two collections of essays:

On the origins of centralism in Indian federalism

  • Chapter 2 of Madhav Khosla’s India’s Founding Moment (Harvard University Press, 2020)

On centralisation of claiming credit and its implications for policy implementation

  • My thinking on the implications of centralised credit-claiming has been informed by Sara Niedzwieki’s comparative work in Brazil and Argentina. See her book Uneven Social Policies: The Politics of Subnational Variation in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and also my short review in Seminar on some of its implications for thinking about India.