Democracy is a form of government where the people rule. Aristotle viewed democracy as a form of government in which the supreme powers are in the hands of freemen and where   people   form   a   majority   in   an   elected   sovereign government to exercise some role in decision making.

Thomas Jefferson defined democracy as a “government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority”.

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

The Black’s Law Dictionary defines democracy as:¬

“That form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens; as distinguished from a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy. According to the theory of a pure democracy, every citizen should participate directly   in   the   business   of   governing,   and   the legislative   assembly   should   comprise   the   whole people.”

The   Preamble   to   our   Constitution,   at   the   outset, proclaims that India is a sovereign democratic republic. The citizens   of   India   are   the   sovereign   and   participate   in   the process of governance by exercising their virtuous right to vote under the system of universal adult suffrage. The citizens elect their representatives and send them to the Parliament and State Legislatures for enacting laws and shaping policies at the Union and State level respectively which are reflective of the popular will of the collective.

The parliamentary form of democracy as envisaged by the Constitution has at its very base the power bestowed upon people to vote and make the legislature accountable for their functioning to the people. If the legislature fails to transform the popular will of the people into policies and laws, the people in   a   democracy   like   ours   have   the   power   to   elect   new representatives by exercise of their vote. The political equality makes people aware of their right in unison and there is a consistent endeavour to achieve the same.

In this context, we may turn to a passage from Mohinder Singh Gill and another   v.  Chief Election Commissioner, New Delhi and others[1] wherein Krishna Iyer, J. quoted with approval the statement of Sir Winston Churchill which is to the following effect: ¬ 

“At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper¬ 

“no   amount   of   rhetoric   or   voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.”

Thus, democratic set up has its limbs firmly entrenched in the ability of the people to elect their representatives and the faith that the representatives so elected will best represent their interest. Though this right to vote is not a fundamental right, yet it is a right that lies at the heart of democratic form of government. The right to vote is the most cherished value of democracy as it inculcates in the people a sense of belonging.

In Raghbir Singh Gill v.  S.  Gurcharan Singh Tohra[2], the learned Judges, after referring to Mohinder Singh Gill’s case, stated   that   nothing   can   diminish   the   overwhelming importance of the cross or preference indicated by the dumb sealed lip voter. That is his right and the trust reposed by the Constitution in him is that he will act as a responsible citizen in choosing his representatives for governing the country.

Reciprocate functionalism

The   aforesaid   situation   warrants   for   reciprocate functionalism by thought, action and conduct.  It requires the elected representatives to uphold the faith which the collective have reposed in them. Any undue interference amounts to betrayal   of   the faith   of   the   collective   in fulfilment   of their aspirations of democratic self-governance.

In Kesavananda Bharati, it   has   been   observed   that   the   two   basic postulates of democracy are faith in human reason and faith in human nature and that there is no higher faith than faith in democratic process. The Court further stated that democracy on adult suffrage is a great experiment with its roots in the faith in the common man.

P. Jaganmohan Reddy, J., in his opinion, stated that the republican and democratic form of government is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution and the Parliament has no power to abrogate or emasculate the basic elements or fundamental features of the Constitution such as the sovereignty of India and the democratic character of   our   polity.   Further,   he   stated   that   the   framers   of   the Constitution   adopted   a   sovereign   democratic   republic   to secure for the citizens of India the objectives of justice, liberty and equality as set out in the Preamble to our Constitution.

‘Democracy’ as an essential feature of the Constitution

Dealing with the concept of democracy, the majority in Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain[3] ruled that ‘democracy’ as an essential feature of the Constitution is unassailable. The said principle has been reiterated in T.N.   Seshan, CEC of India v. Union of India and others.[4] and Kuldip Nayar v. Union   of   India   others.[5]  

The Court in Manoj Narula v. Union of India (2014), while delineating the concept of democracy, stated that democracy has been best defined as the Government of the People, by the People and   for   the   People,   which   expects   prevalence   of   genuine orderliness,   positive   propriety,   dedicated   discipline   and sanguine   sanctity   by   constant   affirmance   of   constitutional morality which is the pillar stone of good governance. Further, it is stated that democracy in India is a product of rule of law which aspires to establish an egalitarian social order and that it is not only a political philosophy but also an embodiment of constitutional   philosophy.  

Democracy   being   a   cherished constitutional   value   needs   to   be   protected,   preserved   and sustained and for that purpose, instilment of certain norms in the marrows of the collective is absolutely necessitous. In the said case, the Court, while emphasizing that good governance is a sine qua non for a healthy democracy, stated thus: ¬

“In   a   democracy,   the   citizens   legitimately   expect that   the Government   of the   day would   treat   the public   interest   as   primary   one   and   any   other interest   secondary.   The   maxim Salus   Populi Suprema Lex, has not only to be kept in view but also has to be revered.

The faith of the people is embedded in the root of the idea of good governance which means reverence for citizenry rights, respect for Fundamental Rights and statutory rights in any governmental   action,   deference   for   unwritten constitutional   values,   veneration   for   institutional integrity, and inculcation of accountability to the collective at large. It also conveys that the decisions are taken by the decision making authority with solemn sincerity and policies are framed keeping in view the welfare of the people, and including all in a homogeneous   compartment.  

The   concept   of   good governance is not a Utopian conception   or   an abstraction. It has been the demand of the polity wherever   democracy   is   nourished.  The   growth   of democracy is dependent upon good governance in reality and the aspiration of the people basically is that the administration is carried out by people with responsibility with service orientation.”

Federalism in the context of the Constitution of India

Now,   we   shall   proceed   to   discuss   the   concept   of federalism   in   the   context   of   the   Constitution   of   India Encyclopaedia Britannica defines federalism as: ¬

“Federalism,   mode   of   political   organization   that unites separate states or other polities within an overarching political system in such a way as to allow each to maintain its own fundamental political integrity. Federal systems do this by requiring that basic policies be made and implemented through negotiation in some form, so that all the members can share in making and executing decisions.

The political   principles   that   animate   federal   systems emphasize the primacy of bargaining and negotiated coordination   among   several   power   centres;   they stress the virtues of dispersed power centres as a means   for   safeguarding   individual   and   local liberties.”

In common parlance, federalism is a type of governance in   which   the   political   power   is   divided   into   various   units. These units are the Centre/Union, States and Municipalities. Traditional jurists like Prof. K.C. Wheare lay emphasis on the independent   functioning   of   different   governing   units   and, thus, define federalism as a method of dividing powers so that the general/central and regional governments are each within a sphere co-ordinate and independent.

As per Prof. Wheare “the   systems   of   Government   embody   predominantly   on division of powers between Centre and regional authority each of  which  in  its  own  sphere  is  coordinating with  the  other independent   as   of   them,   and   if   so   is   that   Government federal?”

However, modern   jurists lay emphasis   on   the   idea  of interdependence   and   define   federalism   as   a   form   of government in which there is division of powers between one general/central and several regional authorities, each within its sphere interdependent and co-ordinate with each other.

Unitary or Federal System- Constitutional Assembly Debates

The framers of our Constitution, during debates in the Constituent Assembly on the draft Constitution, held elaborate discussions   on   whether   to   adopt   a   unitary   system   of government   or   federal   system   of   government.   During   the Constituent   Assembly   debates,   Shri   T.T.   Krishnamachari said: ¬

“…Are we framing a unitary Constitution? Is this Constitution centralizing power in Delhi? Is there any way provided by means of which the position of people in various areas could be safeguarded, their voices   heard   in   regard   to   matters   of   their   local administration? I think it is a very big charge to make   that   this   Constitution   is   not   a   federal Constitution,   and   that   it   is   a   unitary   one.

We should not forget that this question that the Indian Constitution   should   be   a   federal   one   has   been settled by our Leader who is no more with us, in the Round Table Conference in London eighteen years back.” “I would ask my honourable friend to apply a very simple test so far as this Constitution is concerned to find out whether it is federal or not.

The simple question  I   have   got   from   the   German   school   of political philosophy is that the first criterion is that the State must exercise compulsive power in the enforcement of a given political order, the second is that these powers must be regularly exercised over all the inhabitants of a given territory; and the third is the most important and that is that the activity of the State must not be completely circumscribed by orders handed down for execution by the superior unit.  

The   important   words   are   ‘must   not   be completely   circumscribed’,   which   envisages   some powers of the State are bound to be circumscribed by the exercise of federal authority. Having all these factors in view, I will urge that our Constitution is a federal Constitution. I urge that our Constitution is one   in   which   we   have   given   power   to   the   Units which are both substantial and significant in the legislative sphere and in the executive sphere.”

In this context, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, speaking on the floor of the Constituent Assembly, said: ¬

“There is only one point of Constitutional import to which I propose to make a reference. A serious complaint is made on the ground that there is too much   of   centralization   and   that   the   States   have been reduced to Municipalities. It is clear that this view is not only an exaggeration, but is also founded on   a   misunderstanding   of   what   exactly   the Constitution   contrives   to   do. 

As   to   the   relation between the Centre and the States, it is necessary to bear in mind the fundamental principle on which it rests. The basic principle of Federalism is that the legislative   and   executive   authority   is   partitioned between the Centre and the States not by any law to be made by the Centre but the Constitution itself. This   is   what   the   Constitution   does.   The   States, under our Constitution, are in no way dependent upon the Centre for their legislative or executive authority.

The Centre and the States are co-equal in this   matter.   It   is   difficult   to   see   how   such   a Constitution can be called centralism. It may be that the Constitution assigns to the Centre too large a   field   for   the   operation   of   its   legislative   and executive authority than is to be found in any other Federal Constitution.

It may be that the residuary powers   are   given   to   the   Centre   and   not   to   the States. But these features do not form the essence of federalism. The chief mark of federalism, as I said lies in the partition of the legislative and executive authority between the Centre and the Units by the Constitution. This is the principle embodied in our Constitution.”

Supreme Court on Federalism

The Court in In re: Under Article 143, Constitution of India, (Special Reference No. 1 of 1964)[6] observed that the essential   characteristic   of   federalism   is   the   distribution   of limited   executive,   legislative   and   judicial   authority   among bodies which are coordinate with and independent of each other.

Further, the Court stated that the supremacy of the Constitution is fundamental to the existence of a federal State in order to prevent either the legislature of the federal unit or those of the member States from destroying or impairing that delicate   balance   of   power   which   satisfies   the   particular requirements of States which are desirous of union, but not prepared   to   merge   their   individuality   in   a   unity.

This supremacy of the Constitution, the Court stated, is protected by the authority of an independent judicial body to act as the interpreter of a scheme of distribution of powers and, thus, the dominant characteristic of the British Constitution cannot be claimed by a Federal Constitution like ours.

Gajendragadkar, C.J., in the said case, observed that our Constitution   has   all   the   essential   elements   of   a   federal structure as was the case in the Government of India Act 1935,   the   essence   of   federalism   being   the   distribution   of powers between the federation or the Union and the States or the provinces. 

In State of   Karnataka   v.   Union   of   India, Untwalia,  J. (speaking for Justice Singhal,  Justice Jaswant Singh and for himself) observed that the Constitution is not of a federal character where separate, independent and sovereign States could be said to have joined to form a nation as in the United States of America or as may be the position in some other countries of the world. It is because of this reason that sometimes it has been characterized as quasi-federal in nature.

In S.R.   Bommai   v.   Union   of   India[7] , the Court considered the nature of federalism under the Constitution of India. A.M.   Ahmadi, J. (as   the   learned   Judge   then   was) observed: ¬

“In order to understand whether our Constitution is truly federal, it is essential to know the true concept of federalism. Dicey calls it a political contrivance for a body of States which desire Union but not unity.   Federalism   is,   therefore,   a   concept   which unites   separate   States   into   a   Union   without sacrificing their own fundamental political integrity.

Separate States, therefore, desire to unite so that all the member-States may share in formulation of the basic policies applicable to all and participate in the execution of decisions made in pursuance of such basic policies. Thus the essence of a federation is the existence of the Union and the States and the distribution of powers between them. Federalism, therefore, essentially implies demarcation of powers in a federal compact.”

P.B. Sawant, J. (on behalf of himself and Kuldip Singh, J.) opined that the States are constitutionally recognised units and not mere convenient administrative divisions as both the Union and the States have sprung from the provisions of the Constitution.   After   quoting   extensively   from   H.M.   Seervai’s commentary – Constitutional Law of India, he expressed thus:¬

“99.   The   above   discussion   thus   shows   that   the States have an independent constitutional existence and they have as important a role to play in the political, social, educational and cultural life of the people as the Union. They are neither satellites nor agents of the Centre.  

The   fact   that   during emergency and in certain other eventualities their powers are overridden or invaded by the Centre is not destructive of the essential federal nature of our Constitution.   The   invasion   of   power   in   such circumstances   is   not   a   normal   feature   of   the Constitution. They are exceptions and have to be resorted to only occasionally to meet the exigencies of the special situations. The exceptions are not a rule.

100.   For   our   purpose,   further   it   is   really   not necessary   to   determine   whether,   in   spite   of   the provisions of the Constitution referred to above, our Constitution is federal, quasi-federal or unitary in nature.

It is not the theoretical label given to the Constitution but the practical implications of the provisions   of   the   Constitution   which   are   of importance to decide the question that arises in the present   context,   viz.,   whether   the   powers   under Article   356(1)   can   be   exercised   by   the   President arbitrarily and unmindful of its consequences to the governance in the State concerned.

So long as the States are not mere administrative units but in their own right constitutional potentates with the same paraphernalia as the Union, and with independent Legislature   and   the   Executive   constituted   by   the same process as the Union, whatever the bias in favour   of   the   Centre,   it   cannot   be   argued   that merely   because   (and   assuming   it   is   correct)   the Constitution is labeled unitary or quasi-federal or a mixture   of   federal   and   unitary   structure, the President   has   unrestricted   power   of   issuing Proclamation under Article 356(1).”

K. Ramaswami, J., in paragraphs 247 and 248 of his separate judgment, observed: ¬

“247. Federalism envisaged in the Constitution of India is a basic feature in which the Union of India is   permanent   within   the   territorial   limits   set   in Article 1 of the Constitution and is indestructible. The State is the creature of the Constitution and the law   made   by   Articles   2   to   4   with   no   territorial integrity,   but   a   permanent   entity   with   its boundaries alterable by a law made by Parliament. Neither   the   relative   importance   of   the   legislative entries   in   Schedule   VII,   Lists   I   and   II   of   the Constitution, nor the fiscal control by the Union per se are decisive to conclude that the Constitution is unitary.  

The   respective   legislative   powers   are traceable to Articles 245 to 254 of the Constitution. The   State   qua   the   Constitution   is   federal   in structure   and   independent   in   its   exercise   of legislative and executive power. However, being the creature of the Constitution the State has no right to secede or claim sovereignty.

Qua the Union, State is quasi-federal. Both are coordinating institutions and ought to exercise their respective powers with adjustment, understanding and accommodation to render socio-economic and political justice to the people, to preserve and elongate the constitutional goals including secularism.

248. The preamble of the Constitution is an integral part   of   the   Constitution.   Democratic   form   of Government, federal structure, unity and integrity of the nation, secularism, socialism, social justice and   judicial   review   are   basic   features   of   the Constitution.”

B.P. Jeevan Reddy, J., writing a separate opinion (for himself   and   on   behalf   of   S.C.   Agrawal,   J.),   concluded   in paragraph 276 thus:¬

“276.   The   fact   that   under   the   scheme   of   our Constitution, greater power is conferred upon the Centre   vis-a-vis   the   States   does   not   mean   that States are mere appendages of the Centre. Within the sphere allotted to them, States are supreme. The Centre cannot tamper with their powers. More particularly,   the   courts   should   not   adopt   an approach, an interpretation, which has the effect of or tends to have the effect of whittling down the powers   reserved   to   the   States.  

It   is   a   matter   of common   knowledge   that   over   the   last   several decades,   the   trend   the   world   over   is   towards strengthening   of   Central   Governments   be   it   the result of advances in technological/scientific fields or otherwise, and that even In USA the Centre has become   far   more   powerful   notwithstanding   the obvious bias in that Constitution in favour of the States. All this must put the court on guard against any conscious whittling down of the powers of the States.  

Let   it   be   said   that   the   federalism   in   the Indian Constitution is not a matter of administrative convenience, but one of principle the outcome of our own   historical   process   and   a   recognition   of   the ground realities. This aspect has been dealt with elaborately by Shri M.C. Setalvad in his Tagore Law Lectures   “Union   and   State   relations   under   the Indian Constitution” (Eastern Law House, Calcutta, 1974).   The   nature   of   the   Indian   federation   with reference   to   its   historical   background,   the distribution   of   legislative   powers,   financial   and administrative   relations,   powers   of   taxation, provisions   relating   to   trade,   commerce   and industry, have all been dealt with analytically. It is not   possible   nor   is   it   necessary   for   the   present purposes to refer to them. It is enough to note that our   Constitution   has   certainly   a   bias   towards Centre vis-a-vis the States…”

In ITC Ltd. v. Agricultural Produce Market Committee[8],  the  Court   observed   that   the   Constitution   of India deserves to be interpreted, language permitting, in a manner that it does not whittle down the powers of the State Legislature and preserves federalism while also upholding the central supremacy as contemplated by some of its articles.

It is self-evident that there is a meaningful orchestration between the concepts of federalism and nature of democracy present   in   our   Constitution.   It   would   not   be   a   fallacious metaphor if we say that just as in a fusion reaction two or more atomic nuclei come together to form a bigger and heavier nucleus, the founding fathers of our Constitution envisaged a fusion of federalism and democracy in the quest for achieving an   egalitarian   social   order,   a   classical   unity   in   a contemporaneous diversity.

The vision of diversity in unity and the   perception   of   plurality   in   eventual   cohesiveness   is embedded in the final outcome of the desire to achieve the accomplished   goal   through   constitutional   process.   The meeting of the diversity in unity without losing identity is a remarkable synthesis that the Constitution conceives without even permitting the slightest contrivance or adroitness.


Government of NCT of Delhi v. Union of India (2018)

[1] AIR 1978 SC 851

[2] AIR 1980 SC 1362

[3] AIR 1975 SC 2299

[4] (1995) 4 SCC 611

[5] AIR 2006 SC 3127

[6] AIR 1965 SC 745

[7] (1994) 3 SCC 1

[8] (2002) 9 SCC 23