Indian Constitution for Dummies – A Federation with Unitary Characteristics


There are broadly two systems of Government followed in the countries of the world. Unitary system and Federal system. These systems are based on how the political power is distributed among the national/central government and the smaller local governments. The smaller governments may be known as states, cities, counties, provinces and so on.

Unitary Government

Let’s first have a look at the unitary structure of government. In a Unitary system, the power is centralized in a central government authority.

A unitary system is governed constitutionally as one single unit, with one law making authority. The law making authority/legislature is created by a constitution. All power is in this system is top down. The legislative (law making) power, executive (law implementing) power and the judiciary (law interpreting) power is concentrated in the central government authority. The smaller local governments are created only to administer the the policies and laws made by the central government authority. The smaller local governments do not have the option to not follow the decisions of the central government and administer their territory independently.

In a unitary system, the central government authority may create or alter the powers and territories of the smaller local governing authorities.

Federal Government

The Federal Government, on the other hand, is characterized by distribution of power at the Central level and the state level. In other words, the legislative power, executive power and the judicial power is split between the central government authority and the local governments, and giving the smaller local governments some independence.

In a Federal system, more autonomy is given to the local governments to manage their affairs.

The United Kingdom, France, Italy are some democratic countries which follow the Unitary system. The United States of America, Canada, Mexico, Australia and India are some countries which follow a federal structure.

Quasi Federal Structure in India

In India, the power and authority is distributed between the Union Government and the State Government according to the Constitution of India. The distribution of power is based on subject matter. Broadly, subjects of national importance are subjects of the Union and subjects of local importance are subjects of the state. Defence, foreign affairs, citizenship, extradition, national highways, airways, RBI, inter-state trade and commerce etc. Subjects such as public order and health, fisheries, agriculture, trade and commerce within the state. Some subjects are shared between the union and the state such as law relating to transfer of property, contracts, marriage and divorce, labour welfare and so on.

India is a federation with some unitary characteristics. We call it a quasi-federal system of Government. It is neither federal nor unitary. It contains both, federal as well as unitary characteristics. Let’s see how:

  • Firstly, unlike federal countries, which have dual citizenship of the union and the state, India has a single citizenship.
  • Secondly, there is a single constitution which constitutes the organs of the government and explains the distribution of power between the union and the states.
  • Thirdly, the Constitution of India provides for the Centre to change the name or alter the boundaries of states. This is not possible in a strictly federal government.
  • Fourthly, India has a unified judiciary with the Supreme Court at the Apex. A completely federal state would have a dual system of courts. The High Court judges are appointed by the President.
  • Fifthly, during the proclamation of emergency by the President of India, the powers of the State Governments are curtailed to a great extent and the Union becomes all in all. During proclamation of emergency, India resembles a unitary structure.
  • Sixthly, the Heads of states, Governor, is appointed by the President. A Governor holds office during the pleasure of the President. This aids the Centre in exercising control over the state administration.

There are more examples to show that India is a quasi-federal structure of Government. Some laws made by the state require Presidents assent. States are financially dependent on the Centre since they have much lesser sources of income and sometimes, the Union Government makes laws on subjects which belong to the state list.

It is because of all these factors that we can conclude that India a federation of states with unitary characteristics.