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To understand how India’s democracy works, and how it manages demands from social groups for greater power, resources, autonomy, and respect, it is essential to understand Indian federalism. That, in turn, requires us to address two questions. First, why have relations between New Delhi and the various state governments (there are at present 25) usually remained manageable? Second, why have things gone so spectacularly wrong in a few states, with “normal” democratic politics breaking down and violent separatist movements appearing?
Compared to the United States or most other countries with federal systems, India has a highly centralized arrangement. The authorities in New Delhi possess very considerable powers over the day-to-day workings of state government. They can also impose “president’s rule” on any state, suspending or dissolving the Westminster-style cabinet government in that state and replacing it with direct rule by New Delhi.
Direct presidential rule is supposed to be invoked only in grave crises, but national-level leaders have sometimes abused it, using it to oust state governments headed by rival parties. When those in charge of the central government have dealt with the states in a spirit of accommodation—as they mostly did from 1947 to 1970 and also have done since the era of hung federal Parliaments began in 1989—relations between the center and the states have tended to be fairly smooth.
By “quarantining” most conflicts within individual regions, federalism helps the political system cope with strife. The rough congruence between most state boundaries and those of linguistic regions (and hence distinctive social systems) mightily assists this process, as does the strong tendency of Indian voters in the 1990s to support parties that are preoccupied with regional concerns. Yet attempts by national leaders to apply commandist or homogenizing approaches to the diverse states can still throw the federal system into crisis. This point is especially worth noting now that the first government led by Hindu nationalists—whom many suspect of commandist and homogenizing inclinations—has come to power in New Delhi. Today, such inclinations are more dangerous than ever. The increasingly regional focus of voters makes them more sensitive to intrusions from New Delhi. And any attempt to reverse the recent dispersals of political power—among various institutions (formal and informal), and from New Delhi to state governments—is likely to provoke fierce reactions in the regions.
Finally, it is worth noting that since 1991 the federal system has often aided the cause of economic reform by enabling New Delhi to “off-load” some of the pain associated with liberalization to state-level arenas, where the resulting tensions are largely quarantined. Many state-level politicians have proven themselves highly adroit at the political management of reform, and some state governments have developed imaginative innovations in economic policy. All of this, combined with the generally cautious and limited nature of the reforms, has helped to make them more politically sustainable. . . .