The main features of the Indian Constitution are as follows:
Federal System with Unitary Bias: The Constitution of India establishes a federal system of government. It contains all the usual features of a federation, viz., two government, division of powers, written Constitution, supremacy of Constitution, rigidity of Constitution, independent judiciary and bicameralism. However, the Indian Constitution also contains a large number of unitary or non-federal features, viz., a strong Centre, single Constitution, single citizenship, flexibility of Constitution, integrated judiciary, appointment of state governor by the Centre, all-India services, emergency provisions, and so on. Moreover, the term ‘Federation’ has nowhere been used in the Constitution. Article 1, on the other hand, describes India as a ‘Union of States’ which implies two things: one, Indian Federation is not the result of an agreement by the states; and two, no state has the right to secede from the federation.
Written Constitution: The Indian Constitution is a written document containing 395 Articles and 12 schedules, and therefore, fulfils this basic requirement of a federal government. In fact, the Indian Constitution is the most elaborate Constitution of the world.
Supremacy of the Constitution: India’s Constitution is also supreme and not the hand-made of either the Centre or of the States. If for any reason any organ of the State dares to violate any provision of the Constitution, the courts of laws are there to ensure that dignity of the Constitution is upheld at all costs.
Rigid Constitution: The Indian Constitution is largely a rigid Constitution. All the provisions of the Constitution concerning Union-State relations can be amended only by the joint actions of the State Legislatures and the Union Parliament. Such provisions can be amended only if the amendment is passed by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting in the Parliament (which must also constitute the absolute majority of the total membership) and ratified by at least one-half of the States.
Parliamentary Form of Government: The Constitution of India has opted for the British parliamentary System of Government rather than American Presidential System of Government. The parliamentary system is based on the principle of cooperation and co-ordination between the legislative and executive organs while the presidential system is based on the doctrine of separation of powers between the two organs.
The Constitution establishes the parliamentary system not only at the Centre but also in the states. The features of parliamentary government in India are:
- Presence of nominal and real executives;
- Majority party rule,
- Collective responsibility of the executive to the legislature,
- Membership of the ministers in the legislature,
- Leadership of the prime minister or the chief minister,
- Dissolution of the lower House (Lok Sabha or Assembly).
Even though the Indian Parliamentary System is largely based on the British pattern, there are some fundamental differences between the two. For example, the Indian Parliament is not a sovereign body like the British Parliament. Further, the Indian State has an elected head (republic) while the British State has hereditary head (monarchy).
Division of Powers: In a federation, there should be clear division of powers so that the units and the centre are required to enact and legislate within their sphere of activity and none violates its limits and tries to encroach upon the functions of others. This requisite is evident in the Indian Constitution. The Seventh Schedule contains three Legislative Lists which enumerate subjects of administration, viz., Union, State and Concurrent Legislative Lists.
Independent Judiciary: In India, the Constitution has provided for a Supreme Court and every effort has been made to see that the judiciary in India is independent and supreme. The Supreme Court of India can declare a law as unconstitutional or ultra Vires, if it contravenes any provisions of the Constitution. In order to ensure the impartiality of the judiciary, our judges are not removable by the Executive and their salaries cannot be curtailed by Parliament.
Bicameral Legislature: A bicameral system is considered essential in a federation because it is in the Upper House alone that the units can be given equal representation. The Constitution of India also provides for a bicameral Legislature at the Centre consisting of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. While the Lok Sabha consists of the elected representatives of people, the Rajya Sabha mainly consists of representatives elected by the State Legislative Assemblies. However, all the States have not been given equal representation in the Rajya Sabha.
A Secular State: The Constitution of India stands for a secular state. Hence, it does not uphold any particular religion as the official religion of the Indian State. The term ‘secular’ was added to the Preamble of the Indian Constitution by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1976. The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws (Article 14).
Single Citizenship: Though the Indian Constitution is federal and envisages a dual polity (Centre and states), it provides for only a single citizenship, that is, the Indian citizenship. In countries like USA, on the other hand, each person is not only a citizen of USA but also a citizen of the particular state to which he belongs.
Emergency Provisions: The Indian Constitution contains eleborate emergency provisions to enable the President to meet any extraordinary situation effectively. The Constitution envisages three types of emergencies, namely:
- National emergency on the ground of war or external aggression or armed rebellion16 (Article 352);
- State emergency (President’s Rule) on the ground of failure of Constitutional machinery in the states (Article 356) or failure to comply with the directions of the Centre (Article 365); and
- Financial emergency on the ground of threat to the financial stability or credit of India (Article 360).
During an emergency, the Central Government becomes all-powerful and the states go into the total control of the centre. It converts the federal structure into a unitary one without a formal amendment of the Constitution. This kind of transformation of the political system from federal (during normal times) to unitary (during emergency) is a unique feature of the Indian Constitution.
Three-tier Government: Originally, the Indian Constitution, like any other federal constitution, provided for a dual polity and contained provisions with regard to the organisation and powers of the Centre and the states.
Later, the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts (1992) have added a third-tier of government (i.e., local) which is not found in any other Constitution of the world.
The 73rd Amendment Act of 1992 gave constitutional recognition to the Panchayats (rural local governments) by adding a new Part IX and a new Schedule 11 to the Constitution.
Similarly, the 74th Amendment Act of 1992 gave constitutional recognition to the municipalities (urban local governments) by adding a new Part IX-A and a new Schedule 12 to the Constitution.