Unlike the American or British political systems which have existed in their current forms for centuries, the Indian political system is a much more recent construct dating from India’s independence from Britain in 1947.
The current constitution came into force on January 26, 1950 and advocates the trinity of justice, liberty, and equality for all citizens. The Constitution of India is the longest written constitution of any sovereign country in the world, containing 444 articles, 12 schedules, and 98 amendments, with almost 120,000 words in its English language version.
The lower house of India’s Bicameral-Parliament, the Lok Sabha (House of the People), is modeled on the British House of Commons, but its federal system of government borrows from the United States, Canada, and Australia.
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
The head of state in India is the President. This is normally a ceremonial role, originally modeled on the British monarch to “advise, encourage and warn” the elected government on constitutional matters. The President can return a Parliamentary Bill once for reconsideration and, in times of crisis such as a hung Parliament, the role is pivotal. The President can declare a state of emergency which enables the Lok Sabha to extend its life beyond the normal five-year term.
As members of an electoral college, around 4,500 members of the national parliament and state legislators are eligible to vote in the election of the President. The current President of India is Pranab Mukherjee.
There is also the post of Vice-President who is elected by the members of an electoral college consisting of both houses of parliament. The Vice-President chairs the upper house called the Rajya Sabh. The current Vice-President of India is Mohammad Hamid Ansari.
The head of the government is the Prime Minister who is appointed by the President on the nomination of the majority party in the lower house or Lok Sabha. In May 2014, Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), became Prime Minister.
Ministers are then appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and these ministers collectively comprise the Council of Ministers.
THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH
The lower house in the Indian political system is the Lok Sabha or House of the People. As set out in the Constitution, the maximum size of the Lok Sabha is 552 members, made up of up to 530 members representing people from the states of India, up to 20 members representing people from the Union Territories, and two members to represent the Anglo-Indian community if it does not have adequate representation in the house according to the President.
Currently, the size of the house is 545 – made up of 530 elected from the states, 13 elected from the territories, and two nominated from the Anglo-Indian community. By far the largest state representation is that of Uttar Pradesh with 80 members. At the other end of the scale, three states have only one representative each, Sikkim, Nagaland, and Mizoram. There are certain constituencies where only candidates from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are allowed to stand.
Each member – except the two nominated ones – represents a geographical single-member constituency as in the British model for the House of Commons.
Each Lok Sabha is formed for a five-year term, after which it is automatically dissolved unless extended by a Proclamation of Emergency which may extend the term in one-year increments. This has happened on three occasions: 1962-1968, 1971, and 1975-1977.
The last election to the Lok Sabha was in May 2014, so the next election is expected to be in 2019.
The upper house in the Indian political system is the Rajya Sabha or Council of States. As set out in the Constitution, the Rajya Sabhahas has up to 250 members. 12 of these members are chosen by the President for their expertise in specific fields of art, literature, science, and social services. These members are known as nominated members. The remainder of the house is elected indirectly by the state and territorial legislatures in proportion to the unit’s population. The method of election in the local legislatures is the single transferable vote.
Terms of office are for six years, with one-third of the members facing re-election every two years. The Rajya Sabha meets in continuous session and, unlike the Lok Sabha, it is not subject to dissolution.
The two houses share legislative powers, except in the area of supply (money) where the Lok Sabha has overriding powers. In the case of conflicting legislation, a joint sitting of the two houses is held. If there is a conflict which cannot be resolved even by the joint committee of the two houses, it is solved in the joint session of the Parliament, where the will of the Lok Sabha almost always prevails, since the Lok Sabha is more than twice as large as the Rajya Sabha.
Elections in a country of the size and complexity of India are huge affairs. In the General Election of 2014, 814 million people were eligible to vote and 930,000 polling booths were required to enable them to do so. The Indian Constitution requires that voters do not have to travel more than 2 km (1.2 miles) from their homes to vote.
Such a poll cannot be conducted on a single day and the last election to the Lok Sabha took place over a six week period , starting on April 7, 2014 and finishing on May 12, 2014 with all the votes being counted on a single day, May 16, 2014. The election was conducted in nine separate phases and required almost 4 million people to run them. Administrative and security considerations meant that electoral staff and soldiers were moved around the country as the different voting phases took place.
For the first time, the ballot included a ‘none of the above’ option for those who did not wish to vote for any candidate and around 1% of voters selected that option.
Historically, only about 55% of eligible voters vote in Indian national elections. However, the turnout for the 2014 election broke records with 66.38% of eligible voters voting.
In India, political parties are either a National Party or a State Party. To be considered a National Party, a political party has to be recognized in four or more states and be either the ruling party or the opposition in those states.
Ever since its formation in 1885, the Indian National Congress (INC) also known as the Congress party, has been the dominant political party in India. For its first six decades, its focus was on campaigning for Indian independence from Britain. Since independence in 1947, it has sought to be the governing party of the nation with repeated success.
As a result, for most of its democratic history, the Lok Sabha has been dominated by the Indian Congress Party which has been in power for a great deal of the time. The Congress Party has had (usually short) periods out of power, between 1977-1980, 1989-1991 and 1996-2004. However, the 2014 election was a disaster for the Congress Party. It did not simply lose power; it was shattered at the polls obtaining only 44 seats.
The original Congress Party espoused moderate socialism and a planned, mixed economy. However, it now supports deregulation, privatization and foreign investment.
While the Congress Party has historically dominated Indian politics, the leadership of the Congress Party in turn has been dominated by one family: Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, served for 17 years; his daughter Indira Gandhi later became Prime Minister; his grandson Rajiv Gandhi was also Prime Minister; currently the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi holds the position as Congress President although she refused to accept the post of Prime Minister in the last government; and her son Rahul Gandhi is a Member of Parliament, while her daughter Priyanka Gandhi is an active political campaigner.
The Indian Congress Party is the leading party in the Center-Left political coalition called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which embraces a total of 16 parties.
The other major, but more recently-established, political party in India is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Created in 1980, it represents itself as a champion of the socio-religious cultural values of the country’s Hindu majority and advocates conservative social policies and strong national defense. The BJP, in alliance with several other parties, led the government between 1998-2004. In the election of 2014, it won a clear overall majority with 282 seats.
The leader of the BJP is Narendra Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party is the leading party in the Right-wing political coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). When it was originally founded in 1998, there were 13 parties in the coalition but currently there are eight.
The Third Front under various names has contested elections since 1967. It brings together regional parties and the Left Front which is its backbone. The grouping is committed to secularism and social justice.
A very new political party, which has done well in Delhi but made little impact nationally, is the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) which is led by Arvind Kejriwal.
In a democracy where a significant proportion of the electorate is illiterate, the use of recognizable symbols for political parties is important.
The Indian Congress Party is represented by a hand:
The Bharatiya Janata Party is represented by a lotus:
THE JUDICIAL BRANCH
The Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority in civil, criminal and constitutional cases. The court consists of up to 26 judges, including the Chief Justice of India, all of whom are appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. They serve until the age of 65. Justice T. H. Thakur is the current Chief Justice of India.
India is a huge country both demographically and geographically and consequently it operates a federal system of government. Below the national level, there are 29 States and seven Union Territories.
With 207 million inhabitants, Uttar Pradesh (UP) is the most populous state in India and is also the most populous country subdivision in the world. On its own, if it was an independent nation, this state would be the world’s fifth biggest country. Only China, India itself, the United States, and Indonesia have a higher population.
India has a vibrant democracy that is a beacon to democrats in many surrounding countries.