The Government and Political System in IndiaIndia, or in official circles, the Republic of India, is a country located in South Asia, bordered by the Indian Ocean to the south, the Arabian Sea to the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal to the southeast. The nation, which is the seventh-largest in the world by land area, shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal and Bhutan to the northeast; and Burma and Bangladesh to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is also near Sri Lanka and Maldives; and the country’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.
Annexed by the British East India Company in the early 1700s, India was administered directly by the United Kingdom from the mid 19 century until it gained independence in 1947 following a non-violence resistance movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Since that time it has grown into the world’s second-largest country in terms of population, with over 1.2 billion people. India is the largest democratic nation in the world, with nearly 800 million people in the electorate.
In the following article we will take a closer look at the government of India, including a description of its structure and the makeup and duties of each of the three branches that comprise it.
Government of India: StructureThe central or federal government of India, locally known as the union government, is divided into three distinct yet interconnected branches: the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. India’s government is based on the British parliamentary model, in which the leadership of the executive branch is culled from and responsible to the legislative body. Although Article 50 of India’s Constitution—the wordiest Constitution in the world—stipulates that the judiciary should be separate from the executive branch, the latter is in charge of making all judicial appointments and defines many of the conditions of the judiciary’s work. Additionally, one of the more significant and persistent institutional battles within Indian politics has been the struggle between elements wanting to assert legislative power to amend the constitution and those favoring the judiciary’s position to preserve the constitution in its most basic form.
Government of India: The Three Branches of GovernmentThe Legislative Branch
The legislative branch of Indian government is called the Indian Parliament. Much like the legislature in other large democracies, including the United States, it consists of a two-house assembly: the Lok Sabha (House of the People), which is known as the lower house; and the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), known as the upper house. Parliament’s primary function is to enact laws on those matters in which the constitution specifies to be within its jurisdiction. Among the many powers granted to the Indian Parliament by its Constitution are the abilities to approve and remove members of the Council of Ministers, amend the constitution when necessary, approve central government finances and delimit state and union territory boundaries.
India’s head of state, or president, has specific authority with regard to the function of the legislative branch. According to the Indian Constitution, the president has the power to convene Parliament when he sees fit and must give his approval to all parliamentary bills before they are enacted into law. The president is authorized to summon the Parliament to meet, to address either house or both houses together, and to require the attendance of all of its members. The president of the country also may send messages to either houses regarding a pending bill or any other matter, and the president addresses the first session of Parliament each year and must give final approval to all provisions in bills that are passed.
Lok Sabha: House of the People
The Lok Sabha or lower house of India’s Parliament is limited by the current Constitution to a maximum of 552 members, including not more than 20 members representing people from the Union territories, and two appointed non-partisan members to represent the Anglo-Indian community—if the President feels that community is not adequately represented. All but the two presidential appointees are popularly elected by the Indian people. For a variety of reasons, elections are not always held in all districts, leaving some seats vacant and giving the appearance of fewer seats in the lower house. To qualify to serve in the Lok Sabha, members must be at least twenty-five years of age.
Many candidates may run for election to the Lok Sabha, but as it is in the United States, the candidates from the larger political parties are favored because each constituency elects only the candidate winning the most votes. In the context of multiple-candidate elections, most members of Parliament are elected with pluralities of the vote that amount to less than a majority. Because of this, political parties can gain commanding positions in the Parliament without winning the support of a majority of the Indian voters. For example, the Congress Party in India has dominated Indian politics without ever winning a majority of votes in parliamentary elections. The finest performance for the Congress party in parliamentary elections was in 1984, when it won 76 percent of the parliamentary seats while only garnering 48 percent of the vote.
The typical term for a Lok Sabha member is five years. However, the president may dissolve the lower house and call for new elections in the event the government loses its majority in Parliament. In cases such as these, elections must be held within six months of Parliament being dissolved. Dissolving the Parliament can be a politically advantageous move by the prime minister, as by pushing the president for dissolution he may be able to maximize support in the next Parliament. The term of Parliament can also be extended in yearly increments if a state of emergency has been proclaimed. This scenario played out in 1976 when Parliament was extended beyond its five-year term under the Emergency proclaimed the previous year.
As per the Indian constitution, the Lok Sabha must meet at least twice a year, and no more than six months can pass between sessions. The Lok Sabha normally meets for three sessions a year. The Council of Ministers is responsible only to the Lok Sabha, and the authority to initiate financial legislation is vested exclusively in the Lok Sabha.
The powers and authority of the Lok Sabha and the upper house, Rajya Sabha, are not differentiated. The Indian Constitution, for instance, has a lengthy list of the powers of Parliament but not for each separate house. The key differences between the two houses lie in the different roles they play and the authority they hold in the legislative process.
Rajya Sabha: Council of States
The Indian Constitution stipulates that the upper house, or Rajya Sabha, has a maximum of 250 members. All but twelve of these members—238—are elected by state and territory legislatures for six-year terms. The remaining twelve seats are nominated by the President of India based on their specific knowledge or practical experience in fields such as literature, science, social services and art. These twelve nominations are final and require no parliamentary approval. As with many countries, the elections for Rajya Sabha members are staggered so that one-third of the assembly is up for election every two years. The number of seats allocated to each state and territory is determined by their population, except in the case of smaller states and territories, which are awarded a greater share of representatives than their population justifies.
Unlike the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha meets in continuous session and is not subject to dissolution. The Rajya Sabha is designed to provide stability and continuity to the legislative process. While it’s considered the upper house of the Indian legislature, its authority in the legislative process is actually subordinate to that of the lower house, or Lok Sabha.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch of Indian government is headed by the president; the head of state in whom the constitution grants an impressive collection of powers. The president serves as the “supreme commander” of the armed forces, and appoints the country’s prime minister, cabinet members, and governors of states and territories. He also names members to the Supreme court and high court justices, as well as ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives. The president is granted the power to issue ordinances with the force of acts of parliaments when Parliament is not in session, summon Parliament to meet, dissolve the lower house and call for new elections, and dismiss state and territory governments.
The exercise of these vast powers is restricted by the custom that the president acts on the advice of the prime minister. In 1976, the 42 Amendment to the Indian Constitution formally required the president to act according to the advice of the Council of Ministers, the cabinet that is overseen by the prime minister. The spirit of this loose arrangement is reflected in the quote that says “the president is head of the State but not of the Executive. He represents the nation but does not rule the nation.” In fact, from a practical nature the president’s role is predominantly symbolic and ceremonial, roughly akin to the British Queen Elizabeth and ruling family.
The President of India is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college. The electoral college is made up of the elected members of both houses of Parliament and the elected members of the legislative assemblies in the nation’s states and territories. By including the participation of state and territory assemblies it ensures that the president is chosen to head the nation and not merely the majority party in Parliament. This in turn makes the office of president rise above politics and makes the incumbent a symbol of national, rather than party unity.
Despite the often strict girders placed on presidential authority, presidential elections have, on several occasions, shaped the course of Indian politics. Additionally, presidents have occasionally exercised significant power, especially when no single party has a clear majority in parliament.
The vice president is also elected for a five-year term, and also elected by the same electoral college. The vice president of India serves as the “ex officio chairman” of the Rajya Sabha and acts as the sitting president when the latter is unable to carry out his normal duties due to absence, illness, or any other reason. The vice president also acts as president until a new president can be elected (within six months of the vacancy) when a vacancy occurs due to death, resignation or removal. Since 1969, there have been three instances in which the vice president was forced to serve in the capacity of president.
The Prime Minister
There can be no debate that the Prime Minister of India is the most powerful figure of the country’s government. After initially being selected by the president to serve in this capacity, normally from the party that commands the plurality of seats in Parliament, the prime minister is responsible for selecting the Council of Ministers, chosen from other members of Parliament who are then appointed by the president. Individuals who are not members of Parliament may be appointed to the Council of Ministers if they later become a member of Parliament either through election or appointment within six months of selection. The Council of Ministers is composed of cabinet ministers, ministers of state, and deputy ministers. Cabinet members are selected to accommodate different regional groups, castes, and factions within the ruling party or coalition as well as for their specific administrative skills and experience. Prime ministers may also frequently retain key ministerial portfolios for themselves.
The Judicial Branch
The judicial branch of the Indian government is led by the Supreme Court, seen as the penultimate interpreter of the constitution and the laws of the land. The Supreme Court of India has appellate jurisdiction over all civil and criminal proceedings, especially those involving substantial issues concerning constitutional interpretation. The court is granted jurisdiction in resolving disputes between the central government and one or more states and union territories, as well as between different states and union territories. The Supreme Court is entitled to issue advisory rulings on issues referred to it by the president, and has wide discretionary powers in the hearing of appeals on any matter from any court, except those of the armed services. It also serves as a court of record and supervises every high court in the land.
The Supreme Court of India consists of twenty-five associate justices and one chief justice. The president appoints the chief justice. Associate justices are also appointed by the president, but only after consultation with the chief justice and, if the president considers it necessary, with other associate justices of the Supreme Court and high court judges in the states. Unlike justice appointments in the United States, those appointed to the Supreme Court by the Indian President do not require the confirmation of the legislature, in this case, the Indian Parliament. Justices cannot be removed from office until they reach the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five unless each house of Parliament passes a presidential order charging “proved misconduct or incapacity.” This vote must be passed by a two-thirds majority of the members in attendance and a majority of the total parliamentary membership.
The conflicts that have risen over the years between the principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the judicial review process granted to the Supreme Court by the constitution have been a major source of controversy. In response to some early Supreme Court decisions, in 1971 the Indian Parliament passed a series of constitutional amendments, including the 24 Amendment, which essentially gave Parliament the power to amend any provision of the constitution, including the Fundamental Rights—the closest thing to the Bill of Rights so sacred to the American Constitution.