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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE

INDIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM

Contents


INTRODUCTION

India - with a population of a billion and a quarter and an electorate of 814 million (2014) - is the world's largest democracy and, for all its faults and flaws, this democratic system stands in marked contrast to the democratic failures of Pakistan and Bangladesh which were part of India until 1947.

Unlike the American political system [click here] and the British political system [click here] which essentially have existed in their current form 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 26 January 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.

In stark contrast with the current constitution of Japan which has remained unchanged [click here], the constitution of India has been one of the most amended national documents in the world with almost 100 changes. Many of these amendments have resulted from a long-running dispute involving the Parliament and the Supreme Court over the rights of parliamentary sovereignty as they clash with those of judicial review of laws and constitutional amendments.

India's lower house, the Lok Sabha, is modelled on the British House of Commons, but its federal system of government borrows from the experience of 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 modelled 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 Indian Presidency has recently attracted special attention because for the first time a woman now occupies the role: Pratibha Patil who was formerly governor of the northern Indian state of Rajasthan.

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 the upper house called the Rajya Sabh.

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. Currently the Prime Minister is Manmohan Singh of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (who has announced that he will retire at the 2013 General Election).

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. There are certain constituencies where only candidates from scheduled casts 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.

Link: Lok Sabha click here

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 currently comprising 238 members - is elected indirectly by the state and territorial legislatures in proportion to the unit's population. Again, of course, the largest state representation is that of Uttar Pradesh with 31 members. 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.

Link: Rajya Sabha click here

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

Elections in a country of the size and complexity of India are huge and difficult affairs. In a General Election, 814 million people are elegible to vote and 930,000 polling booths are 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.

There is no way that such a poll can be conducted on a single day and in fact the next election to the Lok Sabha will take place over a period of six weeks, starting on 7 April 2014 and finishing on 12 May 2014 with all votes counted on a single day: 16 May 2014. The election will be conducted in nine separate phases and almost 4 million staff will be deployed to run them. Administrative and security considerations mean that electoral staff and soldiers will be moved around the country as the different voting phases take place.

More than 150 million people will have the vote for the first time. For the first time also, ballot papers will include a 'none of the above' option for those who do not wish to vote for any candidate.

Historically only around 55% of those eligible to do so vote in Indian national elections.

There is growing concern in India about what has been called the "criminalisation" of politics. Almost one third of the members of the current parliament have criminal cases pending against them and, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), in the 2014 election between 20-30% of candidates are expected to have criminal charges against them. The severitry of these charges varies and some charges may be unfounded, as the judicial process is often used to smear political opponents and police in many state are highly corrupt. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that overall criminality and corruption ate high in Indian politics.

POLITICAL PARTIES

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 recognised in four or more states and to be either the ruling party or in the opposition in those states.

Ever since its formation in 1885, the Indian National Congress (INC) - and its successor - 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. However, since the Congress Party lost power in 1989, no single party has been able to secure an overal majority in the Lok Sabha, making coalitions inevitable. Also, unlike Japan where the Liberal Democrat Party has been in power almost continuously [click here], Congress has had (usually short) periods out of power, between 1977-1980, 1989-1991 and 1996-2004.

The original Congress Party espoused moderate socialism and a planned, mixed economy. However, its spin-off and successor, Congress (I) - 'I' in honour of Indira Gandhi - now supports deregulation, privatisation 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 has refused to accept the post of Prime Minister; 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 Centre-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 defence. The BJP, in alliance with several other parties, led the government between 1998-2004.

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 and hopes to make an impact nationally, is the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP).

In a democracy where a significant proportion of the electorate is illiterate, the use of recognisable symbols for political parties is important. The Indian Congress Party is represented by a hand, while the Bharatiya Janata Party is represented by a lotus. The symbol of the new Aam Aadmi party is a broom.

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.

THE STATES

India is a huge country both demographically and geographically and consequently it operates a federal system of government. Below the national level, there are 28 States and seven Union Territories.

The largest of India's states is Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the north of the country. With 207 million inhabitants, 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.

In Indian general elections, it fills more than one-seventh of the seats in India's Parliament and, such is the state's caste-based and sometimes violent politics that, currently a quarter of UP's MPs face criminal charges.

Over the years, India has evolved from a highly centralised state dominated by one political party to an increasingly fragmented nation, more and more influenced by regional parties and more and more governed locally by unstable multi-party alliances. In the General Election of 2009, Congress and the BJP faced each other in only seven of the 28 States; elsewhere, one of the two national parties faced a regional party.

CONCLUSION

Politics in India is much rougher and much more corrupt that in the democracies of Europe and North America. Political assassination is not uncommon: the revered Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 were all killed by assassins. Communal, caste and regional tensions continue to haunt Indian politics, sometimes threatening its long-standing democratic and secular ethos. The language used by political candidates about each other is often vivid.

Recent years have seen the emergence of so-called RTI activists - tens of thousands of citizens, often poor, sometimes almost illiterate, frequently highly motivated - who use the Right To Information legislation of 2005 to promote transparency and attack corruption in public institutions. In the first five years of the legislation, over a million RTI requests were filed and so threatening to authority have some of the RTI activists become that a number of have been murdered.

Link: RTI India click here

More recently than the RTI movement, there has been a related - if rather different in caste and class terms - movement around the demand for an anti-corruption agency (called Lokpal). This movement has been led by the hunger-striker Anna Hazare and draws most of its support from the growing Indian middle-class which feels alienated from politics since the votes are to be found in poor, rural communities while the power is to be found in rich, urban elites.

In spite of all its problems, India remains a vibrant and functioning democracy that is a beacon to democrats in many surrounding states.

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 13 April 2014

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