INDIAN POLITICS: AN OVERVIEW
With a population of around a billion, India is the world’s largest democracy. Like all political systems, it has flaws and faults, but still stands in stark contrast to the failed democratic systems of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which were a part of India until 1947.
The Indian political system is unique; unlike the American and British democracies, which have existed in their present state for centuries, the Indian political system is relatively new, having been created just 66 years ago.
The current constitution came in to being on the 26 of January, 1950. It theory, it guarantees justice, liberty and equality for all citizens. The Constitution of India is the world’s longest written constitution, almost 120,000 words in its English version, containing 444 articles, 12 schedules, and 98 amendments.
Not only is India’s constitution the largest, it’s also one of the most amended national documents in the world, having undergone almost 100 changes. Many of these amendments have resulted from an ongoing dispute involving the Parliament and the Supreme Courts over the rights of parliamentary sovereignty as they contradict judicial review of laws and other admendments.
What follows is a brief overview of the Indian Parliament, and it’s inner workings.
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
India’s head of state is the president. This is a largely ceremonial role, supposedly modeled on the British monarch in order to “advise, encourage, and warn” the elected government on constitutional matters. Unlike the American President, who has veto power, the Indian President can return a Parliamentary Bill only once, and can only ask for reconsideration. The president can also declare a state of emergency, which allows the Lok Sabha to extend its term past the typical five years.
As members of an electoral college, around 4,500 members of the national parliament and state legislators are eligible to vote in the presidential elections. The role of President was not considered to be an important part of politics until the 2007 presidential election. For the first time in Indian history, a woman ran for the position. Pratibha Patil was the candidate for the United Progressive Alliance, which is a coalition of left political parties. She ran against Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, part of the Bharativa Janata Party, the second largest party currently in Indian politics. Patil won the election, taking nearly two-thirds of the votes. Since then, the position of president has garnered more attention than it had ever acquired before.
The Vice-President is elected much like the President; the members of both houses of parliament form an electoral college and vote on the candidates. The role of the Indian Vice-President is much like that of the American Speaker of the House; the V.P. of India chairs the upper house, which is called the Rajya Sabh.
The head of 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 Minster is Manmohan Singh of the aforementioned United Progressive Alliance.
THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH
The Lok Sabha, or House of the People, is the lower house in the Indian political system. The maximum size is 552 members, in accordance with the Constitution, made up of 530 members representing people from the states of India, up to 20 members who represent people from the Union Territories, and two members who represent the Anglo-Indian community if it feels it does not have adequate representation in the house, as according to the President.
At the present moment, the house has 545 members- 530 elected delegates from the sates, 13 who represent the territories, and two who were nominated by the Anglo-Indian community. The largest state representation is, by far, that of Uttar Pradesh with 80 members. The range of representatives is broad, with three states having only one elected representative.
Each Lok Sabha is formed for a five-year term, after which it is automatically dissolved and a new political generation begins. However, the President may issue a Proclamation of Emergency, which allows the term to extend for one-year increments. This has happened on only three occasions: 1962-1968, 1971, and 1975-1997.
Indian elections are a huge and elaborate affair, which are held in five separate rounds nation wide, requiring 28 days to complete.
The upper house in the Indian political system is the Rajya Sabha or Council of States. This house has up to 250 members, as enacted by the Constitution. 12 of the members are chosen by the President for their abilities in a specific area of art, literature, science and social services. These members are called “Nominated Members”. The rest of the house, which is currently compromised of 238 members, is indirectly elected by the state and territorial legislatures in accordance with the unit’s population. The largest representation is again that of Uttar Pradesh, which holds 31 seats.
Legislators in the Rajya Sabha have a term of six years, and every two years one-third of the members face re-election. Unlike the American legislature, the Rajya Sabha meets in continuous session, and is not subject to dissolution as the Lok Sabha is.
The two houses share legislative power, except in the area of money, in which the Lok Sabha has overriding power. If legislation is found to be contradictory, a joint sitting of the two houses will be held. If the conflict is still unresolved, a joint session of the Parliament will be held, in which the wish of the Lok Sabha nearly always prevails, as the Lok Sabha is more than twice as large as the Rajya Sabha.
There are two types of political parties in India- National Parties and State Parties. In order to be recognized as a National Party, a political party has to have a presence in four or more states and be either the ruling or opposition party in those states.
The Indian National Congress has been the dominant political party since its formation in 1885. In it’s first sixty years, its primary focus was the campaign for Indian independence from Britain. Since achieving that goal in 1947, it has sought to be the governing party of the nation, with repeated success.
As a result, the Indian Congress Party had dominated the Lok Sabha for most of its democratic history. However, the Congress Party lost power in 1989, and no single party has been able to secure a majority since, making coalitions essential.
Much like the Congress Party has dominated Indian politics for decades, one family had dominated the Party for almost as long. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, served in the Party for 17 years; his daughter Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister later; his grandson Rajiv Gandhi was also Prime Minister; Sonia Gandhi held the position of President from 2007 to 2012; and her son Rahul Gandhi is a Member of Parliament, while her daughter Priyanka Gandhi is an active political campaigner.
The Indian National Congress Party is the key party in the massive political coalition called the United Progressive Alliance. The coalition is composed of a total of 16 parties, all of which fall to the center-left on the political spectrum.
The other major political party in India is the recently established Bharativa Janata Party. Created in 1980, tends to lean towards the right side of politics. It represents the socio-religious cultural values of the country’s Hindu majority by advocating for conservative policies and strong national defense.
The Bharativa Janata Party is the leading party in the right-wing coalition called the National Democratic Alliance. At it’s founding in 1998, there were 13 parties involved. Currently, however, there are only eight.
THE JUDICIAL BRANCH
Like almost all other democracies, the Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority in civil, criminal, and constitutional cases. The court is comprised of up to 26 judges who are appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Appointed judges will serve on the bench until they reach age 65.
Indian politics are much more corrupt and dangerous than their counterparts in Europe and North America. The assignation of important political figures is not uncommon: The independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 were all assassinated. Religious, caste, and regional tensions cause Indian politics to be one of the most volatile democracies in the world today.
But in spite of its problems, India seems to be changing. In 2005, the Right To Information legislation was passed in order to promote transparency and attack corruption in public institutions. In it’s first five years, over a million RTI requests have been filed. More recently than the RTI movement is the growing demand for an anti-corruption agency. This movement is led by the famous hunger-striker Anna Hazare and gleans a majority of its support from the growing Indian middle-class.
Like all democracies, India faces a multitude of problems that may never be solved. And though it has flaws, it continues to be a vibrant and functioning democracy.