India is an independent, democratic republic. Since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, India has been regarded as the world's largest democracy. The country is made up of 25 states and 7 territories. A president is head of state, but a prime minister actually heads the government.
The Constitution. India's
Constitution came into force on Jan. 26, 1950. It embodied many aspects of UK constitutional forms and practices but was adapted in fundamental ways to mark India's achievement of independence. Under the Constitution, India is a federation consisting of a central government in New Delhi, and the states. Delhi, and six other small units are called union territories, because they are administered directly by the central government.
The Indian Constitution, like many others, contains a list of fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It also includes two unusual features. There is a list of directive principles of state policy, which express ideals of social justice, equality, and welfare. These have no legal status and cannot be enforced by the courts, but they were intended to guide the government in policy-making. In 1976, the Parliament added to these a list of fundamental duties of the citizen, which include the duty to protect the natural environment and the cultural heritage of the country.
The president. The authority of the Indian state resides in the president. But in normal circumstances, the president is a figurehead who represents the Indian people on ceremonial occasions. The president is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of members of Parliament (MP's) and members of the state legislative assemblies.
A vice president is elected by Parliament. In the event of the death or resignation of the president, the vice president takes over only until an election can be held.
Parliament. The Indian Parliament has two houses, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The Lok Sabha, or House of the People, consists of 545 MP's. Two members are nominated to represent the Anglo-Indian community. All other MP's are directly elected from single-member territorial constituencies. The life of each Lok Sabha is five years, but, as in the British system, elections can be held earlier if the prime minister so decides. The Lok Sabha is the primary source of political power in the country, and a prime minister and the council of ministers must have its confidence to remain in office.
The Rajya Sabha, or House of the States, is indirectly elected. One-third of its members are chosen every two years for a fixed six-year term. A total of 233 of its 245 members represent the states, and are elected by proportional representation by the legislators of each state. The government of the day nominates another 12 members who are well-known academic and cultural figures. Bills that involve taxation or other forms of finance are handled only by the Lok Sabha, but the Rajya Sabha can delay the progress of other bills.
The party (or parties) that form the government also dominate Parliament, which endorses legislation put forward by the ministry. It also checks administration through its own committee structure and often publishes critical reports. To make Parliament more effective in this role, 17 new standing committees were constituted in 1993, to examine the budgets, performance, and policies of particular departments of the government. In general, however, the role of Parliament has declined over the years. MP's do not contribute much to policy-making, and a government with a large majority tends to use Parliament as a mere formality for passing its legislation. The government can and often does bypass Parliament by using the device of presidential ordinance (decree). Although Parliament must approve an ordinance retrospectively (after it has been applied), the ordinance has immediate effect and can be used by governments to put through controversial measures.
The prime minister and council of ministers.
The prime minister is the effective head of the government. The president appoints a prime minister who is able to command the confidence of the Lok Sabha. The prime minister is head of the council of ministers, who are appointed by the president on the prime minister's recommendation. Within the council, the senior ministers form a cabinet, which takes collective decisions on major policy matters. Over the years, power has been concentrated in the hands of the prime minister. The prime minister's personal secretariat has grown considerably, and often bypasses cabinet ministers and their departmental officials when making major decisions.
Elections. In parliamentary and state elections in India, everyone over the age of 18 may vote. Because large numbers of people cannot read or write, electoral officers allot each candidate a symbol. Voters place a mark against the symbol of his or her preferred candidate. Candidates belonging to the same party all have the same symbol. Voter turnout is relatively high, averaging well over 60 per cent in parliamentary elections, as compared with just under 50 per cent in U.S. presidential elections.
Since 1950, the government has used a system of reservation to ensure the representation of two socially disadvantaged groups. These are known as the scheduled castes (traditionally low castes) and the scheduled tribes (comprising a fairly large tribal population). In reserved constituencies, the candidates must be of scheduled caste or tribe background, although the electorate remains the same. From time to time, the designated constituencies are changed.
Political parties. The Constitution does not specifically refer to political parties, but the basis of the Indian political system is that political competition will be organized on party lines. In 1985, the government introduced an Anti-Defection Bill, which subsequently became a constitutional amendment. This prevents politicians elected for one party from transferring their allegiance to another party without resigning and facing another election.
Since 1947, the Indian political system has been dominated by the Congress Party, which led the movement for national independence. Under strong leadership, and with support spreading into the countryside, the Congress did extremely well in elections and provided effective governance. Since the 1980's, however, its local-level support bases have become smaller. Critics claimed that the quality of leadership had declined. Charges of corruption and an inability to govern effectively also contributed to its lessening popularity with voters. A number of other parties gained support, although none of them managed to sustain a government for its full term. Another important feature of the party system has been the rise of several regional parties that are powerful in the particular states to which they belong. The popularity of these parties is largely due to the fact that they appeal to regional (cultural or linguistic) sentiments.
The judiciary. India's judicial system blends British and American traditions. The courts administer a legal system that has been regularly modified by Parliament and the state assemblies. Personal laws, such as those governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance, have not been standardized and vary between the individual religious communities. The government has codified (systematically arranged) and partly reformed the personal law of the Hindu majority, but has not attempted to do so for the minority groups, as this is a politically controversial issue that affects Hindu-Muslim relations. In a judgment made in the 1990's, the Supreme Court directed the government to introduce a uniform civil code applicable to all religious communities, as this has the mandate of the directive principles of state policy.
At the top of the court system is the Supreme Court of India, which sits in New Delhi. The president appoints members, headed by the chief justice, on the advice of the prime minister. The Supreme Court has a wide range of functions. It hears cases that involve disputes between states or between a state and the central government. It also acts as the final court of appeal in certain types of criminal and civil cases.
Perhaps the most important function of the Supreme Court is its role as the final interpreter of the Constitution. Like the practice of judicial review in the United States, the Supreme Court can declare legislation passed by parliament to be unconstitutional. Parliament has accepted this, but there is a further, unresolved, issue. This is the claim by the Supreme Court that Parliament cannot use its amending powers to alter the basic structure of the Constitution. This has been taken to mean that, while fundamental rights can be amended, their essence must be left intact.
In 1982, the Supreme Court held that any member of the public could approach the courts with the grievances of people who may be too poor or unaware of their legal rights to be able to move the courts directly. This has generated a vast number of public-interest legal proceedings on issues such as injustice, exploitation, and environmental degradation by concerned citizens and groups.
Below the Supreme Court are the high courts in the states. The high courts also enjoy both original and appellate jurisdiction (dealing with appeals), and interpret the Constitution. Next in the hierarchy are the district courts and finally, at the lowest level, the civil court headed by a subordinate judge. The government appoints judges at all levels.
Emergency provisions. The Constitution provides for emergencies due to internal or external crisis. Thus, governments have declared emergencies with general support during times of war, such as with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. But in 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of internal emergency to solve what she claimed was an imminent breakdown of law and order. The opposition parties criticized the declaration, saying that the state of emergency was imposed to safeguard her political power.
The Constitution also allows the central government to override the working of state governments if it considers it necessary. If the centrally appointed state governor declares a breakdown of constitutional functioning, the central government, acting through the president, can dissolve or suspend the state legislature, and take over the administration of the state. This is also known as the imposition of president's rule. The government can normally impose president's rule for no more than six months at a time for a maximum of two years, and it must be endorsed by the Lok Sabha. The government has used president's rule to cope with situations such as the crisis in the state of Punjab in the 1980's, but more often to handle purely political crises. President's rule has been imposed about 90 times since independence.
The state has a range of additional methods for dealing with particularly difficult problems of law and order. These methods involve the use of preventive detention or the declaration of an area as disturbed. In May 1995, the government, acting on widespread popular demand, suspended the controversial Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, which civil-rights groups said was more often used against political opponents than terrorists.
Amendments to the Constitution
follow a simple procedure. A two-thirds majority is necessary in both houses of Parliament. Where certain sections that affect the powers of the states are concerned, at least half the states must also agree to the amendments. Since 1950, Parliament has amended the Constitution more than 70 times.
The civil service. The Indian government recruits its numerous officials through a highly competitive examination system. The most senior administrative officials generally belong to the all-India services. The most prestigious and powerful of the all-India services is the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the successor to the colonial Indian Civil Service under the British. Its members occupy most of the positions of secretary in the central ministries, the important senior positions in the states, as well as heading many public-sector corporations. Observers have criticized the IAS for its exclusiveness and its lack of specific technical skills, as well as for its continuity with the colonial civil service as a law-and-order bureaucracy rather than a development bureaucracy.
At the next level are the provincial services. These also recruit on a highly competitive basis. At these levels of government service, the system of recruitment allows for the reservation of a quota (a prescribed number) for specific categories of the population. Until 1990, in the all-India services there was a special quota only for the scheduled castes and tribes. But now there is reservation in all public employment, excluding some areas such as defence and advanced scientific research, for "socially and educationally backward classes," generally caste groups that have been under-represented in the past. Although there is a provision that quotas should not exceed 50 per cent, various states have implemented higher quotas.
The Planning Commission.The Planning Commission was created in 1950 to direct the development of the economy through drawing up and monitoring five-year plans. Under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru, it became an extremely influential decision-making body in the 1950's and early 1960's. This was in keeping with the policy of planned development through a mixed economy in which the public sector would dominate. The second five-year plan (1956-1961) introduced the strategy of rapid industrialization, making the state responsible for basic and heavy industries such as steel production, as well as for infrastructure, including electricity generation.
With the liberalization of the economy in the 1980's, planning has lost its centrality. But the Planning Commission continues to draw up five-year plans that specify targets and recommend the requisite public expenditure, private investment, and fiscal controls. The eighth five-year plan (1990-1995) recommended the withdrawal of the public sector from many areas. It also emphasized the importance of people's participation in development.
State corporations. In keeping with the policy of planned development, the state has owned or managed large sections of the economy. In some areas, such as the railways or electricity, control rests with the relevant ministry or a state corporation. In other areas, there are partnerships between the public and the private sectors. In the 1990's, there was a dramatic shift in policy. Private investment, including foreign investment, was invited to accelerate economic development, even in areas that were formerly reserved for the state, such as the building of highways, metropolitan transport systems, and power plants.
The mass media. Until recently, the government had exclusive control over the electronic media (radio and television) through its Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. But with the coming of satellite television, a large number of privately owned channels have come into being, and a communications revolution has taken place. The newspapers have always been in private hands, and together with magazines and periodicals, have a total circulation of over 30 million.
The states. There are 25 states in the Indian Union. They range in size from Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of more than 138 million, to Sikkim, with a population of about 400,000. The political map of India changed in 1956, when the country was divided into states on the basis of language. Since then, the basic structure has remained largely the same. Additional states have been created, generally because of political pressures from ethnic or religious groups. A notable example is the state of Punjab, established in 1966 to give the Sikh community a majority.
The central government directly administers the smaller units known as union territories. Most of these territories are small areas that lack sufficient resources to sustain a separate government.
Jammu and Kashmir, a princely state until 1947, enjoys a special constitutional status. Although Pakistan has always disputed India's claim to the state, India insists that the claim is valid in international law. The special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution limits the power of the central government. Since the late 1980's, militant activity in the state has been intense, and the crisis remains unresolved.
Each state copies the structure of the national government. The nominal head is the governor, appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. The head of the government is the chief minister, the leader of the ruling party in the legislature, as well as of the council of ministers. The chief minister and his cabinet are responsible to the legislative assembly. In some states, the legislative assembly has two houses. Elections to the assembly are held at least every five years, and do not necessarily coincide with the parliamentary election.
The Indian Constitution defines the division of responsibilities between the national and state governments. In general, states look after agriculture, education, and law and order. The central government enjoys exclusive control over defence, foreign affairs, and economic policy. Central control over finances has greatly reduced the states' powers, even in relation to subjects they administer.
Although the states are essential elements in Indian federal government, there has been a strong tendency toward the centralization of power since 1950. The demands of economic planning meant that the central government had the final decision not only in matters of economic policy, but also in the allocation of funds for development to the states. This has often led to accusations that states in which the party in power is the same as the party of central government get more, while those not favoured by the central government are badly treated.
States have also complained of excessive political interference by the central government, and this partly explains the popularity of regional parties. The increasing resentment over central control led to the establishment of the Sarkaria Commission on centre-state relations, which submitted its report in 1987. The commission recommended greater devolution (handing over) of powers to the states, and their increased involvement in the process of planning for social and economic development. It also suggested that district-level planning be strengthened, so that centrally sponsored programmes could be adapted to local conditions instead of being uniformly applied across the country. The Sarkaria Commission's suggestions were recommendatory, and not binding on the government.
Administration. Each state is divided into districts, which are the basic units of government and administration. There are nearly 500 districts, some with populations considerably greater than 2 million. The districts in turn are divided into smaller units (such as the tehsil) and eventually into villages. A senior government official, usually from the Indian Administrative Service, is in charge of each district, and coordinates all government activities there. This official is assisted in the maintenance of law and order by a police official, also belonging to the all-India services.
Though the Constitution-makers did not pay much attention to this, there have been a number of attempts to revive the panchayat, the traditional institution of local self-government. From 1959, the central government tried to pressure state governments to promote panchayati raj (rule by village councils). These local councils were intended to formulate and control development plans in their areas. State political leaderships resisted this because they feared that local interests would gain greater influence. As a result, in many states, panchayat elections were not held for periods of up to 14 years. Where panchayats did function, their powers and resources were marginal. Since most development programmes were being drawn up and financed by the central government, the administration was top-heavy, and the plans did not succeed. Some people blame the lack of participation in development programmes by local communities and the continuing poverty experienced by many villagers for the erosion and depletion of natural resources in rural areas.
In 1993, the 73rd amendment to the Constitution was passed, establishing a new structure of panchayats at the district and sub-district levels. These are constitutionally safeguarded against interference from the bureaucracy and politicians, so that common people can decide their own development priorities and implement them. This new structure of panchayats has three tiers: the village panchayat, the block panchayat (the intermediate level, which is also called taluk or mandal), and the district panchayat. At each of these levels, the elected panchayats have the power to prepare plans for economic development and social welfare and to implement them.
The sphere of functioning of the panchayats covers areas such as agriculture, minor irrigation, water management, primary and secondary schools, health, and the maintenance of the community's natural resources and common assets. At each of the three levels, there are reservations for the scheduled castes and tribes in proportion to their number in the local population. A distinctive feature of this law is that one-third of the seats are reserved for women. These reservations extend to the post of chairperson of the panchayat. The urban equivalents of these institutions are elected municipalities, also at three levels: town councils (nagar panchayats) for transitional urban areas; municipal councils for smaller urban areas; and municipal corporations for the larger towns.
Also in 1993, Parliament enacted the 74th amendment to the Constitution, which provides for district planning committees to combine the plans of the lower panchayats and to consolidate them into a plan for the whole district. This plan would then be forwarded to the state government, which controls the financial resources. All the states have amended their laws on panchayats in accordance with these constitutional amendments.
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