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India - Government

According to its constitution, India is a "sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic." Like the United States, India has a federal form of government. However, the central government in India has far greater power in relation to its states, and has adopted a British-style parliamentary system.

The government exercises its broad administrative powers in the name of the president, whose duties are largely ceremonial. A special electoral college elects the president and vice president indirectly for 5-year terms. Their terms are staggered, and the vice president does not automatically become president following the death or removal from office of the president.

The president has a specific authority with respect to the function of the legislative branch. The president is authorized to convene Parliament and must give his assent to all parliamentary bills before they become law. The president is empowered to summon Parliament to meet, to address either house or both houses together, and to require attendance of all of its members. The president also may send messages to either house with respect to a pending bill or any other matter. The president addresses the first session of Parliament each year and must give assent to all provisions in bills passed.

Real national executive power is centered in the Cabinet (senior members of the Council of Ministers), led by the prime minister. The president appoints the prime minister, who is designated by legislators of the political party or coalition commanding a parliamentary majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house). The president then appoints subordinate ministers on the advice of the prime minister.

Parliament consists of a bicameral legislature, the Lok Sabha (House of the Peoplethe lower house) and the Rajya Sabha (Council of Statesthe upper house). Parliament's principal function is to pass laws on those matters that the constitution specifies to be within its jurisdiction. The Council of Ministers is responsible to the Lok Sabha. Among its constitutional powers are approval and removal of members of the Council of Ministers, amendment of the constitution, approval of central government finances, and delimitation of state and union territory boundaries.

The legislatures of the states and union territories elect 233 members to the Rajya Sabha, and the president appoints another 12. The members of the Rajya Sabha serve 6-year terms, with one-third up for election every 2 years. The Lok Sabha consists of 545 members, who serve 5-year terms; 543 are directly elected, and two are appointed.

India's independent judicial system began under the British, and its concepts and procedures resemble those of Anglo-Saxon countries. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and 25 other justices, all appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister.

India has 28 states and 7 union territories. This number includes the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The United States considers all of the former princely state of Kashmir to be disputed territory. India, Pakistan, and China each control parts of Kashmir. At the state level, some legislatures are bicameral, patterned after the two houses of the national parliament. The states' chief ministers are responsible to the legislatures in the same way the prime minister is responsible to Parliament.

Each state also has a presidentially appointed governor, who may assume certain broad powers when directed by the central government. The central government exerts greater control over the union territories than over the states, although some territories have gained more power to administer their own affairs. Local governments in India have less autonomy than their counterparts in the United States. Some states are trying to revitalize the traditional village councils, or Panchayats, to promote popular democratic participation at the village level, where much of the population still lives. Over half a million Panchayats exist throughout India.

The Indian political system proved to be flexible and durable, but major internal conflicts have threatened the constitution. In practice, the elected office of the nation's president has gravitated toward the formal and ritual aspects of executive power, while the office of the prime minister, backed up by a majority in Parliament, the cabinet, national security forces, and the bureaucracy of the Indian Administrative Service, wielded the actual power. The national Parliament had not developed an independent committee structure and critical tradition that could stand against the force of the executive branch. The judiciary, while remaining independent and at times crucial in determining national policy, stayed in the background and is subject to future change through constitutional amendments. The constitution itself has been subject to numerous amendments since its adoption in 1950. By August 1996, the constitution had been amended eighty times.

National politics became contests to set up the appointment of the prime minister, who then had considerable power to interfere directly or through a cooperative president in all aspects of national life. The most drastic example of this power occurred in 1975, when Indira Gandhi implemented the constitutional provision for a declaration of Emergency, suspending civil rights for eighteen months, using Parliament as a tool for eliminating opposition, and ruling with the aid of a small circle of advisers.



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