India is a federal republic with 29 states and six union territories. It has a parliamentary democracy which operates under the constitution of 1950. There is a bicameral federal parliament: the Rajya Sabha or council of states (upper house) and the Lok Sabha or house of the people (lower house).
The Lok Sabha has 545 members, 543 representing the states and union territories – 79 seats are reserved for scheduled castes and 40 for scheduled tribes – and two additional seats reserved for the Anglo-Indian community. Members are elected, on a first-past-the- post system in single-member constituencies, every five years or less, based on universal suffrage.
The Rajya Sabha has 245 members, 12 of which are presidential appointments and 233 are elected indirectly by the assemblies of the states and union territories for a six-year term, with one-third retiring every two years. Legislation may be introduced in either house, but the Lok Sabha has final say in financial matters.
The Prime Minister is elected by the members of the Lok Sabha and appoints and heads the Council of Ministers. The President is elected for five years by an electoral college consisting of members of the federal parliament and state assemblies.
Responsibility for enacting laws is set out in three lists: the Union List (for legislation by national parliament), the State List and the Concurrent List (either national or state legislatures). State legislatures make their own laws on such matters as education, health, taxation, public order, lands and forests. Constitutional amendments must be passed by both houses and ratified by at least half the state legislatures.
On proclamation of a state of emergency by the President, the federal government may assume temporary executive and financial control of a state and the President may rule it in place of the governor. The President appoints an Administrator to govern the union territories. The 1950 constitution set out a number of individual freedoms and abolished discrimination on the basis of caste.
After a year in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government faced continuing difficulty in keeping the coalition together, the final results of the early September/October 1999 elections gave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – a new 24- party national alliance led by the BJP – a solid majority with 298 seats, though BJP’s own total of 182 seats had hardly increased. However, Congress (I) and its allies took only 136 seats. The 1999 elections were the first since 1984 when a pre-election alliance managed to secure a clear majority in parliament.
In an early election, the first using electronic voting machines, held over four days in April/May 2004, the coalition – the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – led by Indian National Congress (INC) emerged, with 214 seats, ahead of the ruling NDA (187 seats). The INC won 146 seats and the BJP 137. However, INC leader, Sonia Gandhi, decided not to accept the prime ministership and Dr Manmohan Singh, a former Finance Minister who had overseen the economic reform programme in the early 1990s, was chosen by INC to form the new government. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), with 43 seats, joined INC to provide the necessary majority in taking the new agenda forward.
The July 2007 presidential election was won by Pratibha Patil of the INC, who was the nominee of UPA and first woman to become President. She defeated the BJP’s candidate, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, in the electoral college vote to choose a successor to Dr Abdul Kalam.
In July 2008, when a key UPA coalition partner, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M), would not support the government’s proposed nuclear deal with the USA, the government narrowly survived a vote of confidence (275:256 votes, 11 abstentions), largely due to the support of a non-coalition member, the Samajwadi Party.
In the general election of April/May 2009 the Congress Party-led UPA prevailed, extending its share to 261 of the 545 seats (INC with 206), obviating the need for the complex coalition negotiations that had followed recent elections. Its main rival, the NDA, took 159 seats (BJP with 116); the Third Front coalition – now including the CPI(M) – 78. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned to head the government for a second term.
The July 2012 presidential election was won by Pranab Mukherjee of the INC, who was the nominee of UPA. He defeated BJP’s Purno Agitok Sangma in the electoral college vote to choose a successor to Pratibha Patil.