India is largest democracy in the world. A relatively recent political creation, it is a liberal democratic federal republic, with a free press and an independent judiciary. The government is modeled after the British parliamentary system. The prime minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament. Elections are held within five years of the previous one. The voting age is 18.

India is a federal (or quasi-federal) republic. Its modern parliamentary institutions originate from the British colonial administration but developed organically as a result of increasing Indian demand for greater representation in government. India’s federal legislative branch consists of the President, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) as the upper house, and the Lok Sabha (House of the People) as the lower house. If a political party or a coalition receives more than half of the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha, which in its current composition is 273 seats, that party/coalition is able to form a government. Elections to the Lok Sabha are carried out using a first-past-the-post electoral system. In order for a bill to become law in India, it must undergo a three-stage process in each house of Parliament that involves introduction, consideration, and final passage, and must also be given presidential assent. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2017]

India achieved independence on August 15, 1947. Its constitution became effective on January 26, 1950. The capital is New Delhi (formally called the National Capital“Territory of Delhi). For administrative purposes India is divided into 28 linguistically–based states (including Jammu and Kashmir) and six union territories and one national capital territory. The central state operates the union territories while the states normally govern themselves.

The constitution contains an extensive set of directive principles akin to the U.S. Bill of Rights. Legislative acts and amendments have weakened some of those guarantees, while a number of decisions by the supreme court have left some weakened and others — like the commitment to secularism and to representative government — strengthened. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Symbols of the Government of India

The national flag of India was adopted in 1947. It is a tricolor of deep saffron, white, and green, in horizontal bands (with green at the bottom). In the center of the white band is a blue wheel, the chakra, the wheel of law. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The chakra also appears on the 2,200-year-old lion column-capital of the Emperor Asoka at Sarnath. Preserved in the Sarnath Museum, this sandstone carving features four lions back to back, separated by wheels (chakra,), standing over a bell-shaped lotus. The whole carving once was surmounted by the wheel of law.

The national anthem of India is “Jana gana mana” (“Thou Art the Ruler of the Minds of All People ). It was composed by Nobel-Prize-winning poet and scholar Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. A national song of equal status is Vande Mataram (I Bow to Thee, Mother).

History and Evolution of the Government of India

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his Satyagraha (non-violent campaign), India declared independence from British rule on August 15, 1947. Free India's first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who founded the Indian National Congress, described the moment as a "rendezvous with destiny. Since independence, India has evolved into a multiparty democracy. The Indian National Congress, which led India to independence in 1947, was the largest party and governed in coalition with smaller centrist parties. Later known as the Congress Party, it ruled the nation until the 1990s, in part through the use of corruption and intimidation. Over the years, a number of parties have formed, and the main opposition to the Congress Party comes from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose supporters include some strong Hindu nationalists who believe that India should not be a multi-ethnic state. [Source: Payam Foroughi, Raissa Muhutdinova-Foroughi, Sujatha Naidu, Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, Gale Group Inc., 2002]

India’s modern parliamentary institutions originated from the British colonial administration but developed organically as result of “relentless struggles” and Indian demand for greater representation in government. The first signs of a legislative body came during the rule of the East India Company, when the Council of the Governor-General of India had both executive and legislative functions and responsibilities. The Charter Act, 1833 changed the structure of the Governor-General’s Council to one “legislative council for all the British territories in India.” The Governor-General’s Council was succeeded by the Imperial Legislative Council pursuant to the Indian Councils Act of 1861. Amendments were made in 1892 and 1909 in an attempt to make the body more representative and expand its functions. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2017 |*|]

According to the “living heritage” section of the UK parliament website, Two Indian Councils Acts, of 1892 and 1909, allowed a small number of Indians – 39 in 1892 rising to 135 in 1909 – to be elected to both the imperial legislative council and the provincial legislative councils. The 1909 Act ensured that these representatives were chosen by small groups of Indian electors as representatives of specific religious and social groups, such as Muslims or landowners. These councils remained merely advisory and the governor was in no way responsible to these elected representatives. Parliament’s legislation of 1892 and 1909 did not adequately address the wide-scale dissatisfaction with British rule. |*|

In 1919, the British Parliament, pursuant to the Government of India Act 1919, passed the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, which introduced a bicameral legislature, a lower house called the Central Legislative Assembly, and an upper house-like Council of State, for the first time. The Government of India Act 1935 laid the foundation for India’s federal structure. The Act also established a bicameral federal legislature consisting of the Council of States and Federal Assembly. |*|

After independence, pursuant to the Indian Independence Act, the Constituent Assembly became India’s first sovereign legislature. The Assembly was formed under a plan recommended by the Cabinet Mission that called for the framing of the Constitution of India. A drafting committee under the chairmanship of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was set up by the Constituent Assembly. It took the drafting committee two years and eleven months to complete the drafting of the Constitution.12" The Constitution of India was adopted on November 26, 1949, and came into effect on January 26, 1950. The Constituent Assembly continued as a provisional Parliament of India until 1952, when a new Parliament was constituted. The current Indian Parliament was established pursuant to the Constitution of India, which stipulates that “there shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the Council of States and the House of the People.”

Views and Functioning of the Indian Government

The Constitution of India states that India is a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.” According to the New York Times: "India does have parliamentary government and a Constitution replete with democratic guarantees. It has never been ruled by a military. It has a proudly independent judiciary. Its press is as varied as contentious as any in the world. But those who have made a closer study of India’s record often feel that country has gained more credit for democracy than it deserves." [Source: John F. Burns, New York Times, January 22, 1995]

Government in India has traditionally been regarded as best able to look out for the needs of the people. Still it is viewed as corrupt and primarily a source of jobs. Hindus have traditionally looked upon the caste system and religion to create order and structure in society. Government has traditionally been looked upon as something that maintain society and kept anarchy from breaking out.

The Union (federal) government of India is responsible for developing and implementing various domestic and foreign policies and sets its economic policies in consultation with representatives of the states and various other representative bodies of businesses, farmers, and labor. Once viewed as a source of solutions for the country's economic and social problems, the Indian polity is increasingly seen by political observers as the problem. When populist political appeals stir the passions of the masses, government institutions appear less capable than ever before of accommodating conflicts in a society mobilized along competing ethnic and religious lines. In addition, law and order have become increasingly tenuous because of the growing inability of the police to curb criminal activities and quell communal disturbances. Indeed, many observers bemoan the "criminalization" of Indian politics at a time when politicians routinely hire "muscle power" to improve their electoral prospects, and criminals themselves successfully run for public office. These circumstances have led some observers to conclude that India has entered into a growing crisis of governability. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995; Payam Foroughi, Raissa Muhutdinova-Foroughi, Sujatha Naidu, Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Constitution of India

The Constitution: of India was instituted on January 26, 1950. Before that India was governed under the 1935 constitution adopted under th British. The latest draft was completed on November 4, 1949 and adopted on November 26. 1949 and became effective on January 26, 1950. The Indian constitution has been amended many times. The last time was in 2013. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The Constitution: of India is the world’s longest Constitutions, with 448 articles in 25 parts and 12 schedules. One reason for this is that it has to holds together so many and such a diverse group of people. Numerous amendments have been added up the Indian constitution. Initially it had 395 articles in 22 parts and 8 schedules

Unlike the British constitution, the Indian constitution is a written document. Its drafters were heavily influenced by the United States constitution. Although the constitution of India draws extensively from Western legal traditions in its outline of the principles of liberal democracy it is distinguished from many Western constitutions in its elaboration of principles reflecting the aspirations to end the inequities of traditional social relations and enhance the social welfare of the population.

The Indian constitution does not call for a Westminster-style democracy. It only advocates "the first past the post" approach to governance, which has been interpreted to mean majority rule in Parliament. The India constitution guarantees freedom of speech, liberty to all religious sects and castes, including untouchables.

Amendments and Schedules of the Indian Constitution

The Indian constitution is also one of the most frequently amended and detailed constitutions in the world. As of 2023 it had 105 amendments. As of 2005, the U.S. constitution had been been amended only 27 times in 215 years while the Indian constitution has been amended 78 times in 55 years.

The first amendment came only a year after the adoption of the constitution and instituted numerous minor changes. Many more amendments followed, and through June 1995 the constitution had been amended seventy-seven times, a rate of almost two amendments per year since 1950. Most of the constitution can be amended after a quorum of more than half of the members of each house in Parliament passes an amendment with a two-thirds majority vote. Articles pertaining to the distribution of legislative authority between the central and state governments must also be approved by 50 percent of the state legislatures.[Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

The appendixes of the Indian constitution are, known as schedules. Schedules can be added to the constitution by amendment. The ten schedules in force cover the designations of the states and union territories; the emoluments for high-level officials; forms of oaths; allocation of the number of seats in the Rajya Sabha (Council of States — the upper house of Parliament) per state or territory; provisions for the administration and control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes; provisions for the administration of tribal areas in Assam; the union (meaning central government), state, and concurrent (dual) lists of responsibilities; the official languages; land and tenure reforms; and the association of Sikkim with India.*

Drafting and Evolution of the Indian Constitution

Adopted after some two and one-half years of deliberation by the Constituent Assembly that also acted as India's first legislature, the constitution was put into effect on January 26, 1950. Bhimrao Ramji (B.R.) Ambedkar, a Dalit who earned a law degree from Columbia University, chaired the drafting committee of the constitution and shepherded it through Constituent Assembly debates. Supporters of independent India's founding father, Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, backed measures that would form a decentralized polity with strong local administration — known as panchayats. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

However, the support of more modernist leaders, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, ultimately led to a parliamentary government and a federal system with a strong central government. Following a British parliamentary pattern, the constitution embodies the Fundamental Rights, which are similar to the United States Bill of Rights, and a Supreme Court similar to that of the United States. It creates a "sovereign democratic republic" called India, or Bharat (after the legendary king of the Mahabharata ), which "shall be a Union of States." India is a federal system in which residual powers of legislation remain with the central government, similar to that in Canada. The constitution provides detailed lists dividing up powers between central and state governments as in Australia, and it elaborates a set of Directive Principles of State Policy as does the Irish constitution.*

According to constitutional scholar Granville Austin, probably no other nation's constitution "has provided so much impetus toward changing and rebuilding society for the common good." Since its enactment, the constitution has fostered a steady concentration of power in the central government — especially the Office of the Prime Minister. This centralization has occurred in the face of the increasing assertiveness of an array of ethnic and caste groups across Indian society. Increasingly, the government has responded to the resulting tensions by resorting to the formidable array of authoritarian powers provided by the constitution. Together with the public's perception of pervasive corruption among India's politicians, the state's centralization of authority and increasing resort to coercive power have eroded its legitimacy. However, a new assertiveness shown by the Supreme Court and the Election Commission suggests that the remaining checks and balances among the country's political institutions continue to support the resilience of Indian democracy. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

Branches of the Government of India

The government of India is comprised of three branches: 1) Executive — president (chief of state), prime minister (head of government) and Council of Ministers (cabinet); 2) Legislative — bicameral parliament (Rajya Sabha or Council of States, and Lok Sabha or House of the People); and 3) Judicial — Supreme Court. These branches are defined in India’s 1950 constitution. The institutions are derived from the British parliamentary system.[Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008, adapted from U.S. State Department reports]

Executive power is held by the Prime Minister and his appointed Council of Ministers (the Cabinet) from the majority party or a coalition in Parliament. The constitutional head of State is the President, although his duties are mainly ceremonial. He resides in Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly the residence of the British Viceroy.

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. The government exercises its broad administrative powers in the name of the president. 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.

Legislative power is vested in the bicameral Parliament, which is made up of the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) with, up to 250 appointed and indirectly elected members, and the Lok Sabha (House of the People), with up to 550 directly elected members. The Council of Ministers is responsible to the Lok Sabha. 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.

The independent judicial system of India is headed by a Supreme Court appointed by the President on the advice of the prime minister.. The Supreme Court of India comprises the Chief Justice and 27 other Judges appointed by the President of India. Supreme Court Judges retire upon attaining the age of 65 years. India's judicial system began under the British, and its concepts and procedures resemble those of Anglo-Saxon countries. [Source: CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Department reports]

Structure of the Indian Government

Like the United States, India has a federal form of government. However, the central government in India has greater power in relation to its states, and has adopted a British-style parliamentary system. Some argue that the term constitutional, parliamentary democracy more accurately describes Indian political reality than is the case in many other countries. India’s constitution is far more detailed and much easier to amend than those of the United States and other Western countries.[Source: Robert S. Robins, Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Other say the structure of India's federal — or union — system not only creates a strong central government but also has facilitated the concentration of power in the central government in general and in particular in the Office of the Prime Minister. This centralization of power has been a source of considerable controversy and political tension. It is likely to further exacerbate political conflict because of the increasing pluralism of the country's party system and the growing diversity of interest-group representation. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

India’s system of government is legally based on the often-amended 1950 constitution. The central government is also known as the union government, and its structure is much like the British parliamentary system, with distinct, but interrelated executive, legislative, and judicial branches. State governments are structured much like the central government, The Governor, who is appointed by the President, is ceremonial head of the government, while the Chief Minister and his cabinet, who come from the majority party or coalition in the State Assembly (Legislature), exercise executive authority. District governments exist in a variety of forms. [Source: Library of Congress, 2005]

The legislature passes laws on constitutionally specified matters, such as central government finances and constitutional amendments. The two houses have the same powers, but the Rajya Sabha’s power in the legislative process is subordinate to the Lok Sabha. Over time, political power has become increasingly concentrated in the prime minister and Council of Ministers (cabinet), although they are responsible to the parliament. The president’s duties are mostly ceremonial, although the president formally approves the prime minister and also approves the Council of Ministers based on the prime minister’s advice. Furthermore, all bills require presidential approval before becoming law. The vice president is ex officio chairperson of the Rajya Sabha and acts in place of the president when the president is unable to perform his or her duties.

The Supreme Court has numerous legal powers, such as appellate jurisdiction over all civil and criminal proceedings, with the potential of influencing interpretation of the constitution. The parliament and Supreme Court have maintained a contentious relationship on issues related to judicial review and parliamentary sovereignty. Below the Supreme Court are high courts, followed by a hierarchy of subordinate courts, and some states also have panchayat (village-level) courts that decide civil and criminal matters. Some high courts serve more than one state, and all are independent of state legislatures and executives. The judiciary is regarded as slow and cumbersome but is also widely respected and often takes an activist role in protecting citizens’ rights.

Fundamental Rights in India

The Indian constitution contains civil liberties called Fundamental Rights that are guaranteed to all citizens and include equality before the law and freedoms of speech, expression, religion, and association. Freedom of the press is not explicitly stated but is widely interpreted as included in the freedoms of speech and expression. The Fundamental Rights were also created with the objective of addressing historical social injustices and legally prohibit bonded labor, human trafficking, and discrimination based on religion, sex, race, caste, and birthplace. Still, the government has the authority to limit civil liberties in order to preserve public order, protect national security, and for other reasons. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

The Fundamental Rights embodied in the constitution are guaranteed to all citizens. These civil liberties take precedence over any other law of the land. They include individual rights common to most liberal democracies, such as equality before the law, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to constitutional remedies for the protection of civil rights such as habeas corpus. In addition, the Fundamental Rights are aimed at overturning the inequities of past social practices. They abolish "untouchability"; prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth; and forbid traffic in human beings and forced labor.

They go beyond conventional civil liberties in protecting cultural and educational rights of minorities by ensuring that minorities may preserve their distinctive languages and establish and administer their own education institutions. Originally, the right to property was also included in the Fundamental Rights; however, the Forty-fourth Amendment, passed in 1978, revised the status of property rights by stating that "No person shall be deprived of his property save by authority of law." Freedom of speech and expression, generally interpreted to include freedom of the press, can be limited "in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence".

Group Rights in India

In addition to stressing the right of individuals as citizens, Part XVI of the constitution endeavors to promote social justice by elaborating a series of affirmative-action measures for disadvantaged groups. These "Special Provisions Relating to Certain Classes" include the reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and in state legislative bodies for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The number of seats set aside for them is proportional to their share of the national and respective state populations. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995*]

Part XVI also reserves some government appointments for these disadvantaged groups insofar as they do not interfere with administrative efficiency. The section stipulates that a special officer for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be appointed by the president to "investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided" for them, as well as periodic commissions to investigate the conditions of the Backward Classes. The president, in consultation with state governors, designates those groups that meet the criteria of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Similar protections exist for the small Anglo-Indian community.*

The framers of the constitution provided that the special provisions would cease twenty years after the promulgation of the constitution, anticipating that the progress of the disadvantaged groups during that time would have removed significant disparities between them and other groups in society. However, in 1969 the Twenty-third Amendment extended the affirmative-action measures until 1980. The Forty-fifth Amendment of 1980 extended them again until 1990, and in 1989 the Sixty-second Amendment extended the provisions until 2000. The Seventy-seventh Amendment of 1995 further strengthened the states' authority to reserve government-service positions for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe members.

Women in Government in India

In late September 2023, both the Council of States and the House of the People passed a bill that reserves one-third of the House seats for women; implementation could begin for the House election in 2029. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Year women obtained the right to vote (then under British colonial rule): Bombay and Madras in 1921; All provinces, including princely states in 1929.(compared to 1893 in New Zealand and 2011 in Saudi Arabia) [Source: Wikipedia

Proportion of seats held by women in national legislatures: 15 percent in 2022 (compared to 53 percent in Bolivia, 20 percent in the United States and 3 percent in Kuwait). In 1998, only 40 seats in the 545-seat Indian Parliament were held by women. [Source: World Bank ]

Sixteen years of leadership under Indira Gandhi — a woman — in the 1960s and 70s did little for women in India. A total of 22 of the 489 members of the first Lok Sabha in 1952 were women. In 1999, 49 of the 543 members were women, As of 2004, five of India’s 29 states were ruled by women.

Female candidates have traditionally had a hard time generating money and support to run a successful campaigns. As of the early 2000s, 15 percent of Congress party's members are women,At that time the bill that was drafted that would require a third of all members of parliament and state legislatures to be women was blocked by male lawmakers.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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