India is a constitutional democracy. The current president of India is Abdul Kalam and the prime minister is Atal Behari Vajpayee.
There are 29 states and six union territories (which are administered by the president in Delhi, through an appointed administrator) and the constitution (which came into force on 26 January 1950 ) details the powers of the central and state governments as well as those powers that are shared. Controversially, if the situation in a particular state is deemed to be unmanageable, the central government has the right to assume power there. Known as President’s Rule, this has been enforced in recent years, either because the law-and-order situation has deteriorated – as in Punjab from 1985 to 1992, Kashmir in 1990 and in Assam in 1991 – or because there is a political stalemate, such as occurred in Goa, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Haryana and Meghalaya in the early 1990s.
Parliament is bicameral; the lower house is known as the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and the upper house is known as the Rajya Sabha (Council of Statcs).
The Lok Sabha has 545 members, and elections (using the first-past-the-post system) are held every five years, unless the government calls an election earlier. All Indians over the age of 18 have the right to vote. Of the 545 seats, 125 are reserved for the Scheduled Castes (the official term for Dalits or Untouchables) and Tribes.
The upper house consists of 245 members; members are elected for six-year terms and a third of the house is elected every two years. The president appoints 12 members and the rest are elected by state assemblies using a regional quota system. The president, whose duties are largely ceremonial, is elected by both houses and the state legislatures (the election is held once every five years). The president must act on the advice of a council of ministers, chosen by the prime minister. The president may dissolve the lower house but not the upper.
At state level some legislatures are bicameral, and are run along the lines of the two houses of the national parliament. The chief minister is responsible to the legislature in the same way as the prime minister is responsible to parliament. Each state has a governor, who is appointed by the president and who may assume wide powers in times of crisis. At village level (where around 75% of the population lives) there has been renewed interest in reviving the panchayat system of village councils, from where a number of volunteers are elected to represent the local people’s interests.
After years of lobbying for autonomy, in November 2000 India gained three new states. Chhatisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal out of Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand out of Bihar. Many analysts say that the creation of these new states will intensify campaigning by other secessionist groups seeking autonomy within India. A separate tribal state is currently being sought in Orissa.