Republic of India

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Republic of India

Type of Government

India is a socialist, democratic republic with a parliamentary form of government. The executive branch consists of the president, whose role is largely symbolic, and the prime minister, who is the head of the government. The prime minister guides and advises all presidential decisions and forms a Council of Ministers to lead the executive offices. India has a bicameral legislature consisting of the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) and the Lok Sabha (House of the People). The judicial branch consists of a Supreme Court, which has both appellate and original jurisdiction, with special authority to enforce fundamental rights; the high courts, which have jurisdiction over one or more states; and the district courts.


The first Indian culture known to archaeologists was the Indus Valley society, which existed in seclusion from approximately 3000 BC to 1500 BC. Numerous artifacts and other archaeological evidence indicate that the Indus society had a well-developed agricultural system, large settlements that show distinct evidence of urban planning, and complex religious, social, and cultural traditions.

In 1500 BC Aryan tribes invaded from the west, bringing with them the Sanskrit language and the caste system that dominated Indian society until the modern era. The Aryans first settled the northern regions and then moved south and east, where they established additional kingdoms. The Indo-Aryan society produced the Vedas, which are considered among the earliest religious texts.

By 500 BC India had been divided into sixteen Mahajanapadas (Great Kingdoms), which were complex societies with agricultural economies and sophisticated military structures. Most important, the Mahajanapadas developed Hinduism, a combination of native and imported religious traditions. Hindu texts played a major role in the development of Indian society.

The Achaemenid Empire, which originated in Persia, conquered India around 500 BC and ruled for a century before it, in turn, was conquered by Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) of Macedon. The Grecian armies did not remain in India, but they left behind military settlements to ensure that trade routes stayed open. In time the Mahajanapada kings reclaimed most of India and established a native imperial society known as the Maurya Dynasty. Beginning with the reign of King Asoka (c. 304–c. 233 BC), the dynasty ruled through a combination of innovative economic policies and military superiority. Asoka also popularized Buddhism as a major competitor to Hinduism.

When the Maurya Dynasty collapsed, India fragmented into a number of small kingdoms. The region was invaded several times by Chinese and Grecian armies, who were interested in the region’s natural resources. Chandragupta II (c. 350–415) then conquered vast portions of India, from the Ganges to the Indus rivers, and founded the imperial Gupta Dynasty, which is considered by some to be a golden age. Although it had a rigid caste system, it did not employ capital punishment and poets and other artists flourished. However, the imperial government was frustrated by frequent military engagements between minor kingdoms.

Arab and Turkish Muslims first began visiting India in the sixth century AD. During the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, Muslim armies conquered the northern portions of the country and established what were later called the Islamic Sultanates. Turkish kings remained in control of the country until 1397–98, when Turkic-Mongol general Timur (1336–1405), also known as Tamerlane, invaded and ransacked the city of Dehli.

A chaotic period ensued, leading to the establishment of the Mughal Dynasty in 1527. Its founder, King Zah¯ir-ud-D¯in Muhammad B¯abur (1483–1530), was a descendant of Timur. Six emperors followed as leaders of the Mughal Dynasty, each leaving distinct cultural legacies. Emperor Akbar (1542–1605), the grandson of B¯abur, brought a temporary end to the wars between the Mughals and the Hindus and established each province of India as a self-governing structure with a high degree of religious freedom. Akbar’s grandson Shahjahan (1592–1666) began another wave of expansion and conquered most of the remaining Hindu kings. Shahjahan’s greatest legacy is the architecture of his rule, including the Taj Mahal in Agra, originally constructed as a tomb for his favorite wife.

In the 1600s Hindu kings in western and central India staged an armed resistance. Although they were never able to conquer the nation, they did precipitate the downfall of the Mughal Dynasty, which by 1674 had fragmented into smaller groups.

The British first entered India in 1583 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). They negotiated trade rights with the Mughal government and opened the East India Trading Company in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1614. It marked the beginning of a long British presence in the region.

During the 1600s the British, French, and Portuguese competed for military and economic presence in India. The British insinuated themselves into local politics through trade and economic incentives. By 1769 the British East India Company held a trade monopoly in the region, and Britain had begun to increase its military presence.

Because of infighting among local leaders, the British slowly took control of India. By 1857, after they quelled a rebellion in the eastern region of Bengal, they had gained almost total authority. Although some native princes remained in power, they were subject to the will of the British government.

An independence movement was a continuous undercurrent, however; its ability to coalesce was hampered by religious tensions. Specifically, the Muslim minority feared that independence would lead to a Hindu–dominated state. In 1915 the independence movement gained strength from the activities of Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), a Hindu spiritual and political leader who saw unification of Hindus and Muslims as a necessity if they were to liberate the nation. He pushed independence through nonviolent resistance.

Gandhi succeeded in inspiring nonviolent mass protests, including boycotts—Indians stopped shopping in stores that sold British goods, for example—and various parliamentary actions. The British responded by banning large gatherings and protests. That led to a massacre in Amritsar, Punjab: When ten thousand people arrived to celebrate a Hindu festival, British troops opened fire, killing some four hundred and wounding twelve hundred more, and then left without caring for the wounded. The incident damaged Britain’s credibility as a colonial power. Eventually, with their administration hampered, the British saw that the economic benefits of the colony were dwindling and agreed to leave.

Disputes between the Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Gandhi, and the Muslim League, under the leadership of Aga Khan III (1877–1957), prompted the British to partition the region into two separate nations. On August 14, 1947, the Dominion of Pakistan was established; India was created the next day. During the following months, some fourteen million Muslims and Hindus migrated from one country to the other. Violence frequently erupted.

By the time the British left, India had developed native political parties and held its first national elections. Indian politicians finished work on the first constitution in 1950, creating a democratic republic.

Government Structure

India’s central government is controlled by a bicameral parliament and administered by a president, a prime minister, and a cabinet of ministers. Each of the twenty-five Indian states maintains its own government. The country also has seven territories designated as “unions,” which do not have their own governments and are administered directly by the central government through union ministries.

The lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, consists of as many as 545 members, with 530 elected from the twenty-five states and 13 elected from the seven unions. The president nominates two additional members to represent the interests of the country’s Anglo-Indian population. Members of the Lok Sabha are elected by popular vote—India maintains universal suffrage for all persons older than eighteen years of age. In the event that the Lok Sabha fails to carry out its constitutional functions, the president has the power to dissolve it and call for new elections. Unless the house is dissolved, each house member serves a five-year term.

The upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, consists of not more than 250 members, of whom twelve are appointed directly by the president. The remaining members are elected by state legislatures. One-third of its members are elected every two years. The president cannot dissolve the Rajya Sabha.

The president, the prime minister, and other executive branch officials answer to the parliament concerning all actions. As a largely symbolic figure, the president must confer with the prime minister regarding all decisions. He or she is the head of state, the commander in chief of the armed forces, and the designated guardian of the constitution. The president is elected to a five-year term by a special electoral college composed of members from parliament and the state legislatures.

The prime minister, who is nominated by the members of the Lok Sabha and appointed by the president, must represent the party or coalition of parties that has majority support in the parliament. He or she may remain in office so long as the party or coalition maintains that majority. As head of the government, the prime minister generally advises the president on all executive actions.

The Council of Ministers, whose members are nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the president, fall into three basic categories, according to seniority: cabinet ministers, ministers of state, and deputy ministers. All nominees must be members of parliament before they may serve on the council. Additional ministries and departments handle affairs of the unions.

Legislation originates in the parliament. The president has limited powers to suggest changes to legislative proposals and does so with the agreement of the prime minister. The prime minister may suggest legislation independently but generally responds to legislation that originates in the parliament.

The Supreme Court of India, which is independent from the other branches, has original and appellate jurisdiction over any dispute between the central government and any state or between states within the republic. A chief justice and twenty-five associate justices are appointed by the president with the advice of the prime minister. The justices remain in office until retirement, which is mandatory at age sixty-five, unless they are removed by parliament for misbehavior. The remaining judicial power is distributed among twenty-one high courts in the states and a number of district courts for regional and local issues.

India is a socialist republic. To that end, the country has a socialized medical system and provides for the welfare of individuals unable to care for themselves.

Political Parties and Factions

India has a multiparty system with two basic types of political parties. National parties are recognized in four or more states by the Election Commission of India. Regional parties represent a single state or district and generally compete for elections to the state legislatures. Regional parties may also join in alliances or coalitions with national parties during the major election cycles.

The Indian National Congress (INC), formed in 1845, is the country’s oldest political party. It played a major role in the independence movement. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), India’s first prime minister, was a member of the INC, as was his daughter, Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), who was one of the first female prime ministers in the world. INC candidates held a majority in parliament from independence in 1947 until the 1990s; the rise of political leader Sonia Gandhi (1946–)—the widow of Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv—brought the INC back to prominence in 1999. During the 2004 election cycle, the INC became a member of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition of left-wing political parties that also includes the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. In 2007 UPA candidate Pratibha Patil (1935–) was elected the first female president of India.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was founded in 1980, grew out of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the political arm of the Hindu movement in India. In 1998 the BJP became part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of Hindu–rights organizations and political factions. From 1998 to 2004 the BJP held a majority in the parliament under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924–). Since the BJP lost majority power in 2004, Vajpayee has served as the opposition leader in parliament.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded in the 1920s as a conglomeration of smaller communist factions. The CPI, which has never enjoyed majority control in the parliament, supports the United Progressive Alliance, headed by the INC. In 1964 ideological differences led to a split in the party; a group of Marxist communists formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist), usually denoted as CPIM or CPM. Both the CPI and CPIM maintain significant influence at the state and regional levels and are therefore able to affect the policies of the central government.

Major Events

Territorial disputes between Pakistan and India have played a role in four military conflicts, beginning with the Indo-Pakistani War (First Kashmir War) in 1947. Gandhi—in India he is considered the father of the nation—never accepted the partition and continued working for an alliance between Muslims and Hindus. He was assassinated in 1948 by two Hindu extremists who believed that his policies weakened Hindu control of the government.

Nehru, who was Gandhi’s close friend and protégé, served as the country’s first prime minister. He saw India as a socialistic nation, with equal opportunity, education, and living standards for all. He sought to remove differences caused by religion, caste—he pushed the Untouchability Act of 1955, which outlawed the concept of an untouchable class—and language—he moved the country toward making Hindi the official language. He sought peaceful coexistence with other nations but, significantly, favored a policy of nonalignment with any world power.

In 1967 his daughter, Indira Gandhi, became prime minister. (She was no relation to Mohandas Gandhi.) Her administration was successful in accelerating economic growth and in forging stronger alliances with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China; however, she was also a controversial politician, often accused of having authoritarian tendencies.

India first began developing a nuclear technology program during the Nehru years, although the nation outwardly assisted efforts by the United Nations to promote nuclear disarmament. Under Indira Gandhi, however, the country’s nuclear program was accelerated; she authorized the “peaceful explosion” of a nuclear device in 1974.

Despite high popularity at the beginning of her administration, by 1975 she was losing popular support. Several policies—a voluntary sterilization program to reduce overpopulation, for example, and aggressive control of extremist religious factions—led to widespread protests. When her administration was charged with violating election laws and other acts of corruption, violence erupted. She declared a state of emergency and established a de facto dictatorship.

During the nineteen-month national emergency, Gandhi’s administration arrested and detained opposition leaders and political activists, censored the media, and suspended all actions by the state legislatures. Public protests continued, becoming so impassioned that Gandhi agreed to hold elections in 1977. She was removed from office by popular vote. She remained active in politics, however. Aggressive tactics from the opposition resulted in her regaining support from the populace. The government was dissolved because of deadlock in 1979, and Gandhi again became prime minister. Her second administration was troubled by disturbances among the nation’s militant religious groups. In 1984, shortly after she launched an aggressive campaign to combat the growth of a militant Sikh faction, she was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Although she is often maligned as authoritarian, willing to manipulate state and federal powers, she is just as often credited with transforming the nation through innovative agricultural, economic, and foreign policies.

Gandhi was succeeded by her son, Rajiv (1944—1991), who had been a member of parliament. He fostered new managerial techniques and encouraged economic development and foreign investment. In 1987 he involved India in Sri Lanka’s civil war, in which government forces were fighting the separatist Tamil ethnic group. India sent military, medical, and food aid to the Tamil group, partly, many observers say, to appease India’s own Tamil minority. In 1989 the INC lost its majority, and Gandhi was forced to resign. He began a campaign for re-election in 1991, but it was cut short by a suicide bomber. Militants claimed the assassination was an act of revenge for India’s intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war.

India resumed its nuclear-weapons program in the 1990s in response to Pakistan’s efforts to build a nuclear arsenal. In 1998 India conducted a series of nuclear tests. Estimates indicate that India may have developed enough nuclear material for fifty to ninety weapons. India is one of three U.N. members—Pakistan and Israel are the others—that have not ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Indian leaders have stated that the country’s nuclear weapons would only be used in response to attack by a foreign power.

Twenty-First Century

India, the world’s second most populous nation, experiences continual problems related to poverty. However, its economy has grown considerably during the past twenty-five years, largely because the government has invested in the industrial sector, both to ease unemployment and as a way to modernize the nation.

The country continues to face criticism from the international community because of the status of women in society. Traditional Hindi and Islamic customs impede women from seeking the rights guaranteed by the constitution. Some observers believe additional legal reform may be necessary.

Perhaps India’s most pressing challenge is to solve its territorial disputes with Pakistan, which date back to the partition of 1947. The countries have fought four wars over territory; all ended in uneasy political agreements or stalemate. Because both nations command nuclear arsenals, the ongoing disputes raise significant international concern.

Daniélou, Alain. A Brief History of India. Translated by Kenneth F. Hurry. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003.

Kochanek, Stanley A., and Robert L. Hardgrave. India: Government and Politics in a Developing Nation. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

Cohen, Steven Philip. India: Emerging Power. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.