Political System: President

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Political System: President

The president of India nominally stands at the apex of the country's political system. The executive power of government is vested in the president as both the formal head of state and as a symbol of the nation. In reality, the office of president confers status more than power. The president has symbolic authority and dignity but little power, except in times of emergency, and performs an essentially ceremonial role. The actual functions of government are carried out by the president only with the aid and advice of the prime minister and the cabinet.

The president is elected to office for five-year terms. Reelection is permitted, but to date only the first president of India, Rajendra Prasad, was given a second term. Any Indian citizen who is at least thirty-five years old and qualified for election to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) is eligible to seek the presidency. The president is not directly elected by the people. Instead, in order to avoid creating a parallel center of authority in a parliamentary system of government, the president is chosen by an electoral college, consisting of both houses of Parliament and the state legislative assemblies. This method of election helps to keep in check presidential ambitions: chosen by legislators, presidents may not challenge those who have been directly elected by the people. The twin principles, of uniformity among states and parity between the central government and the states, are meant to ensure the election of a truly national candidate.

The weight assigned to each state elector's vote reflects population ratios: one-thousandth of the total population of each state is divided by the number of elected legislators in the state assembly. (The quotient is rounded to the nearest whole number.) This ensures uniformity among states. The aggregate value of the votes of the electors of all states (say 500,000) is then divided by the number of members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha (say 750 altogether) to determine the value of the vote of each member of Parliament (which in this case would be 667). Using this method, the aggregate vote of the Lok and Rajya Sabhas combined necessarily equals the aggregate vote of all the state assemblies combined, thus satisfying the principle of parity between the center and the states.

In order to be elected president, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast by the electoral college. The method of voting is the single transferable vote, with electors casting first and second preferences. As the lowest polling candidate is eliminated in each round, his or her preferences are transferred to other remaining candidates as per the electors' wishes, until such time as one candidate crosses the threshold of 50 percent of the votes cast. The lack of popular participation robs the choice of the excitement normally associated with elections in India, but it does serve to underline the dignity of the office.

The president is not answerable to any court for actions taken in the course of performing official duties, but is subject to impeachment by Parliament for violating the constitution. A serving president can also resign, for example, for reasons of personal health.

The vice-president is elected for a five-year term by both houses of Parliament in a joint session, not by an electoral college. Responsibilities include presiding over the sessions of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house), deputizing for the president as necessary and succeeding the president if the office should fall vacant for any reason until new elections can be held. There is no necessary expectation that the vice-president should become the next president.

The choice of president and vice-president requires political judgment and balance, especially over a period of time. The offices must be rotated among India's major regions and among the major components of the Indian population (especially Hindu and Muslim, but also other minority groups, such as the Sikhs). The one balance that has not been struck so far is that of gender: no woman has yet been elected president of India. The professional background of India's presidents has mostly been political.


The powers of the president of India are normally ornamental, comprising appointive, dismissive, legislative, and symbolic functions. The president appoints the prime minister and also, on the advice of the latter, the cabinet; the justices of the Supreme Court and state high courts; the attorney general and the comptroller and auditor general of India; members of special commissions and other high public officials; and the governors of states. The choice of prime minister is not a discretionary prerogative to be exercised by the president, but is usually dictated by the party commanding a majority in the Lok Sabha. In most cases, the power to appoint is matched by the power to dismiss. The prime minister formally holds office at the pleasure of the president; in reality, the prime minister retains office as long as he or she can demonstrate majority support in the Lok Sabha.

The president calls Parliament into session, nominates twelve members of the Rajya Sabha, has the right to address both houses of Parliament, and the power to dissolve the lower house. A bill that has been passed by Parliament must be presented to the president for formal assent in order for it to become law. The president may withhold assent and return a bill—unless it is a financial bill—for clarification, reconsideration, or possible amendment by Parliament. However, such a presidential "veto" can be overridden if both houses of Parliament simply pass the bill again. Some types of bill, for example those seeking to alter state boundaries, can be introduced in Parliament only on the president's recommendation.

Another legislative power is in the form of ordinances. When Parliament is not in session but immediate action is deemed necessary, the president is empowered by the Constitution (Article 123) to issue ordinances on the advice of the government. Although ordinances have the same force and effect as acts of Parliament, they must be laid before Parliament for formal enactment within six weeks of Parliament reconvening.

The president is the commander-in-chief of India's armed services, receives ambassadors from other countries, represents India on state visits abroad, and presides in New Delhi's Parliament or Old Delhi's Red Fort on the great national occasions. The president has the power to grant pardons. However, in almost all cases, presidential powers are exercised only on the advice of the prime minister and the Cabinet.

Controversies and Debates

Sometimes the election of the president can itself become the arena for a power struggle between rival political factions. When President Zakir Hussain died in office in 1969, Vice-President V. V. Giri took over as acting president until the election of a new president, which was required to be held within six months. The official Congress Party candidate was N. Sanjiva Reddy, a politician from within the party. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was locked in a struggle for power within her own ruling party, let it be known that her preferred candidate was V. V. Giri. His election underscored Gandhi's power in Parliament over older Congress stalwarts who had long dominated the party organization.

Another debate that exercised an earlier generation but has become less salient in recent times is whether a president could abuse emergency powers granted under the Constitution in order to capture real power. The more interesting debate in recent times has been whether a presidential system of government might be better suited to Indian conditions and needs. A presidential system like that of the United States separates the executive from the legislature and places a directly elected president at the head of the executive branch. In a parliamentary system, the government is headed by a prime minister who is a member of the party or coalition commanding a majority in the legislature. The president has no equal; the prime minister is first among equals.

The debate on the relative merits and suitability of parliamentary and presidential systems is rooted in the belief that the performance of parliamentary government has been unsatisfactory. The desire for presidential government betrays a frustration among some Indians with the weakening of the central government under challenge from a number of states. A presidential type of government, its proponents believe, would help to restore order to a troubled country, dilute the corruption of the political system, and accelerate the pace of India's economic development.

Most Indian analysts reject this view. Parliamentary democracy can be more stable, especially in societies riven by deep social and political cleavages. Under such conditions, parliamentary regimes have built-in mechanisms for power sharing, for example through coalition governments, whereas presidential elections are winner-take-all affairs that effectively disenfranchise the losing minority until the next election. Parliamentary governments also have the greater ability to rule in multiparty settings. A presidential system takes a zero-sum game approach to political power, with one winner and one or more losers for the entire term of presidential office. Parliamentary regimes place a higher premium on the political skills of bargaining and consensus building than do presidential counterparts. Coalitions can offer effective and continuous representation to a variety of interests that would be excluded from the administration in a presidential government.

The discretionary latitude available to a president depends less on the office or the incumbent and more on the state of party politics in Parliament or the Cabinet. If a prime minister commands the loyalty of the cabinet and the confidence of Parliament, and if the government in power is stable, there is little scope for independent presidential initiatives. Even within this limitation, nevertheless, when the Rajiv Gandhi government tried to enact a bill in 1987 giving the government new powers to spy on private correspondence, President Zail Singh withheld assent from a bill already passed by both houses of Parliament. With public opinion strongly on the side of the president, the government backed down. If the government is a coalition of different parties based in different ideologies, interests, states, or regions, then the president can play an interesting mediating role in center-state relations. For example, the prime minister and cabinet may recommend the replacement of an elected state government by direct "presidential" rule from the center, but the president may demur and seek further "clarifications." This happened in Bihar in the 1990s, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–led coalition government in New Delhi backed off from dismissing the non-BJP government in the state.

Ramesh Thakur

See alsoFederalism and Center-State Relations


Butler, David, and D. A. Low, eds. Sovereigns and Surrogates: Constitutional Heads of State in the Commonwealth. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Jai, Janak Raj. Presidents of India. New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2000.

Noorani, A. G. Constitutional Questions in India: The President, Parliament, and the States. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Riggs, Fred W. "Presidentialism versus Parliamentarism: Implications for Representativeness and Legitimacy." International Political Science Review 18, no. 3 (1997): 253–278.

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