How powerful is the constitution of India


Dr. Christian Wagner

Dr. Christan Wagner is head of the Asia research group at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin.

Most populous democracy in the world with stable structures

Since independence, a solid democratic system has developed in India, in which the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches and federalism form the most important pillars. Despite countless problems, surveys show a high level of approval of the Indian population for democracy and its institutions. However, due to the size and diversity of the country, necessary reforms are only making slow progress.

Presidential Palace in New Delhi, 2011. (& copy AP)

With a population of more than 1.2 billion, the Indian Union is the most populous democracy in the world. There are regular elections, competition between political parties and fundamental rights enshrined in constitutional law. Despite widespread poverty, ethnic, religious and linguistic heterogeneity and deeply rooted reservations between the caste groups, India has succeeded in building a solid democratic system since independence on August 15, 1947.

On January 26, 1950, after more than three years of deliberation, the new constitution came into force, with which India was founded as a parliamentary democracy and a union state. The first elections followed in December / January 1950/51. They brought a clear victory for the Congress Party under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was elected the first Prime Minister of the Indian Union.

The executive

At the head of the country is the president, who as head of state is supposed to symbolize the unity and diversity of the Indian nation. Of the thirteen presidents since 1950, nine have been Hindus, three Muslims and one Sikh. With President K.R. In 1997, Narayanan held the highest office of state for the first time an "untouchable" man. From 2007 to 2012, Pratibha Patil was the first woman to head the state. Pranab Mukherjee has held the office since 2012. The president is elected by an electoral college made up of members of the two chambers of parliament as well as the state parliaments. His term of office is five years and re-election is possible.

The President has extensive powers. Among other things, he appoints the prime minister, decides on the imposition of a state of emergency and can dismiss state governments. In line with British democracy, however, it is not the President, but the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers that is the actual center of power in the country. The division of powers with the president was clearly regulated in favor of the prime minister by amendments to the constitution.

The prime minister is usually the top candidate of the strongest parties or the majority parliamentary group in the Lok Sabha, the Indian House of Commons, as was the case with Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee. In 2004 there were violent protests against Prime Minister-designate Sonia Gandhi because of her Italian origins. She renounced after the election victory of the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) finally to the office in favor of Manmohan Singh.

The Prime Minister is formally appointed by the Lok Sabha elected for five years and can also be re-elected. The longest term in office was held by Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister for almost 17 years. His daughter Indira Gandhi held the office for nearly fourteen years. Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister of the UPA coalition for ten years from 2004 to 2014, A.B. Vajpayee from the Indian People's Party (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) held the office for six years.

The Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers conduct the business of government. Due to the dynastic traditions, important decisions are often made by the prime minister and his advisory staff without coordination and consultation with the respective ministries, such as the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty in 1971 or the nuclear tests in 1998. Due to the increase in coalition governments in the 1990s, the smaller parties also have to be taken into account when assigning ministerial offices. If the government loses its vote, it loses its majority in the Lok Sabha, the prime minister can request the dissolution of parliament and new elections to the president.

The armed forces and the police as the most important organs of the state for external security and the enforcement of the monopoly of force internally have very different reputations. The army is considered apolitical and, unlike countries like Pakistan, has never strived for a political role, although it is increasingly being used to combat internal insurgency. In contrast, the police, which fall under the jurisdiction of the states, are seen as politicized, corrupt and inefficient. There are repeated allegations that the police do not intervene or even take sides in riots between religious or caste groups.

The legislature

According to the constitution, the Indian Parliament consists of the House of Representatives (Lok Sabha, House of Commons), the Laender Chamber (Rajya Sabha, House of Lords) and the President. The Lok Sabha corresponds to the German Bundestag and currently consists of 545 members. The legislative period is five years. The 28 states send 530 MPs, 13 MPs come from the seven union territories that are administered directly from New Delhi. The President may also represent two representatives of the Anglo-Indian community for the Lok Sabha appoint. The number of representatives from the states depends on their population size. The disadvantaged tribal groups (Scheduled Tribes, ST) and the lower box groups (Scheduled castes, SC) receive a number of reserved seats based on their percentage of the population in the state.

The building of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi
Photo: Rainer Hörig
The main function of the Lok Sabha lies in the approval of the budget. It controls the government through inquiries and can also submit a motion of censure, but its control function is generally considered to be low. One reason for this is the decades-long dominance of the Congress Party, which held two-thirds of the seats in 1971 and four-fifths in 1984 and was led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Furthermore, the smaller parties in particular hardly have the personnel capacities to adequately control the executive.

The Rajya Sabha Currently consists of 245 members, of whom 233 are state-appointed and 12 are president-appointed. The number of MPs also depends on the size of the states. From the Union territories, however, only Pondicherry and Delhi send their own representatives to the House of Lords. In contrast to the Lok Sabha can the Rajya Sabha not be resolved. The term of office of the MPs is six years. Every two years, a third must stand for election. The Rajya Sabha is involved in the legislative process, but has fewer powers than Lok Sabha and cannot, for example, make a motion of no confidence in the government

The MPs play a central role in the constituencies, as they are seen as contact persons for the problems of the citizens and not the often inefficient administration. They also have extensive financial resources of their own to develop their constituencies, which have also been used for political patronage. The social change in Indian society is reflected in the changed social composition of parliament. In the first parliament, the uppermost caste of the Brahmins made up the largest group; today it is the middle castes of the Other backward classes (OBC). The increasing importance of regional parties since the 1990s is also an expression of social change in Indian society.

The judiciary

The judiciary forms the third pillar in the system of separation of powers in Indian democracy. Anglo-Saxon legal understanding has become a part of Indian culture after nearly two hundred years of British influence. Parts of family legislation (Personal Laws) are based on the traditions of the respective religious community, for example when it comes to marriage, divorce and inheritance issues.

At the head of the judiciary is the Supreme Court (Supreme Court) who is the guardian of the constitution. They are subordinate to this High courts as the highest authorities in the states. The dispute over the powers of the executive and judiciary had a lasting impact on the political system, especially in Indira Gandhi's first term in office at the beginning of the 1970s. So the Supreme Court's view finally prevailed that the structure of the constitution cannot be changed even by parliamentary majorities.

The judiciary has through the instrument of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has gained political importance in recent years. The Supreme Court can use it to take up and decide on public issues. Due to such a ruling, local public transport in the capital New Delhi had to be converted to gas operation for reasons of environmental protection. Meanwhile there is also criticism of this "legal activism", since the courts do not have sufficient democratic legitimation and are chronically overloaded. Many proceedings extend over ten years, so that the rule of law is hardly guaranteed, especially for the poorer population groups.


The Indian Union has a comparatively simple electoral system. In a total of 543 single-electoral districts, the members of parliament are elected with a simple majority of the votes (First past the post system). The voting age has been 18 since 1988, and the average turnout since the first elections in 1951/52 has been around 60 percent. Despite an illiteracy rate of around 30 percent, it is still higher in India than in the USA.

Election campaign of the Congress Party in Pune (Maharashtra)
Photo: Rainer Hörig
The distortions associated with majority voting can also be found in India. With a high level of competition for candidates, MPs were able to win a seat in parliament with 23 percent of the votes cast. The Congress party never received more than 48 percent of the vote, but in 1984 it won over 76 percent of the seats in parliament. Electoral agreements are therefore important for all parties in order to improve the chances for their candidates.

Elections in India represent a considerable organizational undertaking. In the 2009 general election, the electoral commission registered a total of over 714 million voters who were able to cast their votes using electronic voting machines in over 828,000 voting stations. Due to the precarious security situation in some regions, the elections are held in different phases and extend over several weeks.

Despite various reforms, campaign finance remains a difficult area in India as well. The Supreme Court has limited campaign expenses for candidates, but there are no corresponding regulations for parties and supporters of candidates. In view of the widespread corruption and political patronage, black money plays an important role in the election campaigns.

Future of Indian democracy

After more than 65 years of independence, a solid democratic system has developed in India, in which the separation of powers and federalism are the most important pillars. Despite countless problems, e.g. in the provision of public goods such as education, health and safety, surveys show a high level of popular support for democracy and its institutions, whereas politicians and the police enjoy a bad reputation due to corruption and patronage. Nevertheless, there are no relevant veto actors who fundamentally question the system.

The successes of Indian democracy lie in the inclusion of minorities and disadvantaged groups, e.g. through the creation of new states for language groups that Personal Laws for the religious communities, the reserved seats for the lower tribal and caste groups or the 33 percent quota for women in local self-government.

The problems, on the other hand, lie in dealing with the social question, which has gained in importance again through economic liberalization after 1991. The priorities are the creation of jobs, the fight against corruption and the expansion of education and health systems in rural regions. The social problems in rural areas are considered a breeding ground for militant communist groups (Naxalites), which the government classifies as the greatest domestic political threat. The UPA government has tried to address these problems through a number of laws such as the Right to Information Act (2005), the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) (2005), the Food Security Act (2013) and the comprehensive anti-corruption legislation 2013 (Lokpal) to meet.

Village meeting in Rajasthan
Photo: Stefan Mentschel
The political system is dominated by the executive, while parliamentary control is comparatively low. This can be explained, among other things, by the increasing regionalization of the party landscape and the insufficient resources of parliament. The government is now more controlled by the judiciary and critical reporting by the media. Non-governmental organizations that criticize the grievances and failures of government agencies have also gained in importance. The independent electoral commission has enacted a number of regulations to curb the growing criminalization of politics.

Indian democracy faces various challenges. First, despite all the successes in reducing poverty for large parts of the population, the provision of public goods such as education, health and participation in economic development are still inadequate. In 2012, 68 percent of the population had less than $ 2 a day to spend.

Second, the socio-cultural fragmentation of Indian society has pushed so-called identity politics, in which more and more groups are demanding their right to political and economic participation. The publication of the figures on the size of the caste groups, which were collected again in the 2011 census for the first time since 1931, could give this development a further boost.

Third, the corruption scandals of recent years have brought issues such as good governance to the fore. So there are new parties like that Aam Admi Party (AAP) emerged, which may be able to achieve more topic-related voter mobilization beyond the caste boundaries in the medium term.

The "functioning anarchy" of the Indian Union is thus characterized by great institutional stability, even if at the same time there is a high degree of (everyday) political instability due to the coalition governments. The greatest achievement of the political system is its ability to produce reforms over and over again. However, due to the size and heterogeneity of the country, these will only progress slowly in India.