The constitution of 1950 provides for a federal system with a
parliamentary form of government. Sovereignty is shared between the central government and
the states, but the national government is given far greater powers. The office of
president is largely ceremonial, with real authority vested in a prime minister and
council of ministers responsible to Parliament. The president, however, has constitutional
authority to impose president's rule should a state government appear unable to maintain
order and to declare a national state of emergency and supersede parliamentary rule.
President's rule was invoked in a number of states in the 1970s and 1980s, and emergency
national rule was imposed in 1975 at the urging of then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Parliament consists of two houses, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) had the Lok Sabha
(House of the People). Real power resides in the Lok Sabha, whose members are elected
directly by all eligible voters and sits for 5 years unless dissolved earlier.
The INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS, the party most identified with the Indian Nationalist
movement, has remained in control of the central government for all but three of the years
since independence. Despite two major party splits in 1969 and 1978, both led by Indira
Gandhi, and many victories by various state and local parties in regional elections, the
Congress party has maintained almost unbroken power on the national level. In addition,
one family has provided India's prime ministers for all but 5 years between 1947 and 1989.
Rising discontent with India's leadership, however, caused the Congress party to lose its
parliamentary majority in the November 1989 elections. The National Front, led by V. P.
Singh, formed a minority government, but resigned from office in November 1990 following a
vote of no confidence in the parliament. Chandra Shekhar became India's eight prime
minister on Nov. 10, 1990, but he resigned on Mar. 6, 1991. Following general elections
held from May 20 to June 15, 1991, in which a plurality was won by the Congress party, P.
V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister.
State government resembles the federal system. The governor of each state is appointed by
the president. A chief minister and council of the state hold executive authority and are
responsible to an elected state legislative assembly.
HISTORY SINCE 1947
The history of India as a sovereign state under its own constitutional government began on
Aug. 15, 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned into two states of India and
Pakistan. Pakistan became an Islamic state, while India opted to become a secular state.
The decision to partition British India and turn over power to the new nations within a
period of six months left bloody turmoil in its wake. Following independence some 17
million Hindus and Muslims were uprooted and began the long march to their respective new
homelands. There were at least one million casualties in the ensuing sectarian violence
despite efforts to restore calm by Mahatma GANDHI, the revered father of modern India.
Gandhi himself was assassinated on Jan. 20, 1948, by a militant Hindu who believed him to
be too kind to Muslims.
Nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru assumed the prime ministership in 1947 and held the
post until his death in 1964. The new government succeeded in integrating more than 500
princely states into the new nation and finally absorbed the last vestiges of empire in
1962 by taking over Portuguese Goa, Daman, and Diu and the French territories of
Pondicherry, Karikal, Mahe, and Yanam. Nehru launched India on the path of economic
self-sufficiency and won it an international role far out of proportion to its power by
championing a nonaligned foreign policy that was to become the model for many newly
independent nations. Territorial disputes with China escalated into a brief border war in
1962, however, and the Nehru government was unable to promote cordial relations with its
new neighbor, Pakistan. The struggle for Kashmir, a northern princely state with a Hindu
maharaja and a largely Muslim population, led to the first (1947-49) of several armed
conflicts between the two countries (see INDIA-PAKISTAN WARS). In addition, more than 40%
of the population remained below the official poverty level.
Nehru was succeeded as prime minister by Congress party leader Lal Bahadur SHASTRI. In
1966, shortly after a peace treaty ending a second war with Pakistan over Kashmir was
signed, Shastri died suddenly. Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter, emerged as a compromise
candidate only to surprise the old-guard Congress leaders with her determined leadership.
Gandhi, a strong nationalist, was somewhat more realistic than her father about the nature
of Indian society and grew in popularity with the working classes and small farmers. She
continued to pursue the ideals of nonalignment while moving closer to the USSR, partly
because of a 1954 U. S. decision to provide significant military assistance to Pakistan as
part of cold-war strategy. Relations between India and the United States reached a low
point in 1971, when India supported East Pakistan (now the independent nation of
Bangladesh) in the Pakistani civil war. During Gandhi's first decade in office,
agricultural production increased; India exploded (1974) its first nuclear weapon, and
Sikkim became (1975) a state of India. Seemingly intractable economic and social problems
contributed to the growth of Marxist-based parties (which gained control of the government
of Kerala and West Bengal) and spotty support for the extreme Maoist Naxalite party. After
Gandhi's reelection in 1971, opposition leaders such as Jayaprakash NARAYAN accused her of
corruption and misgovernment, staged protest marches, and threatened civil disobedience.
In June 1975, Gandhi persuaded President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to invoke a state of
emergency that gave her near dictatorial powers. Opposition leaders were jailed without
trial, and the courts and many constitutional freedoms were curtailed.
In March 1977, Gandhi suddenly called new elections, perhaps to legitimatize the powers
she had taken under the emergency. Surprisingly, a coalition of parties ranging in
ideology from socialists to conservative Hindus (the Janata party) won control of the Lok
Sabha. Morarji DESAI, a long-time opponent of Gandhi, became prime minister. President
Ahmed died that same year, and Neelam Sanjavi Reddy was elected president. The Janata
party almost immediately began to break apart, and Desai resigned as prime minister in
July 1979. His successor, Charan SINGH, resigned in August but headed a caretaker
government until January 1980, when new elections returned Gandhi to power.
In 1982, Zail Singh was elected president, the first Sikh to serve in that office. His
election occurred at a time when Sikhs were calling for more autonomy in Punjab and
radical Sikh youths were resorting to violence in an attempt to win a separate Sikh state
(Khalistan). Several years of Sikh violence culminated in the invasion of the Golden
Temple at AMRITSAR by Indian troops in June 1984 and the assassination of Gandhi by her
own Sikh bodyguards on Oct. 31, 1984. As the government tried to respond to the growing
political crisis in Punjab, Gandhi's formerly apolitical older son, Rajiv GANDHI, was
thrust into the prime ministership.
Rajiv Gandhi had an auspicious beginning as his youthful charm and enthusiasm rallied the
nation; his party won the December 1984 general elections by a landslide. He also made a
favorable impression on the world community and signed (1987) a peace accord with
neighboring Sri Lanka in an effort to end communal violence there. Also in 1987, Ramaswami
Venkataraman was elected president of India, and the country celebrated the 40th
anniversary of independence.
Gandhi surrounded himself with young technocrats and promised a greater role for business
and industry in an expanded free market. By 1986, however, allegations of corruption
involving some of his close associates were growing, and increasing cynicism about
government was apparent. The Sikh separatist movement also proved intractable; violence
continued even after the central government imposed harsh police measures and dismissed
the elected Sikh state government in Punjab in 1987. Ethnic groups in other parts of India
also called for greater autonomy. Despite the central government's acquiescence in
creating the new ethnic states of Nagaland and Mizoram in the northeast and a 1988 peace
accord with rebels in Tripura, demands for greater cultural and ethnic political power
persisted in that area. The Gurkhas of the Darjeeling district won local autonomy in 1988.
Tribal peoples in northeastern India were agitating for the creation of a new state of
"Jharkaland," and their protest was having repercussions in Bihar, Orissa, and
West Bengal. Citizens of Tamil Nadu also called for more autonomy, while tribal groups in
Assam fought migrants from Bangladesh and an often violent economic struggle between
landlords and lower castes has been building for years in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar.
Political parties based on "Sons of the Soil" principles are increasingly
calling for economic advantages for indigenous groups, and in general the nationalistic
feeling of the independence movement seemed to be eroding and giving way to communal,
religious, and caste divisions.
Nevertheless, most Indians continued to support the integrity of the nation and to rely on
democratic means to come to grips with the issues confronting them. In the November 1989
elections, Congress lost its parliamentary majority, Gandhi resigned, and the National
Front, led by V. P. SINGH, formed a minority government. The coalition government was
weakened by internal power struggles, and inflation and poverty persisted, as did violence
by Sikh extremists in the Punjab. In regional affairs, the last Indian troops were
withdrawn from Sri Lanka in March 1990, although a growing Muslim insurgency in Kashmir
raised fears of renewed conflict between India and Pakistan. Singh resigned as prime
minister early in November 1990, and was succeeded by Janata Dal dissident Chandra
Shekhar. He resigned on Mar. 6, 1991, but was asked by India's president to continue in
office until new elections could be held. The assassination of former prime minister Rajiv
Gandhi on May 21, 1991, shocked the nation. When the general election results were all
compiled, on June 15, the Congress party had won a plurality of votes, and party leader P.
V. Narasimha RAO became prime minister on June 21. He instituted various free-market
reforms in an effort to overhaul the faltering economy. In 1992, S. D. Sharma succeeded
Venkataraman as India's president. In 1993, after the worst earthquake in decades
struck central India, the government accepted foreign relief assistance for the first time