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Election Commission

Article 324 of the constitution establishes an independent Election Commission to supervise parliamentary and state elections. Supervising elections in the world's largest democracy is by any standard an immense undertaking. Some 521 million people were eligible to vote in 1991. Efforts are made to see that polling booths are situated no more than two kilometers from a voter's place of residence. In 1991, this objective required some 600,000 polling stations for the country's 3,941 state legislative assembly and 543 parliamentary constituencies. To attempt to ensure fair elections, the Election Commission deployed more than 3.5 million officials, most of whom were temporarily seconded from the government bureaucracy, and 2 million police, paramilitary, and military forces.

Over the years, the Election Commission's enforcement of India's remarkably strict election laws grew increasingly lax. As a consequence, candidates flagrantly violated laws limiting campaign expenditures. Elections became increasingly violent (350 persons were killed during the 1991 campaign, including five Lok Sabha and twenty-one state assembly candidates), and voter intimidation and fraud proliferated.

The appointment of T.N. Seshan as chief election commissioner in 1991 reinvigorated the Election Commission and curbed the illegal manipulation of India's electoral system. By cancelling or repolling elections where improprieties had occurred, disciplining errant poll officers, and fighting for the right to deploy paramilitary forces in sensitive areas, Seshan forced candidates to take the Election Commission's code of conduct seriously and strengthened its supervisory machinery. In Uttar Pradesh, where more than 100 persons were killed in the 1991 elections, Seshan succeeded in reducing the number killed to two in the November 1993 assembly elections by enforcing compulsory deposit of all licensed firearms, banning unauthorized vehicular traffic, and supplementing local police with paramilitary units. In state assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, and Sikkim, after raising ceilings for campaign expenditures to realistic levels, Seshan succeeded in getting candidates to comply with these limits by deploying 336 audit officers to keep daily accounts of the candidates' election expenditures. Although Seshan has received enthusiastic support from the public, he has stirred great controversy among the country's politicians. In October 1993, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that confirmed the supremacy of the chief election commissioner, thereby deflecting an effort to rein in Seshan by appointing an additional two election commissioners. Congress (I)'s attempt to curb Seshan's powers through a constitutional amendment was foiled after a public outcry weakened its support in Parliament.

State Governments and Territories

India has twenty-five states, six union territories, and one national capital territory, with populations ranging from 406,000 (Sikkim) to 139 million (Uttar Pradesh). Ten states each have more than 40 million people, making them countrylike in significance (see Structure and Dynamics, ch. 2). There are eighteen official Scheduled Languages (see Glossary), clearly defined since the reorganization of states along linguistic lines in the 1950s and 1960s (see The Social Context of Languages, ch. 4). Social structures within states vary considerably, and they encompass a great deal of cultural diversity, as those who have watched India's Republic Day (January 26) celebrations will attest (see Larger Kinship Groups, ch. 5).

The constitution provides for a legislature in each state and territory. Most states have unicameral legislatures, but Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh have bicameral legislatures. The lower house, known as the vidhan sabha , or legislative assembly, is the real seat of legislative power. Where an upper house exists, it is known as the vidhan parishad , or legislative council; council functions are advisory, and any objections expressed to a bill may be overridden if the assembly passes the bill a second time. Members of the assembly serve five-year terms after being chosen by direct elections from local constituencies. Their numbers vary, from a minimum of sixty to a maximum of 500. Members of the council are selected through a combination of direct election, indirect election, and nomination. Their six-year terms are staggered so that one-third of the membership is renewed every two years. Whether in the upper or lower house, membership in the assembly has come to reflect the predominantly rural demography of most states and the distribution of social power resulting from the state's agrarian and caste structures.

The structure of state governments is similar to that of the central government. In the executive branch, the governor plays a role analogous to that of the president, and the elected chief minister presides over a council of ministers drawn from the legislature in a manner similar to the prime minister. Many of the governor's duties are honorific; however, the governor also has considerable power. Like the president, the governor selects who may attempt to form a government; he may also dismiss a state's government and dissolve its legislative assembly. All bills that the state legislature passes must receive the assent of the governor. The governor may return bills other than money bills to the assembly. The governor may also decide to send a bill for consideration to the president, who has the power to promulgate ordinances. The governor may also recommend to the president that President's Rule be invoked. Governors are appointed to office for a five-year term by the president on the advice of the prime minister, and their conduct is supposed to be above politics.

Since 1967 most state legislatures have come under the control of parties in opposition to the majority in Parliament, and governors have frequently acted as agents of the ruling party in New Delhi. Increasingly, governors are appointed more for their loyalty to the prime minister than for their distinguished achievements and discretion. The politicization of gubernatorial appointments has become such a widespread practice that in 1989, shortly after the National Front government replaced the Congress (I) government, Prime Minister V.P. Singh (1989-90) asked eighteen governors to resign so that he could replace them with his own choices. Governors not only attempt to keep opposition state governments in line, but also, while keeping the state bureaucracy in place, have exercised their power to dismiss the chief minister and his or her council of ministers.

The strength of the central government relative to the states is especially apparent in constitutional provisions for central intervention into state jurisdictions. Article 3 of the constitution authorizes Parliament, by a simple majority vote, to establish or eliminate states and union territories or change their boundaries and names. The emergency powers granted to the central government by the constitution enable it, under certain circumstances, to acquire the powers of a unitary state. The central government can also dismiss a state government through President's Rule. Article 249 of the constitution enables a two-thirds vote of the Rajya Sabha to empower Parliament to pass binding legislation for any of the subjects on the State List. Articles 256 and 257 require states to comply with laws passed by Parliament and with the executive authority of the central government. The articles empower the central government to issue directives instructing states on compliance in these matters. Article 200 also enables a state governor, under certain circumstances, to refuse to give assent to bills passed by the state legislature and instead refer them to the president for review.

The central government exerts control over state governments through the financial resources at its command. The central government distributes taxes and grants-in-aid through the decisions of finance commissions, usually convened every five years as stipulated by Article 275. The central government also distributes substantial grants through its development plans as elaborated by the Planning Commission. The dependence of state governments on grants and disbursements grew throughout the 1980s as states began to run up fiscal deficits and the share of transfers from New Delhi increased. The power and influence of central government finances also can be seen in the substantial funds allocated under the central government's five-year plans to such areas as public health and agriculture that are constitutionally under the State List (see Health Care, ch. 2; Development Programs, ch. 7).

Besides its twenty-five states, India has seven centrally supervised territories. Six are union territories; one is the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Jurisdictions for territories are smaller than states and less populous. The central government administers union territories through either a lieutenant governor or a chief commissioner who is appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. Each territory also has a council of ministers, a legislature, and a high court; however, Parliament may also pass legislation on issues in union territories that in the case of states are usually reserved for state assemblies. The Sixty-ninth Amendment, passed in December 1991, made Delhi the national capital territory effective February 1, 1992. Although not having the same status as statehood, Delhi was given the power of direct election of members of its legislative assembly and the power to pass its own laws.

Data as of September 1995

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