How we vote

Elections to the Lok Sabha (or ‘House of the People’, Lower-House of Union Parliament) or the Vidhan Sabha (Lower-House of a state legislatures) are by using a ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system. This means that the country is split into separate geographical areas, known as ‘constituencies’, and the voters (or ‘electors’) can cast one vote each for a candidate. The sizes of constituencies vary between Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections. Lok Sabha constituencies are called ‘Parliamentary Constituencies’ and Vidhan Sabha constituencies are called ‘Assembly Constituencies’. Each constituency reflects a seat in Parliament or State Legislature.

Parties galore

India is a multi-party parliamentary democracy. It is not like America’s bi-party presidential style or the United Kingdom’s bi-party parliamentary style of democracy.

This means that voters are given the option to choose between candidates from a number of political parties. Each party has its own ideology and manifesto. Also, candidates need not be part of a political party to stand for elections; they can stand as independents.

So voters have the option to choose candidates they find are the best to represent their constituencies in either parliament or the state legislatures.

Talk of the sabhas

The role of parliament and state legislatures is to create, pass and improve upon laws in the country, reflect the aspirations of the people in policy-making and to debate and discuss issues of national importance.

India follows a bi-cameral legislative system. That means, in addition to the Lower-House of union parliament (Lok Sabha), there is an Upper-House called the Rajya Sabha. However, as far as the state legislatures are concerned, only six States in the Union (Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) possess Upper-Houses or Legislative Councils (also called Vidhan Parishads) in addition to their Vidhan Sabhas (Lower-House of state legislature).

Members to the Upper-House are not directly elected by the people to the legislature as is the case with the Lower-House. The respective legislative assemblies of various states nominate members to the Rajya Sabha. The number of candidates from each state in the Rajya Sabha is determined based on the population of the state. A greater population results in a larger number of seats in the Rajya Sabha.

The Rajya Sabha is also known as the Council of States (and the Lok Sabha is known as the House of the People). Members of the Vidhan Parishad (or MLCs — Members of the Legislative Council) are elected by, in varied proportions, by several public bodies that include the Legislative Assembly, Zilla Parishads, Municipal Corporations, etc. The Governor of the State nominates one-sixth of MLCs based on their contribution to art, literature, science, social service, etc.

The terms of the Lok Sabhas and Vidhan Parishads last a total of five years and each member of the Upper-House enjoys a term of six years each.

How many houses?

The main purpose of both the Houses is to pass laws. The first step in passing a law in parliament is to draft a ‘Bill’. A Bill is a document detailing a proposed law. Once drafted, with the prior permission of the Speaker of the House, the Bill can be tabled in parliament for discussion. Once a Bill is debated and passed (i.e. it gets voted-through by majority of the House) by both Houses of parliament, it is sent to the President of India for his assent. Once the President signs the Bill, it becomes a law and is then known as an Act or a Statute. The subjects over which Parliament can legislate over (or make laws on) are those mentioned under the Union List in the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India. Broadly speaking, Union subjects are those important subjects, which for reasons of convenience, efficiency and security are administered on all-India basis. The principal Union subjects are Defence, Foreign Affairs, Railways, Transport and Communications, Currency and Coinage, Banking, Customs and Excise Duties. State Legislatures can legislate on subjects in the State List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. There are numerous other subjects, under the Concurrent List, on which both Parliament and State Legislatures can legislate.

Besides passing laws, Parliament can by means of resolutions, motions for adjournment, discussions and questions addressed by members to Ministers, exercise control over the administration of the country and safeguard people’s liberties.

The main Difference between the functions of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are:

1) Lok Sabha is the House to which the Council of Ministers is responsible to under the Constitution. Money Bills (relating mainly to the annual financial budget of the union government) can only be introduced in Lok Sabha. Also it is Lok Sabha that grants the money for running the administration of the country.

2) Rajya Sabha too has has special powers. For instance, it can declare that it is necessary in the national interest that Parliament may make laws with respect to a matter in the State List.

The First Citizen

The President is the head of the three branches of the Republic of India, i.e. Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. The President of India is known as the ‘first citizen’. He/she is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Armed Forces. He/she appoints the heads of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. The three heads are not allowed to meet together under any circumstances, without the presence of the President. The President also appoints a number of important heads in government like the Chief Election Commissioner, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Governors of states.

The President may pass laws through provisions known as ‘ordinances’ and launch a “National Emergency” under desperate national circumstances.

The President’s post, it must be remembered, though very important and respected in our republic, is mainly a ceremonial post. The main executive functions lie with the Union Government, headed by the Prime Minister.

The President is elected through a special procedure that includes participation of both state legislatures and union parliament. The tenure of the office of the President lasts five years.

Who Forms the Government?

Given that India is a multi-party parliamentary democracy, the political party or alliance that manages to get an absolute majority of seats in the Lok Sabha or the state legislatures forms the government. Absolute majority of seats refer to at least half of the total seats in the parliament or state legislature. If a single party does not win absolute majority, a mutually formed alliance of different political parties come together, pooling in their respective seats, to form government. Once a party or alliance has formed absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the President of India invites the chairperson of the alliance or political party, as the case may be, to form the government at the centre (in the case of state legislatures, the Governor of the state executes this responsibility). At present, the political alliance that is running the government at the centre is the United Progressive Alliance – II (UPA-II), which is headed by the Indian National Congress (INC) party. The chairperson of UPA-II is Ms. Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh was appointed the Prime Minister of the Government of India by the alliance. Similarly, in the state of Kerala for instance, the government was formed by the United Democratic Front (UDF) with Mr. Oomen Chandy as its Chief Minister. The Prime Minister (Chief Minister, in the case of a state), in consultation with the President (Governor, in the case of a state) appoints his/her Council of Ministers to head various departments of the government.

Keeping a check

When our Founding Fathers wrote and ratified the Constitution, they wanted to make sure that the government did not abuse its power. To this end, the Founders separated powers among three branches of government: the legislative (law-making), the executive (law-enforcing), and the judicial (law-interpreting) branches.

Among the many powers given to the legislative branch, or parliament, are the powers to introduce bills and make laws. The head of the executive branch, the Prime Minister, along with his/her government, enforces laws, enters into national treaties, collects taxes, runs government organisations, among other functions. Lastly, the judicial branch, which includes the Supreme Court and courts (the High Courts in the states and the subordinate courts), has the power to interpret Indian law by issuing judgments in cases.

In addition to separating powers among the three branches of government, the Founders created a system of checks and balances that enables each branch to limit the powers of the other two branches. For example, if parliament were to pass a law that is ‘anti-constitutional’ or against the principles of the Constitution of India, the law is subject to ‘Judicial Review’. This means the judiciary can, if it finds the law un-constitutional, strike it down. Further, if parliament were still to feel the law is necessary, it can ‘amend’ the constitution or any relevant statute to allow for the law to be passed. Similarly, the Lok Sabha can initiate the removal or ‘impeachment’ of Supreme Court judges if they are found to be breaking the law. The cases are similar with each branch of the republic being able to place a check on the other. This provides for a free, fair and balanced system.

The roles we play

In the Constitution of India, the political and social characteristics of the Republic is outlined — detailing, among other things, the Fundamental Rights and Duties of its citizens, identification and responsibilities of government institutions and officials, the roles and jurisdiction of parliament and state legislatures, the composition and status of each state in the union and so on.

In short, the Constitution is the document that defines the Republic of India in its totality.

The Constitution was adopted on November 26, 1949 and came into effect on January 26, 1950, replacing the Government of India Act (1935), which was the country’s fundamental ruling document under British rule.

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Constitution’s Drafting Committee, is known as “The Father of the Indian Constitution”.

The President of India is allowed to nominate 12 members to the Rajya Sabha based on their contribution to fields like art, science, literature, social service and so on.

Courtesy: You Speak India — a non-political, youth-run NGO aimed at promoting political awareness and civic engagement among the youth.