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Comparing the British and Indian Political structures

July 17, 2014

Democracy extends way beyond elections. However, the holding of transparent, credible and accountable elections is important for any democratic country and election observers make a significant contribution in this process. In this essay, I will be heading a team of British officials who will be observing the Parliamentary election process in India in May 2014. Being from Britain, we will witness a lot of similarities between the political systems of India with our own, however there will also be some differences, like India being a federal republic and a parliamentary democracy at the same time while Britain practices constitutional monarchy. Furthermore, India has a president and a prime minister, whereas, although the head of state in Britain is in the form of a prime minister, it also has a symbolic royalty head in the form of a ruling monarch. Generally the elections in India has been quite peaceful, well-organized but quite unpredictable at the same time, especially with the growing influence of upcoming parties. As Election observers, we will also keep in mind, the greatest challenge to Indian Democracy that has developed in the recent years from persistent religious conflict and increasing fundamentalism (O’Neil, Fields and Share 2010.329). Thus, it will be a challenge and a valuable experience for us, as observers to witness the election of the largest and one of the most improbable democracies of the world which is immensely diverse in terms in terms of history, language, religion and caste (O’Neil, Fields and Share 2010.328). India is a democratic republic with a central government also known as the “union government”, and its structure is much like the British parliamentary system, with distinct, but interrelated executive, legislative, and judicial branches. State governments are structured much like the central government, and district governments exist in a variety of forms. The Indian parliament is a bicameral legislature composed of a lower house (the Lok Sabha or House of the People), with 543 popularly elected members and 2 members appointed by the president, and an upper house (the Rajya Sabha or Council of States), with 12 appointed members and 233 members elected by state and union territory assemblies (Federal Research Division.2004), which is similar to the division of power in the British legislature, namely House of Lords which has 750 members, who have been traditionally appointed in several ways and the house of commons composed of 646 members of parliament representing individual districts in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (O’Neil, Fields and Share 2010.46,47). Lok Sabha members serve five-year terms which is similar to the British House of Commons, but Rajya Sabha members serve six-year terms, with one-third of members up for election every two years (The Parline Database India.2012) which is quite different from the British House of Lords as it is composed of Life peers who are distinguished citizens appointed for Life by the crown upon recommendation from the Prime Minister, Law lords that are top legal experts, appointed for life who play an important role in legal appeals, a dozen of top officials of the church and hereditary peers who are members of the aristocracy (O’Neil, Fields and Share 2010, 46) The two houses have the same powers, but the Rajya Sabha’s power in the legislative process is subordinate to the Lok Sabha, just like the British Parliament where House of Commons possess more power in legislative processes compared to House of Lords. India has both a prime minister and a president. The president, currently Pranab Mukherjee was elected in 2012 by an electoral college consisting of elected members of both houses of Parliament and the legislatures of the states for a five-year term and vice president, currently Mohammad Hamid Ansari was elected by both houses of Parliament for a five-year term (The world Fact Book (CIA).2004) ; Prime ministers are leaders of the majority party in parliament but are formally appointed by the president for a five year term (Federal Research Division.2004) whereas for Britain although the Prime minister is the head of the largest party in the lower house and selected for a five year term similar to India, the Prime minister is named by the Monarch and not the president as Britain has a constitutional Monarchy. (O’Neil, Fields and Share 2010.43) India has an Election Commission which is an independent government body that supervises parliamentary and state elections. These are massive and sometimes marred by violence. Elections for state assemblies and the Lok Sabha are held every five years unless called earlier, such as through a no-confidence vote of the government by the Lok Sabha (Federal Research Division.2004). In Britain too, elections must take place every five years however, early election takes place if the Prime minister decides to call for one before the end of the five year term. The legal voting age is 18, just like Britain. National and state legislative elections are similar to the British House of Commons, in which members gain office by winning a plurality of votes in their local constituency. There are 543 parliamentary constituencies. The number of constituencies for state legislatures ranges from 32 to 403, with a total of 4,120 state constituencies nationwide (The world fact book (CIA).2004). India has several political parties that will be contesting in the 2014 Parliamentary elections; some of the major ones being the Indian National Congress (INC) led by Sonia Gandhi which is in power since 2004- present with Manmohan Singh as prime minister, the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at present led by Nithin Gadkari had governed India from 1998 till 2004 under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee until turned out of the office in 2004 elections by the INC (O’Neil, Fields and Share 2010.349), The Nationalist congress party led by Sharad Pawar, Communist party of India led by A.B Bardhan and the communist party of India (Marxist) led by Prakash Karat (The world fact book (CIA).2004). Although the other major parties receive significant votes, the main contest is between the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The elections in India has been very unpredictable always, for instance prior to the 2004 elections, it was certain that the BJP would win the coalition and extend its six year tenure due to its successes with the strong economic growth and thawing relations with Pakistan over the troubled issue of Kashmir. But the Indian voters had different plans, allowing the INC to edge ahead of the BJP with just over one-fourth of total seats. (O’Neil, Fields and Share 2010.353). Hence it is quite hotly contested and difficult to say who might win the next 2014 elections based on past results. Generally all elections involve some kind of violence as there are always groups that are unsatisfied with the process. India is no different to that. In the past most of the violence during elections have been caused by Naxalites (otherwise known as Maoists) in some parts of India where the Naxals set fire to voting machines, attacked voters, security personnel and polling workers, and destroyed vehicles to disrupt the polls, however due to peaceful voting in most of the other parts, the conduct of polls has been quite satisfactory (Buncombe.2009). Hence, we can assume that in the 2014 elections as well, the electoral processes in some parts of India especially the eastern states of Chhatisgarh, Assam, West Bengal would involve some forms of violence; however we can also hope that in most parts it will be peaceful and well-organized as it has been in the past. The two major parties in India namely the BJP and INC advocate very different ideologies: INC whose potential candidate for 2014 elections might be Rahul Gandhi/ Sonia Gandhi as a party takes a central stance as far as ideology is concerned and projects itself as a secular party and follows a policy of minority appeasement in the name of secularism whereas BJP whose potential candidate for the upcoming election is likely to be Narendra Modi strongly believes in Hindu ideology and advocated ancient Indian culture. There are many issues at stake, however the three main issues to be considered by my team in the 2014 election would be the problem of increasing corruption (Joseph.2011), rise of political parties based on religious fundamentalism (Katyal.2012) and the effect on economic liberalization of the country (Tummala.2004). The first issue of corruption is a widespread problem in India. There have been several attempts to address this issue in the past, but none was successful. However, for the first time in history, there was a twelve day successful protest and hunger strike by famous Indian Politicians and activists Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi , Baba Ramdev, Arvind Kejriwala and many more for the promotion of India Against Corruption Movement in 2012. The government had taken a heavy stand on these people and the strike, arresting people and putting them in one of the most famous criminal jails in India (Tihar Jail) for violating a legal provision that bans public gatherings and protests at the park in Delhi where this was taking place (Joseph.2011). After a lot of struggle, a new party was formed on 2 October 2012 which will advocate against corruption in the country based on the provisions of the “Lokpal Bill” and will be contesting the 2014 elections, under the name of “Aam Aadmi Party” (Common people’s Party) mostly in a coalition with the BJP. With the emergence of this new party, the leading party (INC) is quite tensed as it is gaining a lot of popularity among the local people, resulting in the INC in losing its popular votes and if they come to power then many corrupted ministers and officials of the INC will be unveiled and will end up in trouble. Hence a lot of government officials and ministers are against this party as this party can really change the current political situation of India (India Against Corruption Movement.2012). The second issue of rise of political parties based on religious fundamentalism involves the BJP and the Shiv Sena who represents the Right-wing Hindu ideology, parties such as the Peace Party, AUDF and Welcome Party are set up by Muslim fundamentalists. These parties create a Hindu-Muslim polarization. Either of these parties coming to power would put the idea of “secularism” into threat as the country will be dominated by the religious beliefs of the parties in power. This can also cause a divide in the country as it was during the British rule because if the hindu ideologist parties such as BJP or Shiv Sena come to power then the Muslims might feel threatened or underrepresented and this can lead to violence, social unrest within the country and if Muslim fundamentalist parties such as AUDF, peace party come to power then the Hindus will feel the same. In either ways, the forming and coming to power of any of the religious fundamentalist parties can prove to be detrimental to the secularism and the unity of India (Tummala.2004). The third issue at stake will be the economic liberalization of India. If INC comes back to power, then the Indian Markets will open up to the people and it will be driven by people. So, privatization will increase, foreign investment will increase as the multinational corporations will favour a market such as the Indian market which is not driven by bureaucracy. This will lead to economic development, inflow of foreign currency and also new job opportunities that is lacking at present. If BJP comes to power then, there might be a slump in the beginning as it is a relatively new party compared to the INC which was established in 1885 and under which India had adopted the free trade policy in the 1990’s and flourished. Compared to influence and experience in the Indian Political system the INC is way ahead of BJP, however, although a relatively new party, the BJP is way cleaner in terms of corruption compared to the INC. Hence, our team should keep in mind that both parties have their own downsides, and carries its own issues at stake which will impact India. In my opinion, it is very difficult for any one of the major parties to win the majority looking at the current situation. Since both INC and BJP has its own downsides and so are the other parties, it is highly likely that without the formation of a coalition government, none of these parties can win the election as an individual party. As with coalition government, a whole lot of different issues spring up which would impact the country as a whole, for instance: making tough economic decisions like opening up of markets will be difficult as it will need the approval of all the parties in the coalition, Decision and policy making as a whole will also be a slow process due to this. I also believe that with the upcoming new parties like the “Aam Admi Party” (India against corruption), there will be a new transition in Indian politics. Hence, looking into these ideas, I can say that India is an example of a true democracy, where no one party can win the election because of monopoly. This concept of multi-party system only exists in real democracies and India with its relative ability to manage the challenges and opportunities that other developing countries face, has been a successful and the largest democracy for over six decades now. Although Britain is very different to India in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion and language, it shares almost the same political structure and is as nearly diverse, hence it will be an amazing opportunity and experience for my team to observe how one of the largest and most difficult democracy of the world copes up with its challenges and issues at stake and adopt their technique if successful or learn from their mistakes in order to assist our own upcoming parliamentary elections and make it successful in 2015.

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I am a student at Earlham College in United States majoring in Political Science and minoring in Business. Through this site, I aim in sharing some of my opinions on certain political issues, books and films.