India is a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic. Its constitution, which became effective 26 January 1950, provides for a parliamentary form of government, at the center and in the states. The constitution also contains an extensive set of directive principles akin to the US Bill of Rights. Legislative acts and amendments have weakened some of those guarantees, while a number of decisions by the supreme court have left some weakened and others—like the commitment to secularism and to representative government—strengthened. Suffrage is universal at age 18.
The parliament, or legislative branch, consists of the president, the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), and the House of the People (Lok Sabha). The Rajya Sabha has a membership of not more than 250 members, of whom 12 are appointed by the president and the remainder indirectly elected by the state legislatures and by the union territories for six-year terms, with one-third chosen every two years. The Lok Sabha has 545 directly elected members (530 from the states, 13 from the union territories) and two members appointed by the president to represent the Anglo-Indian community. More than 22% of the seats are reserved for so-called "backward classes," that is, schedule castes (formerly "Untouchables") and scheduled tribes. The Lok Sabha has a maximum life of five years but can be dissolved earlier by the president; under the state of emergency proclaimed in June 1975, elections scheduled for early 1976 were postponed until 1977.
The president and vice president are elected for five-year terms by an electoral college made up of the members of both parliamentary houses and the legislative assemblies of the states. Legally, all executive authority, including supreme command of the armed forces, is vested in the president, as head of state, who, in turn, appoints a council of ministers headed by a prime minister. In fact, power is exercised by the prime minister who, as head of government, is chosen by legislators of the political party, or coalition of parties, that commands the confidence of the parliament. The prime minister forms—and the president then appoints—the council of ministers, consisting of cabinet ministers, ministers of state, and deputy ministers to formulate and execute the government program. The vice president serves as president of the Rajya Sabha and usually succeeds the president at the end of the latter's term.
By tradition, the presidency and vice presidency trade off between northern and southerner, although a Muslim and a Sikh—nonregional identifications—have also held these positions. P. V. Narasimha Rao from Andhra Pradesh became the first southerner to hold the office of prime minister in June 1991. In July 2002, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam was elected India's 11th president, garnering 90% of the electoral college vote. He was the scientist responsible for carrying out India's nuclear tests in 1998, and is a Muslim.
Elections at the state level are no longer timed to coincide with national elections, and their schedule has become erratic, as state governments have been more or less stable. But state elections have come to influence national politics. Hindu party victories in 1995 assembly elections in what were Congress Party (CP) strongholds precipitated the CP's ouster from majority status in 1996 national elections.
Moderate Hindu party leader A. B. Vajpayee emerged from the May 1996 election as the new prime minister. Deve Gowda became prime minister in 1996 after Vajpayee's government was given a vote of no confidence. Gowda's United Front, with support of the Congress Party, formed the country's first coalition government. However, Gowda's leadership ended in April 1997 when he, too, lost a parliamentary vote of confidence. He was succeeded by his foreign minister, I. K. Gujral, a compromise candidate of the United Front and the Congress Party. Gujral himself was forced to resign in November 1997 when the Congress withdrew its support. As neither Congress nor the BJP were able to form a government, India's president, Kocheril Ramayan Narayanan, dissolved parliament. (Narayanan himself made history when he was elected to office in July 1997, becoming the first president of India to come from the Dalit or "untouchable" community.) Following elections held in February–March 1998, A. B. Vajpayee of the BJP became prime minister at the head of a 14-party coalition government. Vajpayee remained in office for over a year, resigning in April 1999 when, after defections from the coalition, his government lost a vote of no confidence by one vote. In elections held in September– October 1999, however, Vajpayee was returned to office at the head of a BJP-led coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). By December 2002, Vajpayee's NDA governing coalition was comprised of 26 parties.