India achieved independence from British colonial rule on 15 August 1947, after a bitter sectarian struggle that led to Muslim-majority areas in the northwest and northeast of British India forming the separate country of Pakistan. The Union of India is the world's most populous democracy, organized as a federal republic of 28 states and 7 centrally administered territories.
India is governed under a Constitution, promulgated on 26 January 1950, which provides for a parliamentary form of government, guarantees the basic rights of citizens, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, sex, or place of birth, and demarcates the areas of jurisdiction of the union and state governments. The Constitution also provides for an independent judiciary consisting of a single integrated system of courts, with a supreme court at the top, to administer union and state laws.
The government's legislative and executive powers are vested in a Parliament ( Sansad ) that is comprised of two houses: the Council of States ( Rajya Sabha ), which is the upper house, and the People's Assembly ( Lok Sabha ), the lower house. The president of Parliament appoints the leader of the majority party to form and head the cabinet as prime minister. Real executive power, therefore, resides in the cabinet. However, if Parliament withdraws support from the cabinet, the president can either dismiss the prime minister or dissolve the People's Assembly and call for new elections.
India's main political parties are the Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the United Front (UF), a loose coalition of leftist and regional parties. Since independence, Congress has ruled almost continuously as the majority party. However, the 1996 elections resulted in a hung Parliament, from which the BJP emerged as the largest single party. The BJP formed a government that lacked parliamentary support and lasted only 13 days. A minority UF government, backed by Congress, was then sworn in. Dependent on Congress for survival, the government of I.K. Gujral fell in November 1997 when Congress withdrew support. Existing political alignments precluded a new government, prompting President Narayanan to dissolve the People's Assembly. New elections in early 1998 again delivered an inconclusive verdict. But the BJP mustered enough support to lead a coalition government. This government collapsed in April 1999, but in elections held in September–October of that year, the BJP was again able to gather enough support to form a government at the head of a coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).