Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee
Head of Government: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
According to its constitution, India is a "sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic." Like the United States, India has a federal form of government. However, the central government in India has greater power in relation to its states, and has adopted a British-style parliamentary system.
The government exercises its broad administrative powers in the name of the president, whose duties are largely ceremonial. A special electoral college elects the president and vice president indirectly for 5-year terms. Their terms are staggered, and the vice president does not automatically become president following the death or removal from office of the president.
Real national executive power is centered in the cabinet (senior members of the Council of Ministers), led by the prime minister. The president appoints the prime minister, who is designated by legislators of the political party or coalition commanding a parliamentary majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house). The president then appoints subordinate ministers on the advice of the prime minister.
India's bicameral parliament consists of the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) and the Lok Sabha (House of the People). The Council of Ministers is responsible to the Lok Sabha.
The legislatures of the states and union territories elect 233 members to the Rajya Sabha, and the president appoints another 12. The members of the Rajya Sabha serve 6-year terms, with one-third up for election every 2 years. The Lok Sabha consists of 545 members, who serve 5-year terms; 543 are directly elected, and two are appointed.
India's independent judicial system began under the British, and its concepts and procedures resemble those of Anglo-Saxon countries. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and 25 other justices, all appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister.
India has 28 states* and 7 union territories. At the state level, some legislatures are bicameral, patterned after the two houses of the national parliament. The states' chief ministers are responsible to the legislatures in the same way the prime minister is responsible to parliament.
Each state also has a presidentially appointed governor, who may assume certain broad powers when directed by the central government. The central government exerts greater control over the union territories than over the states, although some territories have gained more power to administer their own affairs. Local governments in India have less autonomy than their counterparts in the United States. Some states are trying to revitalize the traditional village councils, or panchayats, to promote popular democratic participation at the village level, where much of the population still lives. Over half a million panchayats exist throughout India.
Having emerged as the nation's single-largest party in the May 2009 Lok Sabha election, Congress leads a coalition UPA government under Prime Minister Singh. Party President Sonia Gandhi was re-elected by the Party National Executive in May 2005. Also a member of parliament, she heads the Congress Lok Sabha delegation. Congress positions itself as being a secular, left of center party, with a long history of political dominance. Although its performance in national elections had steadily declined during the previous 12 years, its surprise victory in 2004 was a result of recruiting strong allies into the UPA, the anti-incumbency factor among voters, and its courtship of India's many poor, rural, and Muslim voters. Congress's political fortunes suffered badly in the 1990s, as many traditional supporters were lost to emerging regional and caste-based parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, but rebounded following its May 2004 ascension to power. In November 2005, the Congress regained the Chief Ministership of Jammu and Kashmir state, under a power-sharing agreement.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Shri Nitinn Gadkari, took the second-largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha in 2009. Sushma Swaraj is leader of the opposition. The Hindu-nationalist BJP draws its political strength mainly from the "Hindi Belt" in the northern and western regions of India. Former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was expelled from the party in August 2009 after authoring a book which portrayed the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali-Jinnah, in a positive light, although he was allowed to rejoin in June 2010.
Popularly viewed as the party of the northern upper caste and trading communities, the BJP made strong inroads into lower castes in past national and state assembly elections. The party must balance the competing interests of Hindu nationalists, (who advocate construction of a temple on a disputed site in Ayodhya, and other primarily religious issues including the propagation of anti-conversion laws and violence against religious minorities), and center-right modernizers who see the BJP as a party of economic and political reform.
Four Communist and Marxist parties are united in a bloc called the "Left Front," which had 59 parliamentary seats following the 2009 elections. The Left Front provided external support to the UPA government until the July 2008 confidence vote. It advocates a secular and Communist ideology and opposes many aspects of economic liberalization and globalization, resulting in dissonance with Prime Minister Singh's liberal economic approach. The Maoist-inspired Naxalite insurgency continues to be a major internal security threat, affecting large parts of eastern India. With the Communists in retreat in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress Party was expected to perform well in the 2011 state elections.
India's size, population, and strategic location give it a prominent voice in international affairs, and its growing economic strength, military prowess, and scientific and technical capacity give it added weight. The end of the Cold War dramatically affected Indian foreign policy. India remains a leader of the developing world and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). India is now strengthening its political and commercial ties with the United States, Japan, the European Union, Iran, China, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India is an active member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Always an active member of the United Nations, India seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The country holds a non-permanent seat on the Security Council 2011-2012. India has a long tradition of participating in UN peacekeeping operations.
Bilateral and Regional Relations:
India and Pakistan have been locked in a tense rivalry since the partition of the subcontinent based on the “two-nations theory” upon achieving independence from Great Britain in 1947. The principal source of contention has been Kashmir, whose Hindu Maharaja at that time chose to join India, although a majority of his subjects were Muslim. India maintains that his decision and subsequent elections in Kashmir have made it an integral part of India. This dispute triggered wars between the two countries in 1947 and 1965 and provoked the Kargil conflict in 1999.
Pakistan and India fought a war in December 1971 following a political crisis in what was then East Pakistan and the flight of millions of Bengali refugees to India. The brief conflict left the situation largely unchanged in the west, where the two armies reached an impasse, but a decisive Indian victory in the east resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.
Since the 1971 war, Pakistan and India have made slow progress toward normalization of relations. In July 1972, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto met in the Indian hill station of Simla. They signed an agreement by which India would return all personnel and captured territory in the west and the two countries would "settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations." Diplomatic and trade relations were re-established in 1976.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused new strains between India and Pakistan. Pakistan supported the Afghan resistance, while India implicitly supported the Soviet occupation. In the following 8 years, India voiced increasing concern over Pakistani arms purchases, U.S. military aid to Pakistan, and Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. In an effort to curtail tensions, the two countries formed a joint commission. In December 1988, Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto concluded a pact not to attack each other's nuclear facilities and initiated agreements on cultural exchanges and civil aviation.
In 1997, high-level Indo-Pakistani talks resumed after a 3-year pause. The Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan met twice, and the foreign secretaries conducted three rounds of talks. In June 1997 at Lahore, the foreign secretaries identified eight "outstanding issues" around which continuing talks would be focused. The dispute over the status of Jammu and Kashmir, an issue since partition, remains the major stumbling block in their dialogue. India maintains that the entire former princely state is an integral part of the Indian union, while Pakistan insists upon the implementation of UN resolutions calling for self-determination for the people of the state.
In September 1997, the talks broke down over the structure of how to deal with the issues of Kashmir and peace and security. Pakistan advocated that separate working groups treat each issue. India responded that the two issues be taken up along with six others on a simultaneous basis. In May 1998 India, and then Pakistan, conducted nuclear tests. Attempts to restart dialogue between the two nations were given a major boost by the February 1999 meeting of both Prime Ministers in Lahore and their signing of three agreements. These efforts were stalled by the intrusion of Pakistani-backed forces into Indian-held territory near Kargil in May 1999 (that nearly turned into full scale war), and by the military coup in Pakistan that overturned the Nawaz Sharif government in October the same year. In July 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf, leader of Pakistan after the coup, met in Agra, but talks ended after 2 days without result.
After the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, India-Pakistan relations cooled further as India accused Pakistan of involvement. Tensions increased, fueled by killings in Jammu and Kashmir, peaking in a troop buildup by both sides in early 2002.
Prime Minister Vajpayee's April 18, 2003 speech in Srinagar (Kashmir) revived bilateral efforts to normalize relations. In November 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf agreed to a ceasefire, which still holds, along the Line-of-Control in Jammu and Kashmir. After a series of confidence building measures, Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf met on the sidelines of the January 2004 SAARC summit in Islamabad and agreed to commence a Composite Dialogue addressing outstanding issues between India and Pakistan, including Kashmir.
In February 2004, India and Pakistan agreed to restart the "2+6" Composite Dialogue formula, providing for talks on Peace and Security and Jammu and Kashmir, followed by technical and Secretary-level discussions on six other bilateral disputes: Siachen Glacier, Wuller Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, Sir Creek estuary, Terrorism and Drug Trafficking, Economic and Commercial cooperation, and the Promotion of Friendly Exchanges in various fields. The restart of the Composite Dialogue process was especially significant given the almost 6 years that had transpired since the two sides agreed to this formula in 1997-1998. The UPA government continued the Composite Dialogue with Pakistan. Following the October 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, the two governments coordinated relief efforts and opened access points along the Line-of-Control to allow relief supplies to flow from India to Pakistan and to allow Kashmiris from both sides to visit one another.
The Foreign Secretary talks resumed in November 2006, after a 3-month delay following July 11, 2006 terrorist bombings in Mumbai. The meeting generated modest progress, with the two sides agreeing to establish a joint mechanism on counterterrorism. Since 2006, India and Pakistan have continued to take part in the Composite Dialogue process in an effort to maintain the peace process and strengthen bilateral relations. Following Pakistani elections in February 2008 the Indian Minister of External Affairs and the Indian Foreign Secretary met with their new counterparts to advance the Composite Dialogue talks, reaffirming a commitment to maintain the ceasefire along the Line-of-Control as well as increasing people-to-people connections through improving cross-border bus services. The July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 increased tensions between India and Pakistan. Although Prime Minister Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani agreed to resume talks following the 2010 SAARC summit, India continued to insist that Pakistan must do its part to dismantle terror networks operating from its territory and prosecute those who had a hand in planning the Mumbai attacks.
Certain aspects of India's relations within the subcontinent are conducted through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Its members are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, with the People's Republic of China, Iran, Japan, European Union, Republic of Korea, and the U.S. as observers. Established in 1985, SAARC encourages cooperation in agriculture, rural development, science and technology, culture, health, population control, narcotics, and terrorism.
SAARC has intentionally stressed these "core issues" and avoided those which could prove divisive, although political dialogue is often conducted on the margins of SAARC meetings. In 1993, India and its SAARC partners signed an agreement gradually to lower tariffs within the region. Forward movement in SAARC had slowed because of tension between India and Pakistan, and the SAARC summit scheduled for 1999 was not held until January 2002. In addition, to boost the process of normalizing India's relationship with Pakistan, the January 2004 SAARC summit in Islamabad produced an agreement to establish a South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA). All the member governments have ratified SAFTA, which was slated to come into force on January 1, 2006, with a series of graduated tariff cuts through 2015. As of December 2006, however, the FTA partners were still negotiating sensitive product lists, rules of origin, and technical assistance. India hosted the 2007 SAARC summit, which called for greater regional cooperation on trade, environmental, social, and counterterrorism issues. At the 2008 SAARC summit in Sri Lanka, the SAFTA member countries signed a protocol for Afghanistan’s accession and several countries (Including India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) agreed to drop some items from their sensitive product lists.
Despite suspicions remaining from a 1962 border conflict between India and China and continuing territorial/boundary disputes, Sino-Indian relations have improved gradually since 1988. Both countries have sought to reduce tensions along the frontier, expand trade and cultural ties, and normalize relations. Their bilateral trade reached $24 billion in 2006. China is India's second-largest trading partner behind the U.S.
A series of high-level visits between the two nations has improved relations. In December 1996, Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited India on a tour of South Asia. While in New Delhi, he and the Indian Prime Minister signed a series of confidence-building measures along the disputed border, including troop reductions and weapons limitations.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao invited Prime Minister Vajpayee to visit China in June 2003. They recognized the common goals of both countries and made the commitment to build a "long-term constructive and cooperative partnership" to peacefully promote their mutual political and economic goals without encroaching upon their good relations with other countries. In Beijing, Prime Minister Vajpayee proposed the designation of special representatives to discuss the border dispute at the political level, a process that is still under way.
In November 2006, President Hu Jintao made an official state visit to India, further cementing Sino-Indian relations. India and China are building on growing economic ties to improve other aspects of their relationship such as counterterrorism, energy, and trade. In another symbol of improved ties, the two countries opened the Nathu La Pass to bilateral trade in July 2006 for the first time in 40 years. Although it was the first direct land trade route in years, trade was expected to be local and small since the pass is open only 4 months a year.
Prime Minister Singh and Chinese President Hu met in January 2008 in Beijing in an effort to reinforce their confidence to further develop ties, vowing to promote their relations to a higher level. The meetings cemented a shared vision for the 21st century, with agreement to raise the annual volume of bilateral trade to $60 billion by 2010. Despite flare-ups over border issues, China-India relations remain stable at the strategic level. In 2010 there were a large number of high-level visits from Indian Government officials, including National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, and President Pratibha Patil.
Former Soviet Union.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had major repercussions for Indian foreign policy. India's substantial trade with the region plummeted after the Soviet collapse and has yet to recover. Longstanding military supply relationships were similarly disrupted due to questions over financing. Russia nonetheless remains India's largest supplier of military systems and spare parts.
Russia and India have not renewed the 1971 Indo-Soviet Peace and Friendship Treaty and follow what both describe as a more pragmatic, less ideological relationship. The visit of Russian President Boris Yeltsin to India in January 1993 helped cement this new relationship. The pace of high-level visits has since increased, as has discussion of major defense purchases. UPA leader Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Singh visited Russia in July 2005. President Vladimir Putin traveled to India in January 2007 to attend an Indo-Russia summit and was the guest of honor at India's Republic Day celebrations. President Dmitriy Medvedev visited India in December 2008 and signed a civil nuclear agreement.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (April 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( April 2012)