India is a constitutional democracy with a parliamentary system of government, and at the heart of the system is a commitment to hold regular, free and fair elections. These elections determine the composition of the government, the membership of the two houses of parliament, the state and union territory legislative assemblies, and the Presidency and vice-presidency.
Elections are conducted according to the constitutional provisions, supplemented by laws made by Parliament. The major laws are Representation of the People Act, 1950, which mainly deals with the preparation and revision of electoral rolls, the Representation of the People Act, 1951 which deals, in detail, with all aspects of conduct of elections and post election disputes. The Supreme Court of India has held that where the enacted laws are silent or make insufficient provision to deal with a given situation in the conduct of elections, the Election Commission has the residuary powers under the Constitution to act in an appropriate manner.
Constituencies & Reservation of Seats
The country has been divided into 543 Parliamentary Constituencies, each of which returns one MP to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament. The size and shape of the parliamentary constituencies are determined by an independent Delimitation Commission, which aims to create constituencies which have roughly the same population, subject to geographical considerations and the boundaries of the states and administrative areas.
The Parliament of the Union consists of the President, the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and the Rajya Sabha (Council of States). The President is the head of state, and he appoints the Prime Minister, who runs the government, according to the political composition of the Lok Sabha. Although the government is headed by a Prime Minister, the Cabinet is the central decision making body of the government. Members of more than one party can make up a government, and although the governing parties may be a minority in the Lok Sabha, they can only govern as long as they have the confidence of a majority of MPs, the members of the Lok Sabha. As well as being the body, which determines whom, makes up the government, the Lok Sabha is the main legislative body, along with the Rajya Sabha.
Rajya Sabha –The Council of States
The members of the Rajya Sabha are elected indirectly, rather than by the citizens at large. Rajya Sabha members are elected by each state Vidhan Sabha using the single transferable vote system. Unlike most federal systems, the number of members returned by each state is roughly in proportion to their population. At present there are 233 members of the Rajya Sabha elected by the Vidhan Sabhas, and there are also twelve members nominated by the President as representatives of literature, science, art and social services. Rajya Sabha members can serve for six years, and elections are staggered, with one third of the assembly being elected every 2 years.
The president can nominate 2 members of the Lok Sabha if it is felt that the representation of the Anglo-Indian community is inadequate, and 12 members of the Rajya Sabha, to represent literature, science, art and the social services.
India is a federal country, and the Constitution gives the states and union territories significant control over their own government. The Vidhan Sabhas (legislative assemblies) are directly elected bodies set up to carrying out the administration of the government in the 28 States of India. In some states there is a bicameral organisation of legislatures, with both an upper and Lower House. Two of the seven Union Territories viz., the National Capital Territory of Delhi and Pondicherry, have also legislative assemblies.
Elections to the Vidhan Sabhas are carried out in the same manner as for the Lok Sabha election, with the states and union territories divided into single-member constituencies, and the first-past-the-post electoral system used. The assemblies range in size, according to population. The largest Vidhan Sabha is for Uttar Pradesh, with 403 members; the smallest Pondicherry, with 30 members.
President and Vice-President
The President is elected by the elected members of the Vidhan Sabhas, Lok Sabha, and Rajya Sabha, and serves for a period of 5 years (although they can stand for re-election). A formula is used to allocate votes so there is a balance between the population of each state and the number of votes assembly members from a state can cast, and to give an equal balance between State Assembly members and National Parliament members. If no candidate receives a majority of votes there is a system by which losing candidates are eliminated from the contest and votes for them transferred to other candidates, until one gain a majority. The Vice President is elected by a direct vote of all members elected and nominated, of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
Who can vote?
The democratic system in India is based on the principle of universal adult suffrage; that any citizen over the age of 18 can vote in an election (before 1989 the age limit was 21). The right to vote is irrespective of caste, creed, religion or gender. Those who are deemed unsound of mind, and people convicted of certain criminal offences are not allowed to vote.
Reservation of Seats
The Constitution puts a limit on the size of the Lok Sabha of 550 elected members, apart from two members who can be nominated by the President to represent the Anglo-Indian community. There are also provisions to ensure the representation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, with reserved constituencies where only candidates from these communities can stand for election.
System of Election
Elections to the Lok Sabha are carried out using a first-past-the-post electoral system. The country is split up into separate geographical areas, known as constituencies, and the electors can cast one vote each for a candidate (although most candidates stand as independents, most successful candidates stand as members of political parties), the winner being the candidate who gets the maximum votes.
Polling is normally held on a number of different days in different constituencies, to enable the security forces and those monitoring the election to keep law and order and ensure that voting during the election is fair.
Ballot Papers & Symbols
After nomination of candidates is complete, a list of competing candidates is prepared by the Returning Officer, and ballot papers are printed. Ballot papers are printed with the names of the candidates (in languages set by the Election Commission) and the symbols allotted to each of the candidates. Candidates of recognised Parties are allotted their Party symbols.
How the voting takes place
Voting is by secret ballot. Polling stations are usually set up in public institutions, such as schools and community halls. To enable as many electors as possible to vote, the officials of the Election Commission try to ensure that there is a polling station within 2km of every voter, and that no polling stations should have to deal with more than 1500 voters. Each polling station is open for at least 8 hours on the day of the election.
On entering the polling station, the elector is checked against the Electoral Roll, and allocated a ballot paper. The elector votes by marking the ballot paper with a rubber stamp on or near the symbol of the candidate of his choice, inside a screened compartment in the polling station. The voter then folds the ballot paper and inserts it in a common ballot box which is kept in full view of the Presiding Officer and polling agents of the candidates. This marking system eliminates the possibility of ballot papers being surreptitiously taken out of the polling station or not being put in the ballot box.
Since 1998, the Commission has increasingly used Electronic Voting Machines instead of ballot boxes. In 2003, all state elections and bye elections were held using EVMs. Encouraged by this the Commission took a historic decision to use only EVMs for the Lok Sabha election due in 2004. More than 1 million EVMs were used in this election.
Supervising Elections, Election Observers
The Election Commission appoints a large number of Observers to ensure that the campaign is conducted fairly, and that people are free to vote as they choose. Election expenditure Observers keeps a check on the amount that each candidate and party spends on the election.
Counting of Votes
After the polling has finished, the votes are counted under the supervision of Returning Officers and Observers appointed by the Election Commission. After the counting of votes is over, the Returning Officer declares the name of the candidate to whom the largest number of votes have been given as the winner, and as having been returned by the constituency to the concerned house.