Overview of Electoral Process in India

Introduction

In India, there are three layers of governance in the political structure, at the national, state and local. The Constitution of India defines who can vote, who can contest and who is to supervise the elections. Indian citizens aged above 18yrs directly elect members of parliament (lower house) at the national level, members of legislative assembly at the state level and councilors of municipal corporations at the local level. At the national level, the parliament elects the President who is the head of the executive branch of the government. The President, in turn, appoints the Prime Minister of the country. In India, the President tends to play a ceremonial role, and it is the Prime Minister who is de facto head of the state. Below we take a look at how elections take place at different political layers in India.

Lok Sabha (Lower house of the parliament)

The election of representatives to the Lower house (Lok Sabha) happens by a method of direct elections. Representatives get elected from various allotted seats (constituencies) to the Lok Sabha are in proportion to the total population in every state. Representatives from 543 constituencies have formed the present government. According to the Constitution, the maximum strength in the Lok Sabha can have representatives from 552 constituencies. General elections to the lower house of the parliament is held once every five years. The lower house is also subject to dissolution. Elected members from the single largest party in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) choose its leader, Prime Minister of India. When no party holds a majority, coalitions get formed until they acquire the required number of seats to pick a Prime Minister for the country. One of the features of the Prime Ministerial electoral process is that even he/she has to contest elections for a particular seat.

In the Indian political system, the Election Commission (EC) of India, an autonomous constitutional body handles the electoral process, so that elections can take place in a free and fair manner. Before the run-up to general (Lok Sabha) and state legislative assembly elections, the EC announces the dates of when the nomination of candidates can begin, when elections will to be held and the result dates. Then various candidates from across parties (ruling, opposition or minority) file their nomination papers. India has seven national parties and approximately 1500 regional political parties. On the day of elections, government employees across India take over as poll officers in the polling stations where citizens of India come to cast their votes. Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) have been used instead of ballot boxes for casting votes to prevent election fraud since the 1998 assembly elections.

Rajya Sabha (Upper house of the parliament)

Through an indirect method, the members (representatives of States and Union Territories) of the upper house of the parliament get elected. The Rajya Sabha consists of not more than 250 members, with 12 members nominated by the President. The representatives for each state and Union territory get elected by the elected members of the legislative assemblies of states and Union territories. This is in accordance with the proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote. A member of Rajya Sabha can serve for a full term of 6-years, but one-third of the members retire after every second year. A ‘bye-election’ is held to fill in a vacancy due to resignation or death or disqualification of a member as per the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution.

State Legislative Assemblies

Constitutionally, in every state, there is a legislature consisting of the Governor. Seven states across India have two houses- Legislative Council (Upper house) and a Legislative Assembly (lower house) and other states have only one house (legislative assembly). Legislative Councils play a similar role as the upper house of the parliament, a house of members indirectly elected by the people. According to Article 168 of the constitution, Parliament may by law provide for the abolition of the legislative council of a state having a council or for the creation of a Council in states having no councils.

The legislative assembly is made up of not more than 500 members. The members of legislative assembly (MLAs) are elected by citizens above 18yrs from different constituencies across the state. Process of elections to form the legislative assemblies is similar to Lok Sabha elections. State election commissions handle the legislative assembly elections. In every state, seats are allocated based on the population. MLAs are vested with the powers of law-making, passing of bills, grants and tax proposals and electing the President of India. Elected members of Legislative Assembly and members of Parliament (at the Centre) are involved in the process of electing the President of India. After the expiry of a current assembly's tenure (5-yrs), new round of elections for the formation of the state legislative assembly takes place.

Members to the legislative council get elected from different backgrounds including graduates, teachers, local authorities, assembly members and nomination by Governor. According to Article 171, in the process of election for Legislative council, a single transferable vote (STV) is used. In this system, voters rank candidates (first preference, second preference and so on) based on his/her choice using the ballot paper. Candidates with a minimum number of first preference votes are elected. This system is different from that of how members get elected to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies.

Elections at the lowest level of governance  

Local governments in rural India (Panchayat Raj system) and local governments in urban cities (municipalities or nagar panchayats) take care of administrative affairs of a collection of villages in rural regions and for each city respectively. The Constitutional (73rd Amendment) Act in 1992 has given constitutional status to the panchayats. This Act gave a 3-tier system of Panchayati Raj in rural regions. At the lowest level, villagers directly elect their Gram Pradan and other members. Above the village, there is a provision of Block level Panchayat in which Gram Pradan chooses Block Pramukh. The last tier is the District level Panchayat (Zila Parishad). Each state holds Panchayat elections every five years once. There is also a provision of reservation for women and other backward classes.

Unlike the rural governing body, urban municipalities in India consist of councilors in every ward committee. The number of ward committees in every city depends on the total population in each city. Urban ward councilors are responsible for civic administration and people above 18years can directly elect the councilors. Every urban municipality in India is administratively headed by the Municipal Commissioner whose tenure is fixed by the respective state governments. A mayor is the main head of the municipal corporation. The role of the Mayor is more ceremonial as executive powers are vested with the Municipal Commissioner.