India achieved independence from Britain in 1947 and a constitution emphasizing a strong central government came into effect in 1950. Beginning in the 1980s, a shift towards multi-level federalism resulted in local bodies playing an increasingly important role in governance.
Having led the independence movement, the Indian National Congress Party emerged as India’s dominant political force into the 1970s. In the 2009 general elections it once achieved the most seats in the House of the People, the lower house of the Parliament, and subsequently formed a coalition government. This kind of coalition, which represents various interests within the federal system, helps to increase the accountability of the central government. However, in the most recent general election held in 2014, the National Democratic Alliance – led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader (and current Prime Minister) Narendra Modi – swept to victory winning the right to form a majority government for the first time in India in 30 years.
Several of India’s 94 constitutional amendments have been described as an attempt by the central government to shift the balance of power away from the states. In 1992, however, the 73rd amendment was passed, empowering and strengthening the role of the rural and village councils known as panchayats, providing them with new powers and funding and requiring that women must hold at least one-third of the seats on these bodies.
In general, the emergence of regional parties and the prevalence of coalition politics at the national level since the 1990s have shifted power away from the central government to the states. It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue under the current majority government.
India’s federation consists of 28 states and 7 union territories (including the National Capital Territory). Governors are appointed by the central government to oversee states. All states and two union territories have elected legislatures and governments. The remaining five union territories are directly ruled by the center through appointed administrators. Since 1956 the states have been divided along linguistic criteria. Every state and union territory is divided into smaller administrative districts – and these in turn are divided in tehsils and ultimately into villages.
India is a federal parliamentary democracy. The parliament is bicameral, with the House of the States acting as the upper house, and the House of the People as the lower house. Jurisdictional disputes between the central government and the states are handled by the Inter-State Council. This body, as stated by the Constitution of India, has a duty to inquire into and advise upon disputes between states, and investigate and discuss subjects in which some or all of the states, or the union, have a common interest.