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India: The Executive
Country Study > Chapter 8 > Government and Politics > The Structure of Government > The Executive


The executive branch is headed by the president, in whom the constitution vests a formidable array of powers. The president serves as head of state and the supreme commander of the armed forces. The president appoints the prime minister, cabinet members, governors of states and territories, Supreme Court and high court justices, and ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives. The president is also authorized to issue ordinances with the force of acts of Parliament when Parliament is not in session. The president can summon and prorogue Parliament as well as dissolve the Lok Sabha and call for new elections. The president also can dismiss state and territory governments. Exercise of these impressive powers has been restricted by the convention that the president acts on the advice of the prime minister. In 1976 the Forty-second Amendment formally required the president to act according to the advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister. The spirit of the arrangement is reflected in Ambedkar's statement that the president "is head of the State but not of the Executive. He represents the nation but does not rule the nation." In practice, the president's role is predominantly symbolic and ceremonial, roughly analogous to the president of Germany or the British monarch.

The president is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of the elected members of both houses of Parliament and the elected members of the legislative assemblies of the states and territories. The participation of state and territory assemblies in the election is designed to ensure that the president is chosen to head the nation and not merely the majority party in Parliament, thereby placing the office above politics and making the incumbent a symbol of national unity.

Despite the strict constraints placed on presidential authority, presidential elections have shaped the course of Indian politics on several occasions, and presidents have exercised important power, especially when no party has a clear parliamentary majority. The presidential election of 1969, for example, turned into a dramatic test of strength for rival factions when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi put up an opponent to the official Congress candidate. The electoral contest contributed to the subsequent split of the Congress. In 1979, after the Ja-nata Party began to splinter, President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1977-82) first selected Janata member Chaudhury Charan Singh as prime minister (1979-80) to form a minority government and then dissolved Parliament and called for new elections while ignoring Jagjivan Ram's claim that he could assemble a stable government and become the country's first Scheduled Caste prime minister.

Tensions between President Giani Zail Singh (1982-87) and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1984-88) also illustrate the potential power of the president. In 1987 Singh refused to sign the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill, thereby preventing the government from having the authority to censor personal mail. Singh's public suggestion that the prime minister had not treated the office of the president with proper dignity and the persistent rumors that Singh was plotting the prime minister's ouster contributed to the erosion of public confidence in Rajiv Gandhi that ultimately led to his defeat in the 1989 elections. In November 1990, President Ramaswami Venkataraman (1987-92) selected Chandra Shekhar as India's eleventh prime minister, even though Chandra Shekhar's splinter Samajwadi Janata Dal held only fifty-eight seats in the Lok Sabha. Chandra Shekhar resigned in June 1991 when the Congress (I) withdrew its support.

In the same manner as the president, the vice president is elected by the electoral college for a five-year term. The vice president is ex officio chairman of the Rajya Sabha and acts as president when the latter is unable to discharge his duties because of absence, illness, or any other reason or until a new president can be elected (within six months of the vacancy) when a vacancy occurs because of death, resignation, or removal. There have been three instances since 1969 of the vice president serving as acting president.

The prime minister is by far the most powerful figure in the government. After being selected by the president, typically from the party that commands the plurality of seats in Parliament, the prime minister selects the Council of Ministers from other members of Parliament who are then appointed by the president. Individuals who are not members of Parliament may be appointed to the Council of Ministers if they become a member of Parliament either through election or appointment within six months of selection. The Council of Ministers is composed of cabinet ministers (numbering seventeen, representing thirty-one portfolios in 1995), ministers of state (forty-five, representing fifty-three portfolios in 1995), and deputy ministers (the number varies). Cabinet members are selected to accommodate different regional groups, castes, and factions within the ruling party or coalition as well as with an eye to their administrative skills and experience. Prime ministers frequently retain key ministerial portfolios for themselves.

Although the Council of Ministers is formally the highest policy-making body in the government, its powers have declined as influence has been increasingly centralized in the Office of the Prime Minister, which is composed of the top-ranking administrative staff. After the Congress split to form the Congress (R) -- R for Requisition -- and the Congress (O) -- O for Organisation -- in 1969, Indira Gandhi (who headed the Congress (R)) increasingly concentrated decision-making authority in the Office of the Prime Minister. When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister in 1984, he promised to delegate more authority to his cabinet members. However, power rapidly shifted back to the Office of the Prime Minister and a small coterie of Rajiv's personal advisers. Rajiv's dissatisfaction with his cabinet ministers became manifest in his incessant reshuffling of his cabinet. During his five years in office, he changed his cabinet thirty-six times, about once every seven weeks. When P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister in June 1991, he decentralized power, giving Minister of Finance Manmohan Singh, in particular, a large measure of autonomy to develop a program for economic reform. After a year in office, Rao began again to centralize authority, and by the end of 1994, the Office of the Prime Minister had grown to be as powerful as it ever was under Rao's predecessors. As of August 1995, Rao himself held the portfolios in thirteen ministries, including those of defense, industry, and Kashmir affairs.

Data as of September 1995

Last Updated: September 1995

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for India was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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