India Semester Abroad

India Semester Abroad

University of Guelph

  An informal pre-departure orientation from a participant’s perspective.




Academic: Politics

UG India Semester 2008











Indian politics can be complex and confusing, so here is a basic introduction to the issues!

Political Structure

India is a democracy, and has a bicameral system (effectively a House of Lords and a House of Commons). The President has a largely ceremonial role, while the Prime Minister exerts much more power. State governments are set up in much the same way as the central government, while most of the local level governments use a modification of the traditional panchayat system of elected volunteers.

Independence and Religious Tension

Indian politics have always tended to be extreme, and corruption, threats, and even murders are not out of the ordinary. However, this situation needs to be understood in the context of India’s political history, from the first struggle for independence until the present.

India’s oldest political party, the National Congress Party (NCP), was founded in 1885 and has been active and influential ever since. In the 1920’s the Congress Party joined forces with Mohandas Ghandi to begin a 3-decade campaign for self-rule. Thousands of people were martyred in this struggle, setting the stage for life-or-death politics in India for years to come.

Around the same time, Muslim groups in India began campaigning for the creation of a Muslim state. Many Muslims felt that India would inevitably become a Hindu state where Muslims would be persecuted. When it looked like India might receive independence without the creation of a separate Muslim state, leading Muslim politician Muhammed Ali Jinnah said that he would “see India divided or India destroyed”.

With this philosophy in mind, some Muslims organized attacks against Hindus, to which Hindus made violent reprisals. Hostility escalated, and it was decided that a divided India would be rushed towards independence within 6 months.

With so little time to prepare, the process seemed doomed to chaos. There was no clear way to divide India – after all, there had never before been any clear divisions between what is now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Every decision was hotly contested, and both sides fought to receive a larger area, stronger defences, and better resources.

When India and Pakistan (including what is now Bangladesh) were finally given Independence in August 1947, the cost to Indians was unimaginable. Over 10 million people switched sides, often on foot. Massacres of refugees occurred in both countries, leaving somewhere between 250 000 and 500 000 people dead.

Understandably, this has led to ongoing bitterness and distrust between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia. This animosity has been exacerbated by ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over the northerly state of Kashmir, which legally belongs to India despite a majority Muslim population. In recent years both countries have threatened nuclear war, although there have been steps towards peace since 2000.























Post-Independence Trends

  • Since Independence, India has been involved in multiple wars with Pakistan, and a brief war with China.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, founded a veritable dynasty of rulers in India. His daughter Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister for well over a decade, until her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in retaliation for her actions in the largely-Sikh state of Punjab. Following this, Indira’s son, Rajiv, took over as PM until he too was assassinated in 1991. In the 2004 elections, both Rajiv’s wife and son are contesting. Between them, the Nehru line has led India for about half of the country’s independence!
  • In 1996, the dominant Congress party suffered its worst defeat ever, and was replaced by a coalition government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist party. Vajpayee has successfully held power until the present, and may well win the upcoming election.
  • In 2002, a group of Muslims set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Ayodhya. Hindu mobs retaliated, killing hundreds of Muslims in revenge.
  • Corruption in the Indian government is widespread and commonly acknowledged.
  • There have been numerous terrorist attacks in India, including a suicide attack on Parliament in 2001 and 2 simultaneous bombs in Mumbai that killed 50 people in 2003.
  • Democracy is now deeply rooted in Indian society, and has continued to function in the face of all obstacles.



Here is a timeline of the event discussed in this section.

if you are interested in the upcoming elections in India, you can follow the events in any of these reputable news sources:

  • BBC World: South Asia
  • The Hindu – a well-written daily English language newspaper from India
  • Economic and Political Weekly – an excellent academic weekly magazine covering a wide range of issues
  • The Times of India – Another daily newspaper from India
  • India Today – Especially once you are in India, this weekly news magazine is a great way to stay on top of current events. It is a bit like the Indian version of Macleans magazine




Updated: 2006 November 16