This month I got interested in the American politics, thanks to the race for Presidential nomination going on full speed. I learnt quite a bit about elections in America and this post compares American Presidential elections with the Indian Parliamentary elections in various angles.
1) Parties at the centre
India has got a huge number of parties in various states and they all have the potential to send their member to the Parliament. Even though the major parties are now only two (Congress and BJP), the regional parties have been a vital cog in the ruling party's coalition for the past 20 years.
US has got only two parties of any significance (Democrats and Republicans) - bipartisanship. For a little over 100 years, the rivalry is between only these two. Even though there are a few major 'third parties', their vote share is so low (<> 200 years, has stabilized itself with two major parties, whereas India, a 60-year democratic country, has got atleast 15 parties which have got a considerable number of seats in the Parliament.
2) Distribution of power at the centre
India's Parliament has two houses - Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The members for the former are elected by the citizens while those for the latter are elected by the legislative members of the states. Both the houses have to pass a bill for it to become an act. Lok Sabha members (Total:552; max. 5 years per term) are selected together when the Parliamentary elections are held whereas the 1/3 Rajya Sabha members (Total: 250; max. 6 years per term) are selected every two years.
The US's Congress has two houses as well - Senate and the House. The members of Senate (Senators; 2 per each state, totalling 100) are elected similar to the way Rajya Sabha members are elected. The senators have a tenure of 6 years per term. The members of the House (Representatives; total: 435) are elected every two years. Here too, both the houses have to pass a bill for it to become an act.
3) Who gets to rule?
In India, a prominent leader of a major party is usually projected as a prime-ministerial candidate; but there are examples where the PM was chosen out of blue. For ex., no one expected PV Narasimha Rao (in '92) and Manmohan Singh (in 2004) to become the PM, even when the polls were on. Also, during the life of a single parliament, it is possible to change a PM (Chandrasekhar replaed VP Singh in 1991 and IK Gujral, in 1997, replaced HD Deve Gowda who himself replaed Vajpayee in 1996). Since the PM is elected by the support of a majority in the Lok Sabha, the ruling party enjoys its power in one house, at least. A loss in majority means the PM has to step down, and if no other candidate enjoys a majority, the parliament is dissolved and fresh election is held.
In the US, the Presidential candidate and his running-made, the Vice-Presidential candidate, are chosen before the election, from each party. In the event of the President's demise or resignation, the vice-president becomes the President automatically. Thus, US Presidential elections are held once in every 4 years (the leap year, to be exact). This is the norm for over 200 years. And, it is always held on the tuesday after the first monday of November.
4) Candidate selection
In India, as we saw above, the PM is chosen AFTER the elections, by the members of Lok Sabha. He/she need not be a Lok Sabha member to become the PM. Need not be the member of any house, but has to, within 6 months of swearing-in. Thus, it is possible for someone to become the PM without ever facing the voting public. Usually other potential Prime-ministerial candidates are the influential leaders of the major parties. But, hypothetically, one can become a PM even if he/she doesnt belong to any party until that day.
In the US, the candidates are chosen mostly by the citizens and the voting usually happens in the first 3-4 months of the year (that is what is going on now in US, including today, when the people of Florida are casting their vote for who they want to be on the Presidential nomination race). These elections for intra-party contests are called Primaries. In some states, the members of the given party vote and choose a candidate in what is known as a 'caucus'. After the primaries and caucuses are over, each party holds a national convention in which the delegates chosen from the primaries and caucuses meet and elect the eventual Presidential candidate. Thus, the whole process is highly democratic and the people know well in advance who their leader is going to be. A President who has already been elected twice can not compete as a candidate the third time.
5) Power of the parties
In India, the politics is all about the parties and its leadership. We can call it party-centric. Every candidate, for the state legislative assembly, and the Parliament (both houses) are decided by the parties. So it is important for any aspiring politician to be in good terms with the party leadership. After the election, if an elected member switches to another party, he stands to lose his elected position unless he is part of a converting group comprising at least one third of the total members of that party in that particluar assembly or the Parliament. In the state assembly and in the parliament, a party member has to vote on a bill based on what the party's whip orders. The member has can't disagree with the party's stand on that issue. Thus, the motions are brought in by only one party, and its opposition party usually tends to oppose it.
American politics has, since '60's, become candidate-centric. Since even the candidates for Senatorial and House elections are chosen by party members and public, any influential person can become a candidate as long as he/she manges win the required number of delegates' votes. Also, the elected member can switch party without any problem. Also, in the Congress (both the federal and state), a member can vote on a bill based on his/her opinion. Due to that, one can often see a Democratic member and a Republican member joining hands together and bringing a bill for vote in the Congress.
6) Influence of Religion
Religion has started playing an important part in Indian politics over the last 2 decades. BJP is a party run by Hindus and its policies are the most conservative among the major parties. Congress claims to be a secular party and thus tries to stand the middle ground, appealing to all the religions. The communists form the left wing.
The Republican party in US is known for being conservative and the Democrats are labelled 'liberal'. There is no religious fanaticism like the one seen in India sometimes, but the parties take different stand on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research.
There are some other minor differences as well but I will stop here. Overall, I like the high level of democracy in American elections and the '2-term maximum' for the Presidents, which allows other leaders to aim for the position. Moreover, since the Presidents are directly elected by the public, there is no room for horse-trading or attempts to split the party.
P.S.: Some of you asked me to write more on other aspects that I mentioned in the 'comments' section. Here we go..
* Electoral votes:
This is something unique to US elections. It is an extrapolation of 'Winner takes all' concept. Each state is alloted a certain number of 'electoral votes' based on its population. A candidate who gets the largest number of votes in that state wins all the electoral votes of that state. This makes the candidates to focus much of their campaign on the larger states. Thus, a candidate might win the 'popular' vote (i.e., winner of the largest number of votes throughout the US) but might still lose the election to his rival, if the rival manages to win the 'big' states even with a small difference of votes. (cf. Bush vs Al Gore in 2000). Among the 50 states of the US, just 11 of them carry the required half of the electoral college, i.e., by winning in just these 11 states, a candidate can become the president even if he loses all the remaining 39 states.
This is different in India. Even though the ruling party might not have any seats in many states, it still has to garner the support of one more than half of the total number of MP's.
* Campaign finance:
It plays a large part in the US politics. Unlike in India where much of the campaign fund is used at the grassroot level (e.g., posters, meetings, travel, party workers and newspaper ads), in US, it is spent for advertising in the media. The last few years have seen a great change in the fund collection - internet has played a huge role for candidates such as McCain and Democratic party head Gov Howard Dean. According to US laws, every donor and the amount donated have to be openly disclosed. There is a limit on how much someone can contribute to a candidate in a 1-year period. Also, in case of the candidate having exhausted all the private donations, it is possible for him/her to get public-funding (the candidates are quite skeptical about getting it, for the fear of the revelation of large expenditure of campaign finance).
In India, the Election commission has defined a maximum amount that a candidate can spend for his/her constituency; but it doesnt restrict the party spending. Thus, aspiring parties collect their campaign money from their resources and spend as they wish.
In the US, it helps to be in power. Most of the incumbent Presidents, Senators and congressmen are re-elected, since the public prefer them to untried new faces. Since there is a restriction on the number of re-election bids for the Presidents and the Senators, one also gets the 'open competition' in which no incumbent is in contest. The incumbents sometimes do get defeated too (e.g., George HW Bush, in 1992) but that is rare.
In India, the most common term heard during the elections is the 'Anti-incumbency factor', which makes it very hard for the rulers to be re-elected. In states such as Kerala, it is a given that the incumbents would lose - it has been the case for over 30 years. The large section of the population toiling in poverty choses to vent its anger on the incumbents.