How the US Presidential Elections are different from Indian General Election

November 3 is shaping up to be one of the most significant dates of the year. Phase- II of the Bihar State Legislative Assembly Election is being held on November 3. Also, the United States of America is also holding its presidential election on November 3, maybe we should talk about it?

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi have a lot of things in common – they have an unwavering fanbase, both defeated establishment candidates to secure their positions (Hilary Clinton and The Gandhi Family), they never miss a good photo op.. But perhaps, the most significant aspect of their similarity is that both of them stand at the top of the executive branch of their respective countries.

How did they get to be where they are?

Through elections, of course. Since both Bihar and the USA are holding their elections on the same day, we thought this was a good time to examine the election process in both India and the US.

Elections are perhaps the most important attribute of a democracy, through elections the people get to decide who will govern them. India and the US are representative democracies (At least the last time we checked they still were). Both hold elections but the process is different in both the countries.

In India, the process of the General Elections and the State Elections is similar hence we’ll be examining the General Elections to draw a comparison with the US Presidential Elections.

Here are key points on how the election system of the US and India is different

India has a Parliamentary form of government while the US has a Presidential form of government

The ultimate goal of both General Elections and Presidential Elections is to appoint the head of the executive branch of the Government. The US has a Presidential form of government in which the President is the head of the executive branch while in India we have the Parliamentary form of government in which the Prime Minister is head of the executive branch.

The Prime Minister is appointed as a result of the Indian General Elections while the US President is appointed through the US Presidential Elections (if the name wasn’t obvious enough).

India votes for Legislative Branch, the US for Legislative and Executive

In India, only the legislative branch of the government is directly elected by its citizens. On paper, the people vote only for their favoured MP candidate (Or MLA candidate incase of state elections) and not for their favoured PM candidate. While in the US, the citizens elect the members of the Legislative branch as well as the head of the Executive Branch i.e The President.

Structure of Indian General Elections and US Presidential Election

Indian general election: If you don’t remember your Class 10 civics lessons on how the Indian General Election and State Elections are held, let us jog your memory a bit. To form the Government at the Centre a party or alliance needs to win the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha. Each member of the Lok Sabha represents the people who live in a particular constituency.

How are constituencies divided? The number of constituencies in each state depends on the population of the state. For example, Uttar Pradesh has 80 constituencies while Nagaland has only one constituency.

The winner in each constituency is simply decided by which candidate got the most number of votes. As mentioned, the party or alliance with the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha forms the government.

The winners then get to decide who will be the next Prime Minister. Now, the winning party or alliance cannot just appoint any random person as the Prime Minister of India.

The PM has to be an MP either from the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha; but has to be a member of the political party or coalition, having a majority in the Lok Sabha. No party has any obligation to announce their PM candidate before the election results are in.

US Presidential Election: The fundamental difference between how the Prime Minister of India is elected and how the US President is elected is that the US Presidential Elections are independent of the elections of both the Houses of Congress.

Woof, what a complicated statement that was. Let’s break it down into digestible bites. The legislative branch of the US government is called Congress, yes no need to worry, the Indian National Congress has nothing to do with this Congress. 

Like the Parliament in India, Congress also has two houses: House of Representatives (Lower House) and the Senate (Upper House). The House of Representatives has 435 seats which represent 435 Congressional districts spread across the US.

What are Congressional Districts? It is essentially just a fancier term for a constituency. Each US State sends two Senators to the Senate. Though unlike the Rajya Sabha, Senators are directly elected by the people of the states they represent. 

Now you must be thinking that whichever party (The Democrats or The Republicans) wins the majority of seats in the Lower House i.e House of Representatives gets to form the government just like in India. Well, if you are thinking this then you are dead wrong, my friend, dead wrong.

The party whose candidate wins the Presidential Election does not need to have a majority in either of the Houses of Congress. This helps in keeping the executive and the legislative branch separate from each other. Right now, Donald Trump is the President but the Republicans do not hold a majority in the House of Representatives. 

The President does not even have to be a member of Congress to serve. Now, the elections of the House of Representatives, Senate and the Presidential election are held simultaneously but one has no bearing on the other.

In fact, the President’s party not having control of either Houses of Congress happened as recently as 1996 when Bill Clinton was re-elected for his second term but his party – The Democrats failed to claim the majority in either house of Congress. 

We know, this may sound strange for someone in India. It reads almost like if the BJP had the majority in the LS and RS but Rahul Gandhi somehow became the PM, completely absurd right. But such a case is possible in the US. 

So, if not through Congress, then how is the President of the United States elected? The US President is elected indirectly by the citizens of the US through a system called the Electoral College. No, this is not some college where the presidential candidates give exams.

The US Electoral College and Indian Electoral College

US Electoral college: Now, the Electoral College is a group of electors from each state who come together every four years to vote on who gets to be the President and the Vice-President. Now, before a thousand questions pop up in your head, let us explain.

The Electoral College has a number of members equal to both the Houses of Congress combined. US citizens through their individual votes get to decide who the electors sent by their particular state to the Electoral College will vote for to become President and Vice-President. Let’s look at the last Presidential Election for a clearer picture.

In 2016, Hilary Clinton (The Presidential Nominee from The Democratic party) got the most number of votes in California. This meant that all electors sent to the Electoral College by the state of California voted for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump got the most votes in Texas. Meaning all electors of the Electoral College from Texas voted for Trump.

Ultimately what happened was that Hillary Clinton got the most number of public votes but Donald Trump got the majority of votes in the Electoral College and was thus elected as the 45th President of the United States.

So yeah, in the US, the person with the most number of public votes does not always get to be the President. Funnily, this has happened twice in the last 20 years, once during the 2000 Presidential Elections and once during the 2016 Presidential Elections. Because of this, the existence of the Electoral College has been heavily criticised by the Democratic Party who lost both the elections mentioned above.

Indian electoral college: India also has an Electoral College. Though differently constituted it gets to decide who gets to be the President of India. The Indian electoral college is made up of the following:

  • elected members of the Rajya Sabha
  • elected members of the Lok Sabha 
  • elected members of each state’s Legislative Assembly i.e MLAs
  • elected members of each union territory possessing a Legislative assembly 

But since the President of India is not the Head of the Executive Branch of Government, a straight comparison cannot be drawn between the functions of two Electoral Colleges.

Those were all the important distinctions between the Indian General Elections and the US Presidential Elections. So, now when you are watching the US Presidential Election results unfold in the coming days you’ll have a better understanding of the processes.

(This article is written by Team Deshbhakt, Mohammad Haaris Beg)

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