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A Presidential form of government would benefit Modi, but he doesn’t want it

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign and style of governance have created illusions of a Presidential system.

Bhanu Dhamija  · Nov 20, 2015 · 08:30 am


It is ironic that Narendra Modi came to power by running a presidential-type campaign.

… (The) people’s misconception that he is governing the nation in a presidential style continues. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. He has inherited a system of government that allows him to be all powerful and that is in line with most Indians’ false impression of the US presidency.

It is too early to say whether Modi will do anything to fix India’s system. But the signs are not promising. First of all, there are good reasons why Modi wouldn’t even bother. The existing system permits him to amass powers to his heart’s content, and the current circumstances only encourage him to do so. Then there are the day-to-day pressures of meeting ultra-high expectations – which Modi himself raised – allowing him no room in his packed agenda.

Once again the people of India have placed all their hopes in one man. They were in such a state of despair after the utter failure of the previous government that at the first ray of hope they became frantic Modi supporters. They saw a competent and incorruptible leader with good experience and quickly decided to give him carte blanche.

His presidential style, nation-wide campaign on the message of good governance made supporting Modi a no-brainer. 

The people readily reposed their trust in Modi, thinking, as they have done before, that the nation can only be saved by a “strong” leader.

Of course, one man cannot consistently deliver wise governance. We have seen this happen throughout history, in small nations and large, that monocracies become corrupt, complacent and bereft of good ideas. Yet in India, this fallacious reliance on a “strong” leader continues. When recently a leading Indian commentator, Tavleen Singh, was ridiculed for criticising some of Modi government’s initial actions, she quickly corrected the “wrong impression”, by calling Modi “India’s only hope for a better tomorrow”.

It is not advisable to leave the fate of 1.2 billion people in the hands of one man. Nor is it practical that one person alone, no matter how good, can run a diverse and large nation like India. There is a world of difference between running a state – which was Modi’s entire experience – and leading a union of states that are led by fiercely independent parties. But since no one has shown the people of India a better alternative, they continue with this erroneous thinking that “strong” leadership means a government that can act autocratically.

Thus far, Modi is running a monocracy. 

He makes all major decisions himself, sometimes overruling even his cabinet colleagues. Even worse, almost all decisions have been taken through executive actions or ordinances, bypassing Parliament. Without public debate or opposition’s involvement, Modi has granted himself more and more powers.

He diluted the opposition’s role in selecting the chief of CBI, India’s investigative agency already notorious for its political control; he abolished the Planning Commission, a sixty-year-old institution heavily involved in central fiscal controls and replaced it with a mere think tank; he increased limits on foreign investments in the insurance industry; he seriously enhanced government’s powers to acquire private land, and so on.

Only one major decision – changing the method of appointing judges – has been sanctioned by parliament. But this too only enhances the government’s role. Modi’s use of ordinances has exceeded more than one a month; his government has been labelled the “Ordinance Raj.”

People are applauding this skirting of Parliament because India’s system is so broken that in their view it is not allowing Modi to fulfil his promises. Modi has majority control only in the Lok Sabha, so the Rajya Sabha is not cooperating. And as usual in both Houses, the opposition is more interested in disruption than dialogue.

Also, the system is no longer suitable for a single-party majority. For decades India’s central governments were made up of coalitions of smaller regional parties; they are not easy to dislodge from power. Then there is this constant campaigning in state elections, in which Modi is the only draw; that doesn’t leave him any time to devote to parliament.

Because the system is incapable of delivering, Indians are relying on Modi to make good decisions. 

That is faith, not wisdom. His decisions maybe good, for a while and in some areas. Having more representative control over the appointment of judges, or more government control over fiscal policy, or less politics in the selection of the director of CBI, or a more investment friendly climate, or faster implementation of land based projects, etc., are perhaps smart decisions.

But there can’t be any doubt that had these decisions emerged out of a good system, they would be smarter and easier to implement, for they will be based on a wider consensus.

India, as well as Modi, needs a better system. One that is based on decentralized institutions under the direct control of the people. Changing the man at the helm doesn’t change the system. Unfortunately, due to the reasons cited above, Modi is unlikely to make changing the system his priority. It came as no surprise when a leading newspaper columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, recently reported, “There has not been a single major gesture by the government to restore institutional credibility.”

The irony is Modi himself would benefit from a better system, especially if it was based on presidential type institutions. 

If he held the office of the presidency he would be better able to set a national agenda rather than get bogged down in states’ politics. He could then focus on all important matters like international relations, national security and investment climate. He would become more effective in changing cultural attitudes, for example towards women or cleanliness. He would be able to speak for all Indians with respect to communal harmony. Sheltering some of his party’s MPs who have a Hindu agenda is hurting his credibility. Modi will be free to choose for his cabinet people with experience and credibility, rather than politicians.

A presidential-type, federal structure will also help Modi deliver good governance on the ground. Independent state governments empowered by direct elections and taxing authority would behave more responsibly. They would become accountable for governance in areas that affects people the most – law and order, education, health, public records, welfare schemes, etc. Modi wouldn’t have to control state governments through funds, or through stooges in the form of governors; each state’s people would do so themselves. This will fulfil Modi’s own promise of true federalism.

Also, a presidential-type legislature would behave, because the members can be kicked out every two years. They can be held more accountable for delivering on a legislative agenda. Since the opposition would have a say, the laws would be better. Coming out of a wider consensus, they would be more acceptable to a greater percentage of the population. The judiciary would also improve because people’s representatives would have a say in selecting judges.

All this would produce better leaders for the present, and for tomorrow. More cooperative centres of power – in states, cabinet, legislature and judiciary – give more people a chance to show their mettle. Party bosses, and political dynasties, would disappear because candidates would be chosen through primary elections.

And this perhaps is the overarching reason why Modi would be reluctant to change the system, especially to the presidential type. That form of government empowers the opposition; Modi is known for decimating it. 

There is a telling story about how effective Modi is in eliminating all opposition. In 2011 when I had a chance to discuss with L.K. Advani his feelings about India adopting the presidential system one of his remarks was, ‘It is not necessary to have the presidential system, you can deliver even in the existing system; look at Modi in Gujarat.’ That was of course before Advani was deposed, by Modi, as the next in line to become a BJP prime minister.

I shudder to think what India’s fate would be if Modi, the nation’s last best hope, doesn’t alter the system for the better. Let us assume he succeeds in providing good governance for a very long time, but if in the process he further centralises the system and destroys all opposition, where would India find the next Modi?

Excerpted with permission from Why India Needs the Presidential System, Bhanu Damija, HarperCollins India.