Changing to a presidential system is the best way of ensuring a democracy that works
By Shashi Tharoor
First published in Tehlka.com; June 25, 2011
The recent political shenanigans in New Delhi, notably the repeated paralysis of Parliament by slogan-shouting members violating (with impunity) every canon of legislative propriety, have confirmed once again what some of us have been arguing for years: that the parliamentary system we borrowed from the British has, in Indian conditions, outlived its utility. Has the time not come to raise anew the case — long consigned to the back burner — for a presidential system in India?
The basic outlines of the argument have been clear for some time: our parliamentary system has created a unique breed of legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only in order to wield (or influence) executive power. It has produced governments obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has distorted the voting preferences of an electorate that knows which individuals it wants but not necessarily which policies. It has spawned parties that are shifting alliances of individual interests rather than vehicles of coherent sets of ideas. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office, and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions. It is time for a change.
Let me elaborate. Every time Parliament grinds to a screaming halt, the talk is of holding, or avoiding, a new general election. But quite apart from the horrendous costs incurred each time, can we, as a country, afford to keep expecting elections to provide miraculous results when we know that they are all but certain to produce inconclusive outcomes and more coalition governments? Isn’t it time we realised the problem is with the system itself?
Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of our major weaknesses. India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit decisive action, whereas ours increasingly promote drift and indecision. We must have a system of government whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power. The parliamentary system has not merely outlived any good it could do; it was from the start unsuited to Indian conditions and is primarily responsible for many of our principal political ills.
To suggest this is political sacrilege in New Delhi. Barely any of the many politicians I have discussed this with are even willing to contemplate a change. The main reason for this is that they know how to work the present system and do not wish to alter their ways.
But our reasons for choosing the British parliamentary system are themselves embedded in history. Like the American revolutionaries of two centuries ago, Indian nationalists had fought for “the rights of Englishmen”, which they thought the replication of the Houses of Parliament would both epitomise and guarantee. When former British prime minister Clement Attlee, as a member of a British constitutional commission, suggested the US presidential system as a model to Indian leaders, he recalled, “They rejected it with great emphasis. I had the feeling that they thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter.”
Many of our veteran parliamentarians — several of whom had been educated in England and watched British parliamentary traditions with admiration — revelled in their adherence to British parliamentary convention and complimented themselves on the authenticity of their ways. Indian MPs still thump their desks in approbation, rather than applauding by clapping their hands. When Bills are put to a vote, an affirmative call is still “aye”, rather than “yes”. Even our communists have embraced the system with great delight: an Anglophile Marxist MP, Hiren Mukherjee, used to assert proudly that British prime minister Anthony Eden had felt more at home during Question Hour in the Indian Parliament than in the Australian.
But six decades of Independence have wrought significant change, as exposure to British practices has faded and India’s natural boisterousness has reasserted itself. Some state Assemblies in our federal system have already witnessed scenes of furniture overturned, microphones ripped out and slippers flung by unruly legislators, not to mention fisticuffs and garments torn in scuffles. While things have not yet come to such a pass in the national legislature, the code of conduct that is imparted to all newly-elected MPs — including injunctions against speaking out of turn, shouting slogans, waving placards and marching into the well of the House — is routinely honoured in the breach. Equally striking is the impunity with which lawmakers flout the rules they are elected to uphold.
There was a time when misbehaviour was firmly dealt with. Many newspaper readers of my generation (there were no cameras in Parliament then) will recall the photograph of the burly socialist MP, Raj Narain, a former wrestler, being bodily carried out of the House by four attendants for shouting out of turn and disobeying the Speaker’s orders to remain seated. But over the years, standards have been allowed to slide, with adjournments being preferred to expulsions. Last year, five MPs in the Rajya Sabha were suspended from membership for charging up to the presiding officer’s desk, wrenching his microphone and tearing up his papers — but after a few months and some muted apologies, they were quietly reinstated. Perhaps this makes sense, out of a desire to allow the Opposition its space in a system where party-line voting determines most voting outcomes, but it does little to enhance the prestige of Parliament.
Yet there is a more fundamental critique of the parliamentary system than the bad behaviour of some MPs. The parliamentary system devised in Britain — a small island nation with electorates initially of a few thousand voters per MP, and even today less than a lakh per constituency — assumes a number of conditions that simply do not exist in India. It requires the existence of clearly- defined political parties, each with a coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish it from the next, whereas in India, a party is all too often a label of convenience a politician adopts and discards as frequently as a film star changes costumes. The principal parties, whether “national” or otherwise, are fuzzily vague about their beliefs: every party’s “ideology” is one variant or another of centrist populism, derived to a greater or lesser degree from the Nehruvian socialism of the Congress. We have 44 registered political parties recognised by the Election Commission, and a staggering 903 registered but unrecognised, from the Adarsh Lok Dal to the Womanist Party of India. But with the sole exceptions of the BJP and the communists, the existence of the serious political parties, as entities separate from the “big tent” of the Congress, is a result of electoral arithmetic or regional identities, not political conviction. (And even there, what on earth is the continuing case, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the reinvention of China, for two separate recognised communist parties and a dozen unrecognised ones?)
The lack of ideological coherence in India is in stark contrast to the UK. With few exceptions, India’s parties all profess their faith in the same set of rhetorical clichés, notably socialism, secularism, a mixed economy and non-alignment, terms they are all equally loath to define. No wonder the communists, when they served in the United Front governments and when they supported the first UPA, had no difficulty signing the Common Minimum Programme articulated by their “bourgeois” allies. The BJP used to be thought of as an exception, but in its attempts to broaden its base of support (and in its apparent conviction that the role of an Opposition is to oppose everything the government does, even policies it used to advocate itself ), it sounds — and behaves — more or less like the other parties, except on the emotive issue of national identity.
So our parties are not ideologically coherent, take few distinct positions and do not base themselves on political principles. As organisational entities, therefore, they are dispensable, and are indeed cheerfully dispensed with (or split/reformed/merged/dissolved) at the convenience of politicians. The sight of a leading figure from a major party leaving it to join another or start his own — which would send shock waves through the political system in other parliamentary democracies — is commonplace, even banal, in our country. (One prominent UP politician, if memory serves, has switched parties nine times in the past couple of decades, but his voters have been more consistent, voting for him, not the label he was sporting.) In the absence of a real party system, the voter chooses not between parties but between individuals, usually on the basis of their caste, their public image or other personal qualities. But since the individual is elected in order to be part of a majority that will form the government, party affiliations matter. So voters are told that if they want an Indira Gandhi as prime minister, or even an MGR or NTR as their chief minister, they must vote for someone else in order to indirectly accomplish that result. It is a perversity only the British could have devised: to vote for a legislature not to legislate but in order to form the executive.
So much for theory. But the result of the profusion of small parties is that today we have a coalition government of a dozen parties, some with just a handful of MPs, and our Parliament has not seen a single-party majority since Rajiv Gandhi lost his in 1989. And, as we have just seen in the debacle over FDI in retail, and as also happened three years ago on the Indo-US nuclear deal, dissension by a coalition partner or supporting party can hamstring the government. Under the current system, India’s democracy is condemned to be run by the lowest common denominator — hardly a recipe for decisive action.
The disrepute into which the political process has fallen in India, and the widespread cynicism about the motives of our politicians, can be traced directly to the workings of the parliamentary system. Holding the executive hostage to the agendas of a range of motley partners is nothing but a recipe for governmental instability. And instability is precisely what India, with its critical economic and social challenges, cannot afford.
The fact that the principal reason for entering Parliament is to attain governmental office creates four specific problems. First, it limits executive posts to those who are electable rather than to those who are able. The prime minister cannot appoint a Cabinet of his choice; he has to cater to the wishes of the political leaders of several parties. (Yes, he can bring some members in through the Rajya Sabha, but our Upper House too has been largely the preserve of fulltime politicians, so the talent pool has not been significantly widened.)
Second, it puts a premium on defections and horsetrading. The Anti-Defection Act of 1985 was necessary because in many states (and, after 1979, at the Centre) parliamentary floor-crossing had become a popular pastime, with lakhs of rupees, and many ministerial posts, changing hands. That cannot happen now without attracting disqualification, so the bargaining has shifted to the allegiance of whole parties rather than individuals. Given the present national mood, I shudder to think of what will happen if the next election produces a Parliament of 30-odd parties jostling to see which permutation of their numbers will get them the best rewards.
Third, legislation suffers. Most laws are drafted by the executive — in practice by the bureaucracy — and parliamentary input into their formulation and passage is minimal, with very many Bills passing after barely five minutes of debate. The ruling coalition inevitably issues a whip to its members in order to ensure unimpeded passage of a Bill, and since defiance of a whip itself attracts disqualification, MPs loyally vote as their party directs. The parliamentary system does not permit the existence of a legislature distinct from the executive, applying its collective mind freely to the nation’s laws.
Fourth, for those parties that do not get into government and realise that the outcome of most votes is a foregone conclusion, Parliament itself serves not as a solemn deliberative body, but as a theatre for the demonstration of their power to disrupt. The well of the House — supposed to be sacrosanct — becomes a stage for the members of the Opposition to crowd and jostle, waving placards and chanting slogans until the Speaker, after several futile attempts to restore order, adjourns in despair. In India’s Parliament, many Opposition members feel that the best way to show the strength of their feelings is to disrupt the lawmaking rather than debate the law. Last year, an entire session was lost to such daily disruptions; this year’s winter session has seen two weeks of daily adjournments, many in the presence of bemused visiting members of other countries’ legislatures.
Apologists for the present system say in its defence that it has served to keep the country together and given every Indian a stake in the nation’s political destiny. But that is what democracy has done, not the parliamentary system. Any form of genuine democracy would do that — and ensuring popular participation and accountability between elections is vitally necessary. But what our present system has not done as well as other democratic systems might, is ensure effective performance.
The case for a presidential system of either the French or the American style has, in my view, never been clearer.
The French version, by combining presidential rule with a parliamentary government headed by a prime minister, is superficially more attractive, since it resembles our own system, except for reversing the balance of power between the president and the council of ministers. This is what the Sri Lankans opted for when they jettisoned the British model. But, given India’s fragmented party system, the prospects for parliamentary chaos distracting the elected president are considerable. An American or Latin American model, with a president serving both as head of state and head of government, might better evade the problems we have experienced with political factionalism. Either approach would separate the legislative functions from the executive, and most important, free the executive from dependence on the legislature for its survival.
A directly-elected chief executive in New Delhi, instead of being vulnerable to the shifting sands of coalition-support politics, would have stability of tenure free from legislative whim, be able to appoint a Cabinet of talents, and above all, be able to devote his or her energies to governance, and not just to government. The Indian voter will be able to vote directly for the individual he or she wants to be ruled by, and the president will truly be able to claim to speak for a majority of Indians rather than a majority of MPs. At the end of a fixed period of time — let us say the same five years we currently accord to our Lok Sabha — the public would be able to judge the individual on performance in improving the lives of Indians, rather than on political skill at keeping a government in office. It is a compelling case.
Why, then, do the arguments for a presidential system get such short shrift from our political class?
At the most basic level, our parliamentarians’ fondness for the parliamentary system rests on familiarity: this is the system they know. They are comfortable with it, they know how to make it work for themselves, they have polished the skills required to triumph in it. Most non-politicians in India would see this as a disqualification, rather than as a recommendation for a decaying status quo.
The more serious argument advanced by liberal democrats is that the presidential system carries with it the risk of dictatorship. They conjure up the image of an imperious president, immune to parliamentary defeat and impervious to public opinion, ruling the country by fiat. Of course, it does not help that, during the Emergency, some around Indira Gandhi contemplated abandoning the parliamentary system for a modified form of Gaullism, thereby discrediting the idea of presidential government in many democratic Indian eyes. But the Emergency is itself the best answer to such fears: it demonstrated that even a parliamentary system can be distorted to permit autocratic rule. Dictatorship is not the result of a particular type of governmental system.
In any case, to offset the temptation for a national president to become all-powerful, and to give real substance to the decentralisation essential for a country of India’s size, an executive chief minister or governor should also be directly elected in each of the states, most of which suffer from precisely the same maladies I have identified in our national system. The case for such a system in the states is even stronger than in the Centre. Those who reject a presidential system on the grounds that it might lead to dictatorship may be assured that the powers of the president would thus be balanced by those of the directly-elected chief executives in the states.
I would go farther: we need strong executives not only at the Centre and in the states, but also at the local levels. Even a communist autocracy like China empowers its local authorities with genuine decentralised powers: if a businessman agrees on setting up a factory with a town mayor, everything (from the required permissions to land, water, sanitation, security and financial or tax incentives) follows automatically, whereas in India, a mayor is little more than a glorified committee chairman, with little power and minimal resources. To give effect to meaningful self-government, we need directly elected mayors, panchayat presidents and zilla presidents, each with real authority and financial resources to deliver results in their own geographical areas.
Intellectual defenders of the present system feel that it does remarkably well in reflecting the heterogeneity of the Indian people and “bringing them along” on the journey of national development, which a presidential system might not. But even a president would have to work with an elected legislature, which — given the logic of electoral arithmetic and the pluralist reality of India — is bound to be a home for our country’s heterogeneity. Any president worth his (democratic) salt would name a Cabinet reflecting the diversity of our nation: as Bill Clinton said in his own country, “My Cabinet must look like America.” The risk that some sort of monolithic uniformity would follow the adoption of a presidential system is not a serious one.
Democracy, as I have argued in my many books, is vital for India’s survival: our chronic pluralism is a basic element of what we are. Yes, democracy is an end in itself, and we are right to be proud of it. But few Indians are proud of the kind of politics our democracy has inflicted upon us. With the needs and challenges of one-sixth of humanity before our leaders, we must have a democracy that delivers progress to our people. Changing to a presidential system is the best way of ensuring a democracy that works.
Is that the most important thing for India, some ask. BR Ambedkar had argued in the Constituent Assembly that the framers of the Constitution felt the parliamentary system placed “responsibility” over “stability” while the presidential did the opposite; he did not refer to “accountability” and “performance” as the two choices, but the idea is the same. Are efficiency and performance the most important yardsticks for judging our system, when the inefficiencies of our present system have arguably helped keep India united, “muddling through” as the “functioning anarchy” in Galbraith’s famous phrase? To me, yes: after six-and-a-half decades of freedom, we can take our democracy and our unity largely for granted. It is time to focus on delivering results for our people.
Some ask what would happen to issues of performance if a president and a legislature were elected from opposite and antagonistic parties: would that not impede efficiency? Yes, it might, as Barack Obama has discovered. But in the era of coalitions that we have entered, the chances of any party other than the president’s receiving an overwhelming majority in the House — and being able to block the president’s plans — are minimal indeed. If such a situation does arise, it would test the mettle of the leadership of the day, but what’s wrong with that?
What precisely would the mechanisms be for popularly electing a president, and how would they avoid the distortions that our Westminster-style parliamentary system has bequeathed us?
In my view, the virtue of a system of directly-elected chief executives at all levels would be the straightforward lines of division between the legislative and executive branches of government. The electoral process to get there may not initially be all that simple. When it comes to choosing a president, however, we have to accept that elections in our country will remain a messy affair: it will be a long while before Indian politics arranges itself into the conveniently tidy two-party system of the US. Given the fragmented nature of our party system, it is the French electoral model I would turn to.
As in France, therefore, we would need two rounds of voting. In the first, every self-proclaimed netaji, with or without strong party backing, would enter the lists. (In order to have a manageable number of candidates, we would have to insist that their nomination papers be signed by at least 10 parliamentarians, or 20 members of a state Assembly, or better still, both.) If, by some miracle, one candidate manages to win 50 percent of the vote (plus one), he or she is elected in the first round; but that is a far-fetched possibility, given that even Indira Gandhi, at the height of her popularity, never won more than 47 percent of the national vote for the Congress. More plausibly, no one would win in the first round; the two highest vote-getters would then face each other in round two, a couple of weeks later. The defeated aspirants will throw their support to one or the other survivor; Indian politicians being what they are, there will be some hard bargaining and the exchange of promises and compromises; but in the end, a president will emerge who truly has received the support of a majority of the country’s electorate.
Does such a system not automatically favour candidates from the more populous states? Is there any chance that someone from Manipur or Lakshadweep will ever win the votes of a majority of the country’s voters? Could a Muslim or a Dalit be elected president? These are fair questions, but the answer surely is that their chances would be no better, and no worse, than they are under our present system. Seven of India’s first 11 prime ministers, after all, came from Uttar Pradesh, which surely has no monopoly on political wisdom; perhaps a similar proportion of our directly-elected presidents will be from UP as well. How does it matter? Most democratic systems tend to favour majorities; it is no accident that every president of the United States from 1789 to 2008 was a white male Christian (and all bar one a Protestant), or that only one Welshman has been prime minister of Great Britain. But then Obama came along, proving that majorities can identify themselves with the right representative even of a visible minority.
I dare say that the need to appeal to the rest of the country will oblige a would-be president from UP to reach across the boundaries of region, language, caste and religion, whereas in our present parliamentary system, a politician elected in his constituency on the basis of precisely such parochial appeals can jockey his way to the prime ministership. A directly-elected president will, by definition, have to be far more of a national figure than a prime minister who owes his position to a handful of political kingmakers in a coalition card-deal. I would also borrow from the US the idea of an Electoral College, to ensure that our less populous states are not ignored by candidates: the winner would also be required to carry a majority of states, so that crushing numbers in the cow belt alone would not be enough.
And why should the Indian electorate prove less enlightened than others around the world? Jamaica, which is 97 percent black, has elected a white Prime Minister (Edward Seaga). In Kenya, President Daniel arap Moi hailed from a tribe that makes up just 11 percent of the population. In Argentina, a voting population overweeningly proud of its European origins twice elected a son of Syrian immigrants, Carlos Saul Menem; the same phenomenon occurred in Peru, where former president Alberto Fujimori’s ethnicity (Japanese) covers less than one percent of the population. The right minority candidate, in other words, can command a majority; to choose the presidential system is not necessarily to make future Narasimha Raos or Manmohan Singhs impossible. Indeed, the voters of Guyana, a country that is 50 percent Indian and 47 percent black, elected as president a white American Jewish woman, who happened to be the widow of the nationalist hero Cheddi Jagan. A story with a certain ring of plausibility in India…
The adoption of a presidential system will send our politicians scurrying back to the drawing boards. Politicians of all faiths across India have sought to mobilise voters by appealing to narrow identities; by seeking votes in the name of religion, caste and region, they have urged voters to define themselves on these lines. Under our parliamentary system, we are more and more defined by our narrow particulars, and it has become more important to be a Muslim, a Bodo or a Yadav than to be an Indian. Our politics has created a discourse in which the clamour goes up for Assam for the Assamese, Jharkhand for the Jharkhandis, Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians. A presidential system will oblige candidates to renew the demand for an India for the Indians.
Any politician with aspirations to rule India as president will have to win the people’s support beyond his or her home turf; he or she will have to reach out to other groups, other interests, other minorities. And since the directly-elected president will not have coalition partners to blame for any inaction, a presidential term will have to be justified in terms of results, and accountability will be direct and personal. In that may lie the presidential system’s ultimate vindication.
(Though the author is a Congress MP, the views expressed in this article are strictly personal.)
© Copyright Shashi Tharoor, 2011