kuldip nayar photoThe parliamentary system in India has succeeded in sustaining democracy, but has failed to deliver the goods

By Kuldip Nayar, May 17, 2012 [First published in The Deccan Herald]

Even the most optimist cannot escape the inference that India is destined to be a coalition-run country for many years to come. Its political landscape is so jig-jagged that no party can make a simple majority in the 543-member Lok Sabha, the lower house.

The Congress or the BJP, the two national parties which have been hovering around the 200-plus mark for a long time, may increase their tally by a few more members (or lose some) in the 2014 elections. Yet neither of the two looks like reaching the dream figure of 272 to rule the country by itself.

The scenario evokes despondency because the functioning of the Atal Behari Vajpayee governments of the BJP from May 16 to June 1 in 1996 and from March 19, 1998 to May 22, 2004 and those of the Congress from 2004 till today have shown that the party in power has to give in on too many critical points to ensure the support of the coalition partners to stay in power.

The Congress has constituted the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), while the BJP headed National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The very word, alliance, suggests that it is a combination of parties which have chosen to stay with one or the other in its own interest. The give and take is inherent in such an arrangement. Inevitably, what emerges is not the best but a hotchpotch of different interests that may serve the purpose for the time being.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee was bold enough to admit the other day that the economic reforms would have to wait till after the 2014 elections because what the government wanted to do was not acceptable to its allies. Prime minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly said that his government has to follow the ‘coalition dharma,’ meaning thereby even giving up key projects for accommodating the wishes of its supporters.

The nation has to think over the prospects coolly and responsibly. The country cannot make a rapid progress because the parliamentary system, with all its plus points, is too dependent on a majority which is illusionary under the circumstances. By shutting eyes to the realities, the facts cannot be denied or wished away. The parliamentary system in India has succeeded in sustaining democracy but has failed to deliver the goods.

The 60 years of the system, celebrated this week, has made members realize that the situation as it has developed entails disruptions and walkouts. Is this good for a country which should be in a hurry to dent dismal poverty?

People should seriously consider the option to switch over to the presidential form of government. This too is democratic and transparent like in America and France. In this way, we will get the] most acceptable face in the country because people from different parts of India would be voting directly for one person for a fixed tenure, say five years.
He or she in turn would have all the attention and time to rule the country, not dependent on coalition or regional parties.

Coherent and united

The president would not to have buy the support of MPs as the prime ministers of both the Congress and the BJP have done. In the process, the nation would feel more coherent and united. There will be Parliament, the directly elected Lok Sabha and the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha—like the US Congress and the Senate. Powers of the houses can be redefined in the Indian context.

No doubt, there is a danger that the President might turn into a dictator. But there would be checks and balances lest he or she should hijack the system. India’s thinking on the presidential form is flawed because it had the experience of Indira Gandhi who even as the prime minister became authoritarian. After having suffered the rigours of the emergency, parliament has changed the constitution and plugged the loopholes.

Likewise, the nation would leave no leeway for a dictator to emerge once the presidential form is adopted.

In fact, the presidential form of government was debated at the Constituent Assembly. Many members favoured while others wanted safeguards against a totalitarian government. But Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, stopped any further debate by arguing that India had got used to the British parliamentary system.

In any case, Parliament has already undergone a change because of the legislation which has made the domicile qualification for the Rajya Sabha members redundant. It was laid down that a Rajya Sabha member should ordinarily be a resident of the state which returns him or her through its Assembly. A decade ago, both the Congress and the BJP hatched a conspiracy and substituted the word state with India. How does India make sense when the Rajya Sabha is the house of states? By dropping the domicile qualification, the two main political parties have opened the doors of the house to money bags.

By doing so, the balance in the parliamentary system has been disturbed. The federal structure that the constitution framers had in mind has been demolished. Even the report by Justice R S Sarkaria on centre-state relations has not been implemented. The Prime
Minister is ruling the country in the way the head of a presidential system does, without owning the responsibility when his ill-thought policies fail to work.

In democracy, it is important that people have faith in the system because otherwise the very basis of the state comes to be questioned. The reason why parliamentary system is not working in India is the confusion of clear direction in the absence of a single majority party, or arriving at a consensus among different parties. The presidential system provides the alternative in a person who will lead and direct the country.

[Author, recipient of 2015 Ramnath Goenka Lifetime Achievement Award, is one of India’s most respected political commentators.]