India Needs a Presidential Systemtunku

By Tunku Varadarajan

[First published in The Wall Street Journal on April 28, 1999]

India, that vast and defective democracy, is again in political tumult. Parliament has been dissolved, and fresh elections called, a mere 13 months after the last weary trudge to the polls. The elections, the third in three years, have been forced on India as a result of the collapse of the Hindu nationalist coalition of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The government’s defeat in a vote of confidence was engineered by an unlikely alliance of opposition parties, including the once-mighty Congress Party. Once they had toppled Mr. Vajpayee, however, they could not assemble a coalition to replace the one he had led.

The same old parties will be on the electoral menu, with the same old leaders, guaranteeing yet more incoherence. The recipe is maddening: Take an election, add 40-odd parties (invariably defined on the basis of region, religion, language, caste or a leader’s personality), stir in 600 million voters, add violence and vote-rigging for spice, shake vigorously, and then decant the end-product into one of New Delhi’s finest colonial buildings. What does this recipe yield? A hung and fractious Parliament, of course, where no party can govern independently.

India’s civitas faces a profound crisis. Parliament, its primary institution, is in a state of decomposition. The country’s political thinkers must now engage in a debate that should be central to Indian political discourse: Should the parliamentary system of government, adopted by India in emulation of the Westminster model, be scrapped? Would not a presidential form of government, akin to that of the U.S., be more appropriate for India?

B.R. Ambedkar, chairman of the Drafting Committee of India’s Constituent Assembly, once remarked that “a constitution is as much a matter of taste as clothes are. Both must fit, both must please.” The present constitution of India now neither fits nor pleases. It is appropriate that a nation like India–immense, ambitious and passionate– should review its political institutions. They were adopted only 50 years ago, in the most audacious democratic enterprise in history, and adopted for no reason that should compel the country to persevere with them now that they have failed.

The framers of India’s constitution, driven by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, opted for the Westminster model because it was “familiar,” a word Mr. Nehru employed in a Constituent Assembly debate in July 1947. Yet many British politicians expressed misgivings about the viability of transplanting the Westminster system to India. Clement Attlee, as a member of a constitutional commission, suggested to Indian leaders that they consider the American presidential system as a better model. But, he was to reveal, “they rejected it with great emphasis. I had the feeling that they thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter.”

The parliamentary system did appear to work in the first few decades after India’s independence. In 1952, 1957, 1962, 1967 and 1971, the Congress Party won clear, often resounding, majorities. It was not difficult to see why: Congress was the party of the independence movement, and its leaders were “freedom fighters.”

In the 1980s, however, the Congress Party unraveled, losing not just its last shreds of ideology but also the charismatic leaders whose presence had often compensated for its ideological bankruptcy. Regional, religious and caste-based parties mushroomed, and the country became an electoral battleground for a multitude of capricious tendencies. As Indian political analyst Shashi Tharoor has observed, “The parliamentary system assumes a number of conditions for its successful operation that simply do not exist in India. It requires the existence of clearly defined parties, each with a coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish it from the next, whereas in India a party is merely a label of convenience that a politician adopts and discards as frequently as a Bombay film star changes costume.”

A presidential system, preferably along American lines, with an entrenched separation of powers, might enable India to overcome its perpetual executive paralysis. It would allow the executive to govern for a full term, without fear of being toppled by a venal opposition. It would let the beleaguered Indian voters, presently held hostage by a push-me-pull-you of political parties, enjoy a clear choice of leader at election time. An executive presidency would also allow for a cabinet selected on merit, rather than on purely political considerations.

Guarantees against an elective dictatorship–such as banning a third term in office and, perhaps, re-election for consecutive terms–would need to be put in place. A debate must now begin in India to find that mode of election that, to use Alexis de Tocqueville’s words, “while expressing the real will of the people, would least arouse their passions and leave them least in suspense.” For India, that system is the presidential one.

[Tunku Varadarajan has taught constitutional and international law at Oxford University.  Currently he is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (USA).  He has a BA in law, with honors, from Oxford.]