The Presidential Form

By Arunabha Bagchi, first published in The Statesman on January 10, 2016


[The writer is former Dean and Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Twente, The Netherlands]

This is the presidential election year in the United States. Our ‘aspirant class’ would follow every twist and turn of the election drama. It might be a good moment to turn the searchlight inwards and think about the form of government in our country. Shashi Tharoor fired the first salvo when he declared at a public meeting at the end of last year that “The fundamental flaws of the parliamentary form of government have become more apparent in the successive coalition governments in the past 25 years.” He stressed that it would be worthwhile to start discussions on a presidential form of government for our country.

The debate over the presidential form of government is as old as the Constitution. In fact, Dr BR Ambedkar had favoured this type of government. The final document that emerged caused serious differences of opinion among our experts. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, publicly questioned the ceremonial role of our President and argued that the Constitution had vested more power in the President of the Republic. This was forcefully contradicted by our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who argued that we have the British form of parliamentary democracy with the President basically having the role similar to that of the British Monarch, without the attendant pomp and peagantry. Most people would agree with Nehru, as this is the case in all countries with parliamentary democracy that do not have a monarch. If certain framers of our Constitution wanted a hybrid of the British and American forms of government, they have failed spectacularly in making that intelligible to the common people.

A heated debate on the presidential form of government ensued during the heyday of Indira Gandhi. Her autocratic style of functioning with a massive mandate in Parliament and her declaration of the Emergency legitimised by the Supreme Court, based on the supremacy of the Parliament in Britain, led many political thinkers to opt for the presidential form of government for India. With the defeat of Indira Gandhi in the 1977 general election, the whole debate died down. This was indeed a pity, given the fractured polity in India from then onwards. The debate was seriously revived prior to the general election in 2014 when it seemed at one point that neither UPA nor NDA would be able to have absolute majority in Parliament, and the chaos of Indian politics would be complete. The Modi wave prevented this uncertain outcome and the debate again died down. This is also very unfortunate, given that the stable political situation in our country at present should be utilised for reasoned discussions on the most desirable form of government to avoid an unmanageable situation in future. In this sense, the pronouncement of Shashi Tharoor was indeed very pertinent and timely.

In the presidential form the President is both the Head of State and the Head of Government. Now in a country with a monarch, it is not possible for anyone else to take over the role of Head of State. This makes it impossible for a large number of countries in Europe to have the presidential form of government. If we look at the G20 major economies of the world we notice-leaving aside the European Union-that as many as 10 have the presidential form of government, five have monarchs as Heads of State and only four have the parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial President. This last group includes Turkey that is flirting over the presidential form with the current President being the Head of State and the de facto Head of Government. That puts us in the tiny group of three, alongside Germany and Italy, with a ceremonial President. We are also the only country within BRICS with the parliamentary form of government. This is indeed bizarre.

Just as in the parliamentary system, there are different forms of the presidential system adopted by different countries in the world. As a Federal Republic, we should look at the countries with a federal polity. We are about to become the most populated country in the world, and we are certainly the most diverse one already. This rules out a direct copy of the presidential form of the United States, where the people of European origin dominate the political landscape in all 49 states in the mainland. China is no option, as it is not a democracy. Russia started experimenting with democracy only after the fall of the Soviet Union and is almost at the bottom of the ‘democracy index’ compiled by the The Economist Intelligence Unit, a subsidiary of The Economist Group of Britain. This makes it imperative that we study the presidential form as used in Brazil and adjust it, if necessary, to fit the Indian situation.

The pros and cons of the parliamentary form and the presidential form of government are, by now, well known. My intention is to focus on some misconceptions and matters of specific concern for our country. It is often argued that a President being the Head of State and the Head of Government would have too much power vested in him/her. The reality is, in fact, exactly the opposite. To quote Bertrand Russell, “In England there was a real division of powers so long as the King had influence; then Parliament became supreme, and ultimately the Cabinet. In America, there are still checks and balances in so far as Congress and the Supreme Court can resist the Administration.”

The political instability for decades in Latin America in the past is cited as an argument against the presidential form of government in a developing country. As every political observer knows, the reason for political instability in Latin America lay elsewhere. In fact, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘democracy index’ of most countries there at present is remarkably high, and not far behind that of India.

Let us now look at some features of the Brazilian model of government that are relevant for India. At the national level, the people directly elect the President by popular vote. A President can have only two consecutive terms of four years each, after which he/she has to step down. The President picks up his executive team from the entire talent pool available in the country. There are two Houses of Congress, the House of Representatives with each House member elected in a district and the Senate with the same number of members per state elected directly by the people of the state. So far the system is very similar to that of the United States. The main difference is that Brazil does not have the “first past the post” system of election. All elections have two rounds, with the first round being free for all and the second one is a direct run-off between the winner and the first runner-up of the first round. We must avoid the ‘primaries’ tamasha of the United States at all costs.

The form of government and the method of election for the state government are exact replicas of the national one. There would be no Governor sent by Delhi to breathe down the neck of the elected state government. States would wholeheartedly support this ideal form of ‘cooperative federalism’ and participate with additional vigour in the development of the country. States with serious secessionist tendencies must be handled separately and effectively. Negotiations of the President with the Congress and the Senate would give regional parties considerable clout in Delhi, while some of those regional satraps would lose their ability to manipulate the national government by whimsical and devious means. The national government would also have no need to let the CBI loose on those regional satraps to keep them under leash.

One major by-product of this system is the forced internal democratisation of political parties in the selection of candidates for elections at all levels. In the direct run-off in the second round, a candidate must have the ability to attract voters sympathetic to other parties if he/she has any chance of winning the election. The most important change, however, would be the feeling of empowerment as Indians throughout the country participate in electing their President. Perhaps they would rejoice if President Pranab Mukherjee retires gracefully as our last ceremonial President and Narendra Modi takes over as our first Executive President.

What is the Presidential System?