Debate on Constitutional Reforms:
Presidential System for India

By Subhash Kashyap Kashyap presidential system book
First published in author’s 2010 book Indian Constitution: Conflicts & Controversies

The Debate on constitutional reforms is as old as the constitutional. In fact, it started in the Constituent Assembly among the founding fathers themselves and has continued since. In 1956, Nehru himself expressed his doubts whether the parliamentary system could meet the needs of the times and complexities of modern administration. Again, in the 60s the desirability of a switch-over to the Presidential system was actually discussed. Several eminent men including a person like JRD Tata advocated a Presidential system for India. When after the 1967 General Elections, the Congress monopoly of power began to be eroded at the level of States, prominent Congress leaders came forward to prescribe the Presidential model as the remedy for all of India’s ills.

The debate in favour of a Presidential system was resumed with the most pronounced vigour during Mrs Gandhi’s times, again by Congressmen like Vasant Sathe and others. In fairness, Sathe has to this day stood steadfastly and consistently for a Presidential system or for strong, directly elected executive head – may be the Prime Minister – with real powers. Also, in the academia, the theme of Constitutional Reforms has been discussed repeatedly almost all over the country during the last several years. Quite a few book length studies have appeared besides the topic having become a hot favourite at seminars and symposia and in the columns of prestigious national dailies.

On completion of 50 years of the working of the Constitution in 2000, the President appointed a National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC). The Commission submitted its Report in 2002. The debate on Constitutional reforms, however, continues.

Unfortunately, the moment a re-look at the Constitution is suggested, we immediately jump to presume that a change over to the Presidential System is being proposed. It arises from the mistaken belief that we in India ever adopted the Westminster type of parliamentary democracy or that the choice was between the British Parliamentary System and the American Presidential System. Many of the essential pre-requisites of the Westminster system did not exist in India nor do they exist today. If one goes by the text of the Constitution as it came out of the Constituent Assembly, it had at least as many features of the American Presidential System as of the British Parliamentary System. As against Britain and like the United States, India is a republic with a federal structure and an elected head of state. The President is the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, is elected by an electoral college and the executive power vests in him.

The suggestion for a review of the Constitution should not therefore be perceived as being based on some preconceived notions of preference for a Presidential system. In any case, there is nothing like the Presidential system. It has many variants. Besides the US system, there are the Latin American, Sri Lankan, Philippine, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, French and other Presidential models. They are all different, some are hybrid. Those over-simplifying the issue and talking in favour of or against the Presidential model have first to clarify which Presidential model they are talking about. Even while talking of the US model, very often the commentators are under the illusion that the US President is directly elected by the people. In fact, he is also elected by an electoral college only.

As for the merits of the issue, it would be desirable to go back to the perception of the founding fathers. The Constituent Assembly had some strong advocates of the Presidential system as well. Dr. Ambedkar finally explained why they preferred the parliamentary over the Presidential model. Both were democratic. The stress in the parliamentary model was more on accountability. In the Presidential model, stability – both of the executive and of the legislature – was better assured. With their experience of the arbitrary colonial rule of the British, the framers of the Constitution prized accountability more than stability.

Nobody seriously disputes the fact that Indian polity is passing through a very critical phase. All would agree that there is enough in the national scenario that is disturbing and distressing and calls for introspection on where did we go wrong. Is the system to blame or the people who have been operating it have proved to be vile?

The case for a review has become unassailable. Those who are opposed to constitutional review say that there is nothing wrong with the Constitution or the political system, the fault lies with the people. However, they are ignoring the fact that these people are largely the products of the system. Also, the system is for the people, and not the other way round; it has to be adjusted to the needs of the people. We cannot keep waiting for angels to descend, our people cannot be changed or others imported to work this ‘excellent’ system.

Even after 94 amendments why has our Constitution failed to deliver? Why have there been nearly 120 occasions when the constitutional machinery has been declared to have failed in one State or the other? Why do the basic problems of poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, shortage of food and drinking water remain? Why have unemployment, criminalization, casteism, communalism and consumerism become more acute problems than ever before? Our Constitution, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘was purloined’ by lawyers. It became their paradise and failed to fulfil the hopes, aspirations and objectives of the founding fathers. In fact, we reduced their dreams to a heap of debris.

Review of the Constitution should mean a holistic, integrated approach to see what, if any, amendments are necessary in the light of 58 years’ experience of working the Constitution. Political of constitutional reforms need not necessarily mean changing the polity from parliamentary to presidential. Also, not all the needed changes may call for constitutional amendments as such.

The essential prerequisites are that the system should be suited to the needs, background, ethos and experience of the people, even their weaknesses and shortcomings. It should also throw up the right kind of leadership, competent men and women of character and integrity.

Tyranny of models can be terrible. We would have to get over the fruitless and irrelevant debates on various western models – presidential, parliamentary or others. We have to identify our problems, needs and aspirations and then objectively consider what systemic changes, if any, are necessary to resolve our problems, meet our needs and fulfill our aspirations. We have to evolve a constitutional culture and a political superstructure that is in consonance with our historical and cultural past, and in conformity with the needs of the present and the future.

Areas requiring immediate attention seem to be those of Union-State relations, decentralization of powers including financial powers to the states and down to the lower grassroot levels, ensuring greater probity, integrity and transparency in public life and making the administration clean, efficient, less costly and more citizen friendly.

What precise reforms finally emerge should depend upon an institutional, non-partisan expert review and on developing a consensual approach which takes into account all the viewpoints, alternatives and options including the recommendations of the National Commission on the Constitution (2002).

Stability of ministerial chairs (called the stability of government) or of ensuring a fixed five year term for members (in the name of preventing frequent elections and colossal expenditure thereon) cannot be our only concerns.

[Subhash Kashyap, distinguished constitutional scholar, is former Secretary General of Lok Sabha, member of National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution, and author of more than 100 books on India’s Constitution]