Vajpayee speaking

I often wonder whether the Westminster model has been defeated by the Indian reality. Is it time to think in terms of a second republic? …  Let there be a serious nationwide debate … We should not shy away from discussing the merits of even the presidential system of government.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee delivered the following speech in 1998 at the 13th Desraj Chowdhary Memorial. In 2000 his Government set up the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution. But the Opposition compelled him to restrict its work “within the framework of parliamentary democracy.” 

Although it may not always be visible and audible on the surface, the whole nation is today astir with debate on what we have achieved in the past 50 years. And why, on balance, our accomplishments fall woefully short of both our expectations and our doubtless potential. The debate is welcome. It must be broad and deep, and free and honest. It must touch upon all aspects of our national experience. Let us do so with an open mind and with a willingness to accept the good thoughts from every quarter, not being prejudiced or blinded by our own blinders or others’ labels.

I want to provoke a serious debate on this issue, believing as I do that the present system of parliamentary democracy has failed to deliver the goods and that the time has come to introduce deep-going systemic changes in our structures of governance. If the majority of our population is deprived of both power (in the real sense of democratic empowerment at all level, especially for the poor and socially downtrodden) and fruits of socio-economic progress, is it not obvious that we need to take a re-look at our framework of governance?

Neither Parliament, nor the state vidhan sabhas are doing with any degree of competence or commitment what they are primarily meant to do: legislative function. Their inability and apparent unwillingness to perform this function is due to a number of known reasons. Barring exceptions, those who get elected to these democratic institutions are neither trained, formally or informally, in law making nor do they seem to have an inclination to develop the necessary knowledge and competence in their profession.

The second, equally important, function of the elected representatives is to reflect public opinion in Parliament and the state legislatures by debating matters of vital public importance, and thereby influence the policies and actions of the executive. Sadly, serious debate has ceased to take place in our elective bodies, which have come to resemble akharas (arenas for fighting bouts) where noisy confrontation is the norm.

Those individuals in society who are genuinely interested in serving the electorate and performing legislative functions are finding it increasingly difficult to succeed in today’s electoral system. The reason is obvious: Notwithstanding the changes introduced by T N Seshan as chief election commissioner, the electoral system has been almost totally subverted by money power, muscle power, and vote bank considerations of castes and communities. As a result, although casteism and communalism may be weakening in social life, the same are being aided and abetted by the electoral process. Elections are not entirely free and fair: they are not reflecting the true will and aspirations of the people.

The natural inclinations of today’s MPs and MLAs is to get involved in the executive function – that too without accountability and much capability. The exceedingly high premium placed on capturing power by fair or foul means is because of the elected representatives’ conviction that power is the passport to personal prosperity. Corruption in the governing structures has, therefore, corroded the very core of elective democracy.

I often wonder whether the Westminster model has been defeated by the Indian reality. Is it time to think in terms of a second republic? In the past too, I have mentioned the need to change the system, not only of delivery of governance, but of the governance itself. When I see the ridiculous reduction of our parliamentary system to a level which allows a party with a tenth of the total number of seats to rule the country, or a party which is in imminent danger of losing its electoral symbol holding two key ministries of home and agriculture, I am left wondering whether those who framed the Constitution took this possibility into account. What, then, should we do?

Let there be a serious nationwide debate on all the possible alternatives for systemic changes to cleanse our democratic governing system of its present mess. We should not shy away from discussing the merits of even the presidential system of government. If the presidential system of government is considered impractical or undesirable, then we should introduce radical and undelayed changes in the present parliamentary democracy system itself.

The present ‘first past the post’ system in which the candidate winning the largest number of votes in an election is declared the winner, irrespective of whether he had the first or the second preference support of the majority of the voters who exercise their franchise, weakens the representative character of elective bodies. Thus, a party with a larger percentage of overall votes may still have a lower number of seats in the Lok Sabha or the vidhan sabhas. This anomaly needs to be corrected by introducing proportional representation for political parties in at least 50 per cent of the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha and the vidhan sabhas.

I recently met a former prime minister of Japan who explained to me how his country has opted for a mixed system and gained tremendously in the process. Earlier, 511 seats in the Japanese Diet would be filled through direct elections. The total number of seats has been reduced to 500, of which 300 are now filled through direct elections and 200 through the system of proportional representation. Can we not think along these lines?

The certainty of scope of corruption in the governing structure has heightened opportunism and unscrupulousness among political parties, causing them to marry and divorce one another at will, seek opportunistic alliances and coalitions often without the popular mandate. Yet they capture, and survive in, power due to inherent systematic flaws. Multi-party system is the soul of democracy but opportunist power seekers have distorted it by developing a vested interest in political fragmentation.

Political parties winning or losing power in elections is a natural happening in a democracy. This, however, did not affect the governance itself because India rightly boasted of having a great asset in its permanent but non-political and impartial civil services. Sadly, the rot has set in here too. Casteism, corruption and politicisation have eroded the integrity and efficacy of our civil service structure. The manifestoes, policies, programmes of political parties have lost meaning in the present system of governance due to lack of accountability.

Why is it that the political class no longer carries conviction, and the supremacy of Parliament has been severely eroded? Those who were eager participants in the political process not many years ago have become indifferent, even cynical. To my mind, that is the biggest damage caused by the practitioners of corruption. And the biggest challenge that we who have preached and practised probity in public life face, is to restore faith in the political class and rejuvenate the democratic process.

Because no democracy can survive if the political class dies and politics loses its primacy; democracy cannot survive on the pillars of people’s cynicism, lack of hope, and absence of active participation. Moreover, if the political class dies, it would pave the way for authoritarianism and further fragment our society, apart from fracturing our nation state.

Accessed May 30, 2016 from Rediff