By Bhanu Dhamija
Founder Divya Himachal newspaper, author Why India Needs the Presidential System
Another promising administration has fallen prey to India’s faulty system of government. Modi was doing well, but his demonetisation decision and its poor implementation has taken the sheen off his government. Today, once again India’s Parliament is non-functional, the executive is out of control, and the courts are unaccountable. India’s system has caused many governments to fail before. It’s because our version of the parliamentary system is fundamentally broken.
First let’s be clear that the fault doesn’t lie with the Indian people. Over and over again they have shown their wisdom by placing trust in promising new administrations. Indira Gandhi in 1971 and 1980, Janata government in 1977, Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, Vajpayee in 1996 and 1999, are just some examples. Modi certainly cannot complain that he didn’t get people’s support. In fact, people’s patience in following his demonetisation plan is nothing short of remarkable.
No amount of blaming or lecturing the people, or bureaucrats, or even politicians, can overcome systemic weaknesses. It’s the Indian system of government that is to blame.
The fault doesn’t lie with the bureaucrats either. Blaming civil servants goes against a basic principle of parliamentary democracy—that responsibility always rests with people’s representatives. It is also not justifiable, given that most bureaucrats are hand-picked by our ministers. Modi certainly has his own team, mostly from Gujarat. In fact, a strong case can be made that even the RBI governor is his man
The truth is that no amount of blaming or lecturing the people, or bureaucrats, or even politicians, can overcome systemic weaknesses. It’s the Indian system of government that is to blame.
Consider why the winter session of Parliament was totally wasted in a riot. The legislature in any parliamentary system is supposed to be supreme. “Parliamentary sovereignty” is considered a fundamental principle. But not in India. The government here controls the legislature, not vice versa. Parliament is not consulted and the executive decisions are not open to scrutiny. No authority—not even the President—can stop the Executive from doing what it wants. Since the opposition in Parliament has no teeth, all it can do is cause ruckus or walkout. And that’s precisely what it does.
Consigned merely to being the government’s rubberstamp, India’s Parliament has been increasingly disorderly. In 2004, Kuldip Nayar, columnist and MP, revealed that during his six years in the Rajya Sabha he found “MPs waiting for instructions for disturbing the House; whips and other office-bearers of political parties told them how to stall the proceedings.” India’s legislators not only rush to the well, they have exchanged blows, attacked ministers, flung furniture and shoes, climbed on desks, exposed their undergarments, and so on. In 1989, the LS was adjourned a record eight times on a single day. In 2007, Parliament wouldn’t function for more than a week, over the Indo-US nuclear deal, before being adjourned sine die. Various Speakers have admonished the Indian MPs constantly—”this not a zoo,” “you should be ashamed of yourself,” “children are more disciplined,” etc.—but to no avail.
This lack of legislative and presidential oversight creates the second fundamental problem: India’s Executive runs amok. A Prime Minister can work in secret, and make or implement any decision without approval. Secrecy was Modi’s rationale for the lack of deliberation in the demonetisation decision. But any system working behind closed doors is bound to make mistakes. After all, the whole idea behind legislative oversight is that the government doesn’t make arbitrary or foolish decisions. Unless it’s a covert military operation, a government has more to gain from open debate than from secrecy.
It is the system—mostly governments and political parties themselves—that needed the fix, not the Indian people.
Oversight of the demonetisation decision would have made it more of a permanent fix of the engines of black money, than the popularity contest or moral crusade that it has become. Indians learnt how to make and store black money only due to prior government policies. Government corruption itself was mostly to blame. The causes for black money are well known: an unfair and oppressive tax regime, plethora of unenforceable laws, bureaucratic corruption, and political contributions. It is now wrong to treat all Indians as thieves, and put the masses through hell. It is the system—mostly governments and political parties themselves—that needed the fix, not the Indian people. A deliberated decision would have highlighted real fixes and provided greater unity. It wouldn’t have harmed the country’s prestige or Modi’s credibility. But above all, it would have avoided so much pain to the economy of the poor. So what if some people managed to keep their ill-gotten gains a little while longer?
But in India the Executive has been out of control many times. In my last post I wrote about Indira Gandhi’s 1969 decision – also taken in secret and announced overnight – on bank nationalisation. This was pre-Emergency. As we all know, Indira Gandhi’s arbitrariness during Emergency ended India’s democracy itself. Such practices started from the time of Nehru. His control over Parliament was total, and he managed to sideline the presidency. His dissolution of Punjab government in 1951, his policies with respect to China or Kashmir, are examples of his non-deliberated decisions. In the 1980s Rajiv Gandhi passed anti-defection laws that made MPs impotent. Throughout history, nearly all Prime Ministers have misused the CBI, or encroached on state rights. They have created or defiled government institutions—Planning Commission to NITI Aayog, for example—at will. The list is endless.
[The] lack of legislative and presidential oversight creates a fundamental problem: India’s Executive runs amok.
This Executive arbitrariness has created the third fundamental problem in India’s system: the courts have become unaccountable to the people. Judges were transferred or promoted at will by India’s Prime Ministers. Indira Gandhi’s supersession of three judges in 1973 is a famous example. The revolt of the judiciary led to the modern day collegium, a system of appointing judges without any involvement of people’s representatives. Now the courts are irresponsive because the people’s dissatisfaction cannot do them any harm, and the Executive is unconcerned. Neither cooperates with the other. So courts now engage in flexing their muscle by interfering in Executive functions. They don’t miss a chance to obstruct or criticise executive decisions.
Modi’s demonetisation campaign is suffering due to these fundamental weaknesses in India’s system of government. His campaign may yet survive—it depends on the quickness of his other reforms—but chances are that this flawed system will come back to hurt India again. It’s not smart for a great people to ignore such a structural problem.
This article was first published on The Huffington Post on 18/12/2017.