The euphoria over Narendra Modiji’s visit to Odisha reminded me of enthusiasm when Mr. Barack Obama visited Mumbai on 26th November, 2010. Shri Modi runs the Government like the US President; his election campaign in 2014 and public posturing are reminiscent of flamboyant Mr. Ronald Reagan who used to say “Government is the problem”. It would, therefore, be interesting to reflect whether India should opt for a Presidential form in lieu of the present parliamentary form of Government to realize the drive and dynamism of a Presidential system.
As one harks back into our Constitutional history it would be amply clear that the choice of the parliamentary form of Government was largely because of India’s familiarity with U.K. Parliamentary system. However, there were prominent detractors like Dr. B.R.Ambedkar who was more in favour of a Presidential form of Government. Gandhiji wished for a system based on village panchayat rather than copying the British. He wrote “if India copies England, it is my firm conviction that she will be ruined and it will be very difficult to get rid of her fondness for the parliament.”
However, it was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who singularly ensured that India adopts a parliamentary form of Government. He also made President Dr. Rajendra Prasad a mere figure head. Dr. Ambedkar in an astonishing admission in 1953 blurted “I am quite prepared today that I shall be the first person to burn the Constitution out”. Another stalwart of India’s constitutional assembly, Mr. K.M.Munshi also changed his mind and suggested that if he was to make a choice again, he would vote for the Presidential form of Government, so that when the politicians fail the country ‘there is at least one organ of the State, capable of tiding over the crises.’
Much later Shri R.Venkataraman, who become the President of India, had also expressed grave doubts regarding the future of our parliamentary democracy. He was alluding to the emergency years when there was a mockery of collective responsibility as the President was made to sign the order without approval of the Cabinet. Mrs. Indira Gandhi put thousands into jail, razed homes, imposed censorship and denied right to life during imposition of emergency. As Granville Austin, the famous constitutional expert observed “repression was piled upon repression” and “light seemed to have gone out of our Constitution.”
The suggestion for a Presidential form of government on the lines of USA hinge on four factors. Firstly, it enables the President to have a cabinet of outstanding competence and integrity without the choice being restricted to the Members of the Parliament. Secondly, since the Cabinet Ministers are not elected, they would not be motivated to adopt cheap populist measures of the types that one witnesses, like the UP Chief Minister Shri Yogi Adityanath waving farmers’ loan or Shri Arvind Kejriwal waving water and electricity charges for the slum dwellers. Thirdly, the Presidential system permits the Cabinet Ministers to be more involved in the job of governing country instead of endless politicking. Finally, it would discourage, defection, and desertion on the part of the legislature, who in most of the cases are motivated by thirst for power or hunger for money.
In recent time Shri Shashi Tharoor has strongly advocated for a Presidential form of government where “leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power” through hook or by crook. When the former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee suggested the US presidential system as a model to Indian leaders, they rejected it with great panache. Atlee recalls “I had the feeling they thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter.”
After nearly 25 years of economic liberalization, there is an all pervading feeling that the delivery mechanism in Parliamentary form is weak and inept. Nearly 162 million children (45%) remain under nourished and 277 million do not earn a minimum living wage of $1 in India. Besides many major decisions are often held hostage to political bickering sans economic logic. A case in point is GST, which could be passed after 11 years, after it was introduced in 2006. The Land Acquisition Act is another major hold up; because of which we are not able to create manufacturing zones and ramp up our industrial sector and infrastructure rapidly. Uniform Civil Code is caught in the quagmire of politics for minority appeasement, with Muslim women denied the rights of inheritance at par with their Hindu counterparts.
It is apprehended that an amendment to the Constitution for a Presidential form could attract the basic structure doctrine which was enunciated by the Supreme Court in the Kesavananda Bharati case (1973). A close look at the judgement reveals that the judges are more concerned with protecting our secular character, defend the federal nature of our polity, ensure separation of powers and uphold independence of judiciary, as they are the quintessence of a Democratic Republic. Chief Justice S.K.Sikri, while delivering the judgement in the Kesavananda Bharati case had underscored that ‘supremacy of the Constitution’ is a basic structure. There is no permanence of the Constitution, as it has to evolve over time. As Thomas Jefferson had observed “no one generation can bind another. The creator has to make the earth for the living and not the dead.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the USA President, had embarked upon the New Deal Programme (1935-36) for USA to come out of the gloom of economic depression of the 1930s. It created the syntax for social security, jobs for the unemployed, living wage for the poor and firm imprints of a welfare state. Lyndon.B.Johnson’s Great Society Programme (1964-65) eliminated racial injustice and poverty. It is time, we cogitate and dismantle the Nehruvian legacy of Parliamentary democracy and put a premium of merit over mediocrity, pragmatism over procedure and accountability over populism. A wit had observed, if Nehru would have been the President and Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the Prime Minister, the history of Parliamentary democracy would have been different. However, it is better for a country to have sound institution rather being personality centric!
[Author Professor Misra is a PhD in Applied Economics and a member of the Indian Economic Service. He has served in India’s Ministry of Finance, IMF/ World Bank, Indian Defence Accounts Service (where he worked with Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam as his Director of Finance). Dr. Misra was also Additional Financial Advisor and Joint Secretary to the Indian Army and Air Force.]
This article was first published on Pragativadi on 18/04/2017