It is time that we Indians take a hard, new look at our system of government. A great nation such as ours cannot sustain itself on a system that is weak in principles, and incompatible with our needs.

[By Bhanu Dhamija]

Many of the parliamentary system’s most sacred principles are not adhered to by India’s system of government. This has left us with an ad hoc system, which is dangerously bendable to the will of governments that come and go. It is no wonder that most Indian administrations end up running amok with power.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

Consider the quintessential principle of “parliamentary sovereignty.” The idea that Parliament is supreme and holds government to account, describes the entire basis of parliamentary governments.

If this principle is not effectively applied, governments are not answerable to the people during their entire term in office. This negates the whole purpose of having a Parliament.

Parliaments have been losing control over governments for years. This has been the case not just in India, but even in the mother Parliament in the UK, political scientists continually warned about this usurpation of power by governments. British constitutional scholar Sir Sidney Low wrote in 1904, “The House of Commons no longer controls the Executive. On the contrary, the Executive controls the House. Whatever it does, the Cabinet is scarcely turned out of office by the Parliament.”

Political science professor Douglas Verney cautioned in the 1950s, “The increasing tendency for the government to dominate parliamentary business may be a departure from the parliamentary principle in the opposite direction.”

In India, the anti-defection laws of the 1980s made our situation even worse. These laws literally made Parliament subservient to the government. Now MP’s cannot vote against their party on any matter. What then can hold a government, with a guaranteed majority in Parliament, to account? As ex-MP Arun Shourie wrote in 2007:

Far from the Council of Ministers being accountable to and controlled by Parliament, it is the Council of Ministers precisely because it controls the Parliament.

Non-partisan Head of State

Another essential principle of the parliamentary system is to have a non-partisan head of state, who can overrule the head of the government. In the UK, this requirement is fulfilled by the monarch, which is why the British system is known as a Constitutional Monarchy.

The monarch is protection against a rogue PM becoming dictator, as happened in the 1600’s with Oliver Cromwell. The monarch is also required to counter the system’s inherent instability — a parliamentary government can fall at any time — and be the repository of all powers when there is no government.
But the strongest reason a separate head of state is essential is to safeguard against blatant partisanship. Since a parliamentary government is formed by a party, discrimination and sectarianism are real threats. So the monarch represents the entire people directly, and without bias. “He himself must neither be nor seem to be a partisan,” wrote Sir Ivor Jennings, British constitutional expert.

India has broken every one of these essential principles when it comes to its head of state. Our President cannot overrule the Prime Minister. The 42nd constitutional amendment did quite the opposite by making the President subservient to the PM. India’s President does not represent the people directly, for he is chosen by the legislators. And he is definitely a partisan:

PM Modi recently boasted how the current President, Vice President and Speaker were from “the same ideology and traditions” as his own party, and that this was good for the country.

Representative Government

The parliamentary system was originally devised so that the government belonged to the people instead of the monarch. Hence, was born the principle of representative government; that people’s representatives appoint the PM and a Cabinet, who are reflective of the mix of parties in Parliament.

But this system soon degraded to an oligarchy. The party in the majority appointed its own MP’s as ministers, giving no share of power to those in the minority. And since this majority-only Cabinet had the power to dissolve the Parliament, it became a ruling coterie. This was done in the name of efficiency, so that majority governments could rule uninhibited. But as British constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot pointed out: “Efficiency requires a solid mass of steady votes. These are collected by a deferential attachment to particular men and maintained by fear of those men.”

In India, fear of oligarchs — party bosses, the PM and a coterie of cabinet members —is so great because our system denies all the basics of representative government.  The candidates for people’s representatives are not chosen by the people, but by party bosses. Selection of MPs for the Rajya Sabha is completely under the control of one or two party officials. So are the appointments to parliamentary committees. In Parliament, MPs are rubber stamps for party bosses, due, in part, to anti-defection laws.
As a result, “Party bosses control everything,” in the words of AG Noorani. Former RBI governor and Rajya Sabha MP Bimal Jalan wrote that India should “revoke all amendments which are designed to ‘disempower’ elected members. The working of Indian democracy would become less oligarchic.”

India’s experiment with Federalism

The most brazen break from parliamentary principles however, is India’s experiment with federalism. The design of the parliamentary system is ill-suited for a truly bi-level structure of independent state governments working under a Centre.

The parliamentary system’s fundamental idea is to have a central legislature appoint a government for the entire country. It doesn’t have a way of doing so with a bicameral legislature. The House of Commons and Lords cannot both appoint the same PM, for a candidate can only be an MP in one.

Similarly, the parliamentary system lacks an institution, such as the US Senate, that can give representation to the country’s state governments. It also lacks a way for states to have their own constitutions and judiciaries.
For these and other reasons, Granville Austin, chronicler of India’s Constitution, wrote that while in India, “no one challenged the compatibility of federalism and the parliamentary system… theoreticians outside India had done so.”

It is time that we Indians take a hard, new look at our system of government. A great nation such as ours cannot sustain itself on a system that is weak in principles, and incompatible with our needs.


[The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal Group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija ]

A version of this article was first published on The Quint on 21 March 2018.