The truth is that an Indian PM has much wider powers than a U.S. President…
[by Bhanu Dhamija]
Narendra Modi and Donald Trump have both been accused of autocratic behavior. Since their coming to office—five years and two years ago, respectively—each has attempted sufficient unilateral actions to justify the charge.
But which chief executive has actually succeeded in being domineering? It is ironic that Trump, who is presumed to be running a one-man show, has lost this contest. Modi is more successful at being an autocrat.
Major Setbacks for Trump
Let’s begin with Trump’s record. He attempted his first arbitrary action in his first week in office, when he barred the entry of people from seven predominantly Muslim nations. But within 24 hours, that executive order was blocked by a judge in New York State. His own attorney general refused to defend the ban. Trump was forced to drop the policy, with its implicit religious discrimination, revise it three times, and still wait for final approval from the Supreme Court.
The same occurred with his campaign promise of acting against sanctuary cities. His order to deny funds to cities refusing cooperation with his anti-immigration policies was challenged by two California counties. Trump was told he couldn’t set new conditions on spending approved by the Congress. The matter is still in the courts.
Another major setback for Trump came from his national security apparatus. His national security adviser, the only high-level appointment he could make without the Senate’s approval, was forced to resign. Michael Flynn was accused of discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. His ouster was initiated by Trump’s own Justice Department.
Flynn’s Russian affair became an albatross around Trump’s neck. Trump’s own intelligence agency, the FBI, launched an investigation. When he fired FBI Director James Comey, his Justice Department hired a special prosecutor to investigate the matter even more deeply. Special Counsel Mueller has already indicted more than 30 Trump people. If Mueller’s final report proves Trump colluded with Russians, or obstructed justice, he will likely be impeached.
Trump’s Unilateral Actions Limited to Foreign Affairs
Trump’s imperiousness was stopped on the legislative front as well. The US Congress has approved two annual budgets since his coming to office, but has denied Trump’s funding for the border wall he promised during the campaign. Similarly, his campaign pledge of repealing ‘Obamacare’ was denied by the Senate – by just one vote –from his own party’s Senator John McCain. This was the case when Trump’s Republican Party was in control of both houses in the Congress. Now that the House has switched to democratic control, Trump’s unilateralism has no chance of further success.
This is not to say that Trump has had no successes in two years. He has been able to fulfill two major campaign promises: slashing of corporate taxes, and appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices. But both are longstanding Republican Party platforms. Where Trump and his party found common ground, he was able to deliver.
The only unilateral actions Trump has been able to undertake are in foreign affairs. He has raised tariffs on Chinese imports, and withdrawn from the Iran deal and the Paris Climate Accord. He has raised a ruckus with NATO about not paying enough for common defenses. But these were not capricious actions suddenly taken. He campaigned and won on these issues, and they are well within his constitutional rights.
Modi’s ‘Ordinance Raj’
An Indian prime minister faces no such restrictions. A PM cannot be stopped from fulfilling a campaign promise by a constitutional challenge in a lower court. His own law minister cannot compel him to fire his national security adviser. Similarly, an Indian PM’s party cannot deny him funding for a pet project or major piece of legislation promised in the campaign.
The truth is that an Indian PM has much wider powers than a US President.
Modi began his administration, not unlike Trump, by issuing ordinances bypassing the parliament. But none of these decrees had to be withdrawn due to a court challenge. In its first year, the Modi government issued 9 ordinances, earning the nickname ‘Ordinance Raj’. It’s on par to exceed the UPA’s 61 ordinances issued during its ten years in office. The numbers were even worse in the times of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Modi’s decrees include a ban on triple talaq, authority to acquire farm land, and an increase in foreign investment in insurance companies. The land acquisition order was purposely allowed to lapse due to farmers’ outrage.
But the biggest example of rule by diktat is Modi’s demonetisation. It was imposed—not even by an ordinance which would require the President’s nod—but by a mere notification of his own Ministry of Finance. This removed a government action causing havoc with the country’s economy from any challenge whatsoever. In the US, Modi wouldn’t be able to instruct the central bank to ban the country’s currency with a notification or an ordinance. He would need Congress to pass a new law.
Why Modi Is ‘Allowed’ To Be a ‘One Man Show’
Modi has also had a field day with the country’s institutions. The recent tug-of-war with the RBI, as well as the spat within the CBI, are outcomes of these institutions being under the PM’s sole control. In the US, neither Modi nor his ministers would have been able to order around the country’s central bank, or appoint top officials of intelligence agencies, without the Congress’s approval.
Modi has been able to have his own way on the legislative front as well. The passage of his boldest reform, the GST bill, presents the best evidence. It turned out to be a horribly flawed law. The government had to make 376 changes in its first ten months of operation. But no one could stop its passage in parliament, or even force amendments, because the BJP had a guaranteed majority in the Lok Sabha. A BJP member couldn’t stand against the bill due to anti-defection laws, and the Opposition in Rajya Sabha was resigned to the bill’s ultimate passage in a joint session.
This comparison between Trump and Modi shows that while a US President is immediately stopped from running amok, an Indian PM can continue to act arbitrarily throughout his term.
This is due to a basic difference between the two systems of government. The US presidential system divides powers among many, while the Indian parliamentary model fuses all executive and legislative powers in one official, the PM.
[Bhanu Dhamija is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal Group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’.]
This article was first published on The Quint on 20 December 2018.