[By Bhanu Dhamija]
A grateful nation bows each year on BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary (on 14 April) to pay tribute to his tremendous contributions in the making of our Constitution. His advocacy inside India’s Constituent Assembly for the parliamentary form of government was brilliant, and is still considered legendary.
But in view of how poorly our Parliament has performed, we as a nation might do well to reconsider his arguments, so as to understand what is going wrong now.
The crux of Ambedkar’s argument was delivered in his now famous ‘Stability versus Responsibility’ speech on the floor of the Assembly on 4 November 1948. This was nearly two years into the making of the Constitution, and about a year-and-a half after the Assembly had adopted the Union Constitution Committee’s recommendation for the parliamentary system.
What Tipped the Scales in Favor of Parliamentary Democracy
Ambedkar introduced the Draft Constitution that day, and went on to explain the choice of the parliamentary system, as opposed to an American-style presidential system. “Both systems of government are, of course, democratic,” he said, “and the choice between the two is not very easy.” Ambedkar then provided the fundamental reason for India’s choice: “American and the Swiss systems give more stability but less responsibility. The British system, on the other hand, gives you more responsibility but less stability.”
“The reason for this is obvious,” he noted, “The Congress of the United States cannot dismiss the Executive (President). A parliamentary government must resign the moment it loses the confidence of a majority of the members of Parliament.”
“Under the non-parliamentary system…the assessment of the responsibility of the Executive is periodic. It takes place once in two years. It is done by the electorate. In England… the assessment of responsibility of the executive is both daily and periodic. The daily assessment is done by members of Parliament, through questions, resolutions, no-confidence motions, adjournment motions and debates on addresses. Periodic assessment is done by the electorate at the time of the election which may take place every five years or earlier.”
The clincher in Ambedkar’s argument was the mechanism by which each system took the government to account. Ambedkar concluded that “the daily assessment of responsibility which is not available under the American system, it is felt far more effective than the periodic assessment and far more necessary in a country like India.”
In short, Ambedkar argued for the parliamentary form because it provided more responsible governments. He claimed it did so because parliamentary governments can be dismissed at any time, based on the daily assessment of their performance by Parliament.
Can Leaders Turn Against Their Own?
Therein lay the fundamental flaw in Ambedkar’s argument – that a parliamentary government would behave responsibly for fear of being thrown out… by those who constituted the government in the first place. This is an unworkable proposition.
Such a principle relies on members of a government’s own party to defeat its own government, and elected representatives to dissolve their own house! The same MPs who constituted the majority behind a government are expected to turn against their own leaders in the Cabinet, including the PM. Not only that, but they are expected to throw themselves out of power, by risking another general election!
British constitutional scholars had noted this impracticality of the parliamentary system for years.
In 1915, Sir Sidney Low wrote, “The House of Commons no longer controls the executive. On the contrary, the executive controls the House of Commons. The theory is that the ministers must justify each and all of their acts before the representatives of the nation at every stage; if they fail to do so, those representatives will turn them out of office. But in our modern practice the Cabinet is scarcely ever turned out of office by Parliament whatever it does.”
Similarly, in 1946, Sir Ivor Jennings wrote that “the truth is… a member of the government’s majority does not want to defeat the government.”
The facts confirm that majority governments are almost never booted out of office. In Britain, only minority governments have lost votes of no confidence in more than a century. Since 1900, the three successful votes of no confidence – two in 1924 and one in 1979 – were all against minority governments.
To find an instance when a government originally in the majority lost on a vote, one must go back to 1885. In India, only one government has resigned following a defeat in a no-confidence motion – VP Singh in 1990 – and it, too, was a minority government.
‘Daily Democracy’ Only a Dream?
Ambedkar wasn’t just mistaken about how majority governments are never thrown out, he was also on flimsy ground with his emphasis on some daily assessment of government responsibility. He preferred a daily check by Parliament over a stronger period electoral check by voters, and at the expense of government stability.
These were not good trade-offs, given the impracticalities of the daily assessment. The questions, resolutions, and adjournment motions raised in Parliament are only modes of protest. They do not stop a government from acting on a program, for a parliamentary government is ensured majority support. MPs raise questions or make speeches in Parliament, not as a check on government, but to address their constituencies outside Parliament.
As Dr Shashi Tharoor wrote in 2017, “The notion that the Indian Parliament provides a ‘daily assessment of responsibility’ would be laughable – given the performance of the last Parliament with all its disruptions and adjournments – were the need for such responsibility not so acute.”
Ambedkar was corrected even inside the Constituent Assembly. Hussain Imam pointed out as soon as Ambedkar finished his ‘responsibility versus stability’ speech: “If it is examined, it will be found that the committees of the House of Representative and the Senate in USA exercise far greater control than the control exercised by the House of Commons.”
Finally, whatever little was practical or valuable in Ambedkar’s advocacy for daily assessment by Parliament, was lost when India adopted its anti-defection laws. The 1985 amendment to the Constitution made it illegal for MPs to vote against their party diktat. Now even if an MP from the majority party wishes to vote against his government, he is barred by law. Constitutional expert A.G. Noorani wrote that the anti-defection law “reduces legislators to bondsmen.”
All this has turned India’s Parliament into the new Jantar Mantar – a place for protests but no real debates or decisions.
It is time for India to address the fundamental reasons behind our Parliament’s failures.
[The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’.]
A version of this article was first published on The Quint on 11 April 2019.