Does India Need a Presidential Form of Government? The topic was recently explored by Firstpost, one of India’s leading media brands, in its weekly magazine’s Versus column.  The magazine invited Bhanu Dhamija, author of Why India Needs the Presidential System, to present the arguments in favor, which were published under the heading ‘Presidential form of government more transparent, accountable’. The arguments against — Should the president run India? — were presented by Manish Tewari, former MP, Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, and Congress party’s national spokesperson. The following is a response to Tewari’s objections and concerns.

Yes, A President Should Run India

By Bhanu Dhamija, April 21, 2019

Not unlike many Indians, Manish Tewari’s chief objection against the presidential form of government is based on the fallacious argument that it is unsuited to India’s diversity.  He writes, “India is far too heterogeneous. It has a great amount of diversity, with myriad languages, customs, cultures, the way people lead their lives. It is only a parliamentary system that can really blend all this into what is called the Indian mosaic.” It was for this reason, he says, India’s founders didn’t think about a presidential system.  And as proof of this thinking’s correctness, he cites how well the parliamentary system has served India; “It has prospered and has persevered,” he writes.

China has prospered and persevered much better than India, but that doesn’t make its system of government more suitable for our country.  Nor is there any reasonable basis to argue that a system different than our current system wouldn’t have made our country more prosperous and united.  The truth is there are very few Indians, barring diehard nationalists, who are satisfied with our country’s progress since Independence under the current system of government. Almost every global index of human development or prosperity puts India near the very bottom.  Even in the context of diversity, India is marred with social disharmony and communal conflicts.  So it’s fool’s errand to argue in favor of our current system on the basis of progress made.

What would be more useful is to consider how the two systems handle diversity differently and which is more likely to succeed.  Also, look at the facts, how India and the U.S. have fared in cultural expression, social harmony, and unity in their people.

Diversity

The parliamentary system is fundamentally a system of majority-rule, which is the last thing a diverse nation needs. In a Hindu majority country like India majority-rule means the country always has a sectarian government.  When it comes to power on the back of Hindu votes, it appeases Hindus, and when it rides on the back of minority votes, it appeases minorities. Neither situation is healthy for the country.

The second problem with the parliamentary system and diversity is that it is inherently a unitary system.  Which means the central government is always controlling the states, while the states do not have a structural way to influence the Centre. The central governments become increasingly overbearing. This results in inhibition of local autonomy, and thus local cultures.

Thirdly, the parliamentary system is structurally non inclusive. The parties that form the government have all the say, and those in the minority can only bide their time and wait for their turn in power. This allows one section of society to rule over the others.  The resentment in those who are out of power builds to point of taking revenge, destroying social harmony.

Lastly, the parliamentary system does not serve a diverse nation well because it makes governments dependent on numbers in Parliament. The touted parliamentary coalitions are built around politics not issues. This has two baneful affects: more and more parties are formed fragmenting the society; and parties’ ideological leanings become meaningless in their search for power.

For all these reasons Ambedkar said over and over again that India should have a non-parliamentary government.  He even proposed such a plan to India’s Constituent Assembly, which he titled the “United States of India.”As late as 1953, Ambedkar said “we have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy.” [1]

Tewari however contends that India’s founders did not consider the presidential system because they wanted “a strong Center and equally robust states.” In this, Tewari is only half right. After the country’s partition was announced, the founders were overly concerned about centrifugal tendencies and thus wished a strong Center.  KM Panikkar, member of Nehru’s Union Constitution Committee wrote that before Partition a weak Centre was “an unavoidable evil,” but after, “the necessity for a federal constitution has ceased.”[2] If the founders really wanted robust states, they would have seriously considered the presidential system, for federalism is its best known strength.

The presidential form of government was devised for a diverse society. America was a nation of immigrants even at its founding. Many of America’s founders and their ancestors had escaped religious or political persecution in European nations. They understood the importance of religious freedoms and minority rights. As early as 1786, they had passed laws establishing the freedom of conscience and separation of church and state.

The presidential system is not a system of majority-rule.  It does not give all powers—executive and legislative—to the majority party or coalition in the legislature.  It is also a system that invented federalism, where state governments are not just independent of the Centre, they carry a great influence over the central executive (President) and the legislature (Senate).  This makes local governments autonomous, yet subservient to the national Constitution.  That system is also inclusive, because members of any party—in the majority or not—have an equal chance of passing legislation. This allows lawmakers to form coalitions around issues.  And since governments are not made or thrown out on the basis of numbers in the legislature, parties coalesce instead of fragmenting.

Diverse societies require a decentralized system, so people can have full expression of their culture and ethnicity. The presidential system is known for its decentralized structure of local governments. In America, there are about 90,000 local government bodies, from ambulance services to school administrations, all run by local citizens themselves.

America is no less diverse than India. It has people from all religions of the world; Christians are only about 70% of the population. Its society consists of people from 15 different races, who speak some 350 languages. Yet the country is not politically fragmented. There are only a handful of parties; India has more than 900. Also, the U.S. doesn’t suffer from insurgencies or secessionist movements. India has dozens, from Kashmir to Assam to Maoists. As for coalitions, U.S. lawmakers come together on issues. There are hundreds of formal groupings in the U.S. Congress, from American Sikh Congressional Caucus to Congressional Hindu Caucus to Congressional Afghan Caucus.

Tewari rightly suggests that race and identify politics are also prevalent in America. But his own example—“the African-Americans and the Hispanics tend to lean more towards the Democratic Party… white Americans lean towards the Republican Party”—describes the difference from the parliamentary system.  African-Americans and Hispanics have clearly become a part of America’s mainstream politics, without the necessity for creating their own ethnic parties.  Contrast that with India’s Dalits or Muslims or Tamils.

Decision Making

Tewari’s second major area of concerns is about the presidential system’s decision making.  He writes, “the U.S. system allows the president to make own decision, free from influence of the party and legislature.”  This he fears allows for more errors and less delegation of power.

But when it comes to centralization of power, the parliamentary system is the hands down winner. Most Indians fail to understand that a U.S. President is not akin to an Indian Prime Minister. A president has far less powers.  It is an absolutely erroneous view that a president is free from the influence of the legislature. The U.S. Congress can easily clip a president’s wings, as we have seen many times in the case of Trump.

As for errors in decision making, it easy to show that the parliamentary system is by far more prone. One need cite just two examples: Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and Modi’s Demonetization. However, there are structural reasons why the presidential system in general makes better decisions.  A president’s Cabinet is usually not made of MPs who are career politicians, but of area experts. And all executive programs and budgets are subject to approval from the legislature, which, unlike the parliamentary system, is not under the president’s control.

The delegation of powers under the presidential system is more structural than the parliamentary system, but not the delegation of responsibility.  The president remains singly responsible under that system, while his Cabinet is directly accountable to both him and the legislature.

Other Objections

Tewari also thinks because the presidential system has failed in some Latin American countries it is unsuited to India.  Most countries have adopted the presidential system in name only. Usually they make the president more powerful at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary. Tinkering with the balance of powers in that, or any other system, would certainly be troublesome.

Tewari criticizes that the presidential system is prone to government deadlocks. But that is one of its key strengths, not a weakness. It is the benefit of genuine separation of powers. When executive and legislative powers are truly separate, there are bound to be big fights over legislation and budgets. In the end, these battles typically produce better decisions.

Lastly, on the issue of corruption, Tewari argues that “the parliamentary form of government is equally equipped to be transparent and accountable.” In this, he is also flat out wrong.  For corruption is checked when there is true separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The parliamentary form of government fuses powers instead of separating them.

In the end, Tewari admits that “there is a strong case of relooking at some features of the Constitution… but that doesn’t mean that we have to throw out the baby with bathwater.” I however contend that our current Constitution is beyond repair because its faults are structural. The sooner we realize this, the better. For we all know, with every passing day India is declining further in social discord, communal conflict, and economic stagnation.

[1] https://presidentialsystem.org/2017/12/15/our-social-structure-is-totally-incompatible-with-parliamentary-democracy-ambedkar/

[2] On June 4, 1947; Why India Needs the Presidential System by Bhanu Dhamija, Harper Collins, 2015, p.104