In June 2019, HarperCollins (India) released the second edition of Why India Needs the Presidential System, a book authored by Bhanu Dhamija. This top seller tells the dramatic story of how India’s current system of government evolved, and how it is at the root of many of her problems today. This book is not just an exposé of what is wrong, but a serious effort at offering a permanent solution. Here are excerpts from the second edition’s foreword to Why India Needs the Presidential System…
Foreword to the Second Edition
“India’s system has become so rotten that sooner or later we are going to have to do something to change it,” Kuldip Nayar, the 91-year-old doyen of India’s political commentators said to me in 2013. He had just penned a column suggesting that India consider switching to the presidential form of government. I was in the throes of finishing the first edition of this book, and even though I had been working on the topic for five years, I wasn’t very hopeful. I doubted whether India would ever end its love affair with the British parliamentary system. And like most of my countrymen, I was sure that our well entrenched politicians who had mastered the art of gaming our system wouldn’t allow any talk of an alternative. Meeting Nayar gave me timely encouragement.
Today I am happy to report that switching to the presidential form of government is not such a farfetched proposition. The idea has found good support among our people. The publication of this book received unprecedented media coverage. It sparked a nationwide debate in social media and other forums. The ripples reached even India’s Parliament.
In 2016, MP Shashi Tharoor introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to reform India’s city governments along the lines of the presidential system. It proposed giving our sprawling municipalities directly elected Mayors and independent City Councils, as in the United States. Like countless other private member bills introduced by members of the opposition, however, Tharoor’s bill was never brought to vote by the ruling majority party.
No ruling party of any hue would be keen to consider the presidential system. For no Prime Minister would want to give up the carte blanche that the existing parliamentary system offers when he or she is in power. Our British-type setup allows such centralization of authority, that most Prime Ministers become giddy with power. Self- aggrandizement becomes their main aim and their government begins to fail. In such a situation, giving up controls and dividing powers among the many institutions of governance—which is the main tenet of the presidential system—becomes nearly impossible.
Narendra Modi has also fallen prey to this proclivity for over-centralization. Many popular leaders before him, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, faltered because our system allowed them to run amok with power. These leaders begin to think that they alone have all the answers. Instead of decentralizing power and ruling by consensus they start to bypass or abolish institutions that get in their way. Sycophants gather around them to applaud every move, and the system becomes more and more centralized.
Modi was barely seven months in office when this book was first published but it was easy to predict that he wouldn’t be interested in moving India toward the presidential system. He had already started his rule by diktat, issuing Ordinances bypassing Parliament. I wrote that if Modi governed under presidential principles—separation of legislative and executive powers, genuine federalism, strong institutions, etc.—his own performance would be much better. Reviewing my book, a leading media site ran the headline, “A Presidential form of government would benefit Modi, but he doesn’t want it.”…
The presidential system would have saved Modi from two of his most fateful blunders: Demonetization and GST. That system wouldn’t allow him to instruct the RBI to cancel or issue new currency, for these would require new laws. Similarly, Modi wouldn’t be able to pass his GST bill without some support from the opposition parties, which could have helped fix his horribly flawed law. Under the U.S. system, legislative control would be divided between the BJP and Congress parties (the latter of which argued in favor of lower and fewer GST rates as well as less stringent implementation of the law).
The truth is that it is the Indian system, not the U.S., which functions as a one-man show. A comparison between Donald Trump and Modi confirms this fact most vividly. Both leaders have tried enough unilateral steps to warrant the accusations of being autocrats. But Modi actually succeeded, while Trump’s imperiousness was always denied. Trump’s executive orders, such as the travel ban or refusal of funds to sanctuary cities, were blocked by the courts. His chief legislative proposal, the repeal of Obamacare, failed to pass by one vote, and that of his own party’s Senator John McCain. His main campaign promise of building a border wall has been denied funding more than twice. Trump was forced to fire his national security adviser over his Russian dealings due to an investigation launched by his own FBI. When Trump fired the FBI Director, his own Justice Department appointed a special prosecutor to probe the matter even more deeply. If Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation proves any wrongdoing, Trump will likely be impeached.
I highlighted these facts about Trump when I spoke for the motion “India Needs a Presidential System” at Mumbai Litfest in November 2018, to counter the common misconception that the U.S. system is authoritarian. Trump’s story, in fact, shows two key strengths of that system: that a nonpolitician can rise to the highest office, and that if he overreaches he is stopped. To my pleasant surprise, at the end of the debate most people in the audience were inclined to consider the presidential system as a new alternative for India.
Benefits of Presidential System
The presidential system’s biggest benefit to today’s India is that it cannot be controlled by a single person. In its 230-year history, no U.S. President has ever been able to act autocratically. By contrast, in only 70 years of our history we can point to at least two Prime Ministers who have been terribly dictatorial.
But the presidential system offers many other far reaching benefits. It is the best protection against corruption, because powers in that system are divided among institutions that are independent. It restricts our governments from doling out taxpayer monies, for every new government program requires the legislature’s approval. The presidential system also helps eliminate vote bank politics, because candidates aren’t chosen by party bosses on the basis of caste or religion, but through a series of primary elections. This system also provides an efficient and transparent judiciary, because states manage their own judiciaries and judges are appointed jointly by the executive (President/Governor) and the legislature through a public process.
For a diverse society like India, the presidential system would be a godsend. The last thing we need for such a diverse populace is a system based on majority-rule, but that’s precisely what India’s current system offers. Instead India needs a system that allows both local autonomy—for a fuller expression of language and culture—and a strong Center. The presidential system was devised with exactly these goals in mind. America has a more diverse society than even India, with people from 15 races and all religions on the planet, who speak 350 different languages.
The presidential system also offers better local governance, for its decentralized structure encourages people’s participation. This system would reduce India’s dependence on so-called strong leaders, because it relies on strong institutions. It offers better overall governance, because ministers can be area experts not just MPs or MLAs. This feature alone would go a long way in turning India’s bureaucracy into a meritocracy. The presidential system also offers more stable governments, which would reduce our constant politicking and horse-trading. It would help control India’s political parties and eliminate dynasties, because parties would be locally regulated and candidates would be chosen via primaries. India would create better laws, because executive and legislative powers would be divided and thus each would have more say.
And above all, the presidential system would produce better leaders because candidates would be chosen directly by the people, not by party bosses behind closed doors.
Basic Structure and Other Objections
Some Indians think the presidential system cannot be adopted because our Constitution’s basic structure doctrine prohibits it. The truth is just the opposite. Chief Justice Sikri, who first pronounced that doctrine in the Kesavananda ruling in 1973, listed “separation of powers,” not “parliamentary system,” as a basic feature. And there is no doubt that the presidential system offers more strict separation of powers than our current system.
Some also raise doubts about the suitability of the Indian people; that they are not sufficiently honest, wise, or literate for the presidential system. Again, nothing could be farther from the truth. High literacy, honesty, and political savvy are not requirements of the U.S. system, they are its outcomes. The evidence shows that the Indian people elected Modi in 2014 in a presidential-type election. And they routinely elect state governments for local accountability, just as people do in the United States.
Similarly, some think that the two-party system is a requirement for the presidential system, while in fact it is that system’s result. America’s two major parties, Democratic and Republican, emerged because of their nationwide direct elections for President. These elections compel fringe movements, and small and regional outfits to coalesce behind the two mainstream parties.
The Indians also have a fear that we must not replace a system adopted by our wise founding fathers, including titans such as Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar. The truth is Nehru was asked to reconsider his choice of the parliamentary system by almost every luminary engaged in the making of our Constitution. And Ambedkar was never in favor of the parliamentary system to begin with. He had proposed a “United States of India” to our Constituent Assembly, utilizing some presidential-type features.
Ambedkar’s famous argument that the presidential system offers stable but less responsible governments came only after the decision to adopt the parliamentary system was already taken by Nehru and the Congress party. Ambedkar’s after the fact rationalization was immediately denied as untrue even inside the Assembly. Ever since, the actual functioning of our system has provided the incontrovertible proof that Parliament in fact doesn’t hold our governments accountable. Instead, it’s the government that controls Parliament.
Some Indians are also afraid of the presidential system’s genuine federalism. They worry that allowing states to have their own constitution would feed separatist tendencies and harm India’s integrity. They immediately point to Kashmir, suggesting that any further autonomy would advance its cause of separatism. But self-rule is not self-determination. The presidential system allows states autonomy for only domestic matters, not defense, external affairs, currency, or foreign trade. State constitutions can in fact be used to assert India’s unity and integrity, and as a pledge to our national symbols and the Constitution, just as they are in the United States. In fact, this would abolish any talk of secession, from Kashmir or any other area, forever.
Of course, no political system is perfect, and it’s the people at the helm who make it good or bad. But it’s the system that helps build people’s character. A participatory and fair system makes for caring and honest people, and a corrupt system makes people corrupt. Also, it is not possible to have good people at the top of affairs, if the system doesn’t produce good leaders.
Lastly, there is the Swadeshi argument, that we Indians must not copy anything foreign and instead utilize our age old wisdom and create our own Constitution. The BJP chief ideologue Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in fact suggested tenets for such a Dharma Rajya. He spoke of principles of dharma (innate law), humanism, and community instead of individualism. However, constitutions are about balancing powers, not guiding people’s spiritual growth. How to codify dharma, and whose dharma, and whether each individual would have a vote, or each community—these are some practical matters Upadhyaya’s approach doesn’t answer.
Indians are a great people with a noble past, but greatness has to be earned every single day. Talking about India’s glorious past, of being a Vishwa Guru (World Teacher) etc., may be a good political tactic, but it’s no strategy for future governance.
We all know in our hearts that building a great nation requires a better system of government than we currently have. I have endeavored to provide a fresh and clear-eyed look at the presidential system as that alternative.
Why India Needs the Presidential System
‘Well written, solidly researched and cogently argued’
–Shashi Tharoor, Member of India’s Parliament, former Under Secretary General of UN, author of 15 books
‘Excellent work… well-researched’
–Subhash Kashyap, Former Secretary General of Lok Sabha, India’s Distinguished Constitutional Scholar, Member of National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution, author of more than 100 books
‘Seldom, if ever, has the case for such a systemic change been more cogently and persuasively made… Very thought-provoking’
–Jug Suraiya, Times of India