The presidential system provides more effective checks on the executive authority than the parliamentary form of democracy does, writes Ravi Shanker Kapoor.

[Excerpts of article first published in The Sunday Guardian.]

Presidential form would strengthen our democracy

[by Ravi Shanker Kapoor]

Those favouring the presidential form of government in India are, we are told, either authoritarian leaders or their faithful followers. Over the years, this has proved to be one of those issues that get trivialised or are made light of because of ad hominem argumentation: Indira Gandhi favoured it because she was dictatorial; Vasant Sathe championed the cause because he wanted to please his boss Indira; Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes it because he wants to centralise all powers in his office.

Unsurprisingly, noisy discordance buries the truth which is: the presidential form of government is most suitable for India; it surely is much better than the Westminster model that the founding fathers of our republic adopted.

First and foremost, as I mentioned in an article last week (Phoney debate on presidential form), the presidential form is predicated upon the separation, and not the concentration, of powers. This can act as a curb on unilateralism that our political masters quite frequently resort to. They have remarkable skills to do harm, but the same cannot be said about their propensity and capacity to do any good. Against this backdrop, the presidential form of government is best suited, for it entails checks and balances.

At present, the executive or the government is part of and responsible to the legislature or Parliament; in practical terms, it means that both are dominated by the same party or coalition. Therefore, there is little chance of Parliament making the government feel that it is responsible to the former. Come to think of it, can the Lok Sabha, dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, take a stand against the Modi government? The answer is a big “no”. Nor could it when Rajiv Gandhi had over 400 members in the Lok Sabha or when his mother had a comfortable majority. When the government is comfortable with numbers, Parliament becomes a rubber stamp.

On the other hand, when the numbers are lacking and hung house becomes the norm, as was the case for decades after 1989, unnatural alliances come into being and unsavoury deals are made by party bosses. In short, parliamentary democracy oscillates between authoritarianism and ochlocracy.

This brings us to the second point: the presidential form of government provides stability. Since the executive is separate from the legislature and the chief executive, the President, is directly elected by the people, his or her party’s minority in the legislature doesn’t affect the stability of the government. In the case of acute differences between the two branches, the executive and the legislature, there could be stalemates, as they happen in America, but there is no instability.

Third, the presidential form of government provides the people an opportunity to elect their own leader; the present system doesn’t. When India voted in 1996, who on earth would have thought that H.D. Deve Gowda—and one year later, I.K. Gujral—would end up occupying the top office? In fact, even Deve Gowda and Gujral themselves would never have dreamed of such good fortune. Nor did anybody vote for Manmohan Singh in 2004.

Fourth, the presidential form of government affords complete autonomy to the chief executive to choose his or her own team as they wish. The President is not constrained by the compulsions of coalition politics or the inner dynamics of the ruling party. …

Evidently, this system provides more effective checks on the executive authority than the parliamentary form of democracy does.

And, finally, all governments are presidential anyway. Every age and legacy is named after the chief executive: Nehruvian socialism, Nehruvian Consensus, Reaganomics, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Modi’s India. Even Great Britain, the paradigm of parliamentary democracy, had the Thatcherite era. And, by the way, the only lawmaker after whom an era is named was an American—Joseph McCarthy (1908-57), the senator whose name occasioned the term McCarthyism and who led an anti-communist crusade in America in the early 1950s.

Therefore, Indian democracy would be strengthened rather than weakened by the presidential form of government.


This article was published in The Sunday Guardian on 9 June 2019.