Changing to a Presidential System is the Best Way of Ensuring a Democracy that Works

It has never been clearer. The disrepute into which the political process has fallen in India, and the cynicism about the motives of politicians, can be traced to the workings of the parliamentary system.

[by Shashi Tharoor]

The disgraceful political shenanigans the nation has witnessed, most recently in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and the horse-trading of MLAs to switch allegiances for power and pelf, are not merely an occasion for breast-beating about morality in politics or the opportunism of the cash-rich ruling party. We never seem to look beyond the headlines to the basic problem: The system that makes this shameful conduct possible. The parliamentary system we borrowed from the British has not worked in Indian conditions. It is time to demand a change.

The facts are clear: Our parliamentary system has created a unique breed of legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only in order to wield executive power. It has produced governments dependent on a fickle legislative majority, who are therefore obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has distorted the voting preferences of an electorate that knows which individuals it wants to vote for but not necessarily which parties. It has spawned parties that are shifting alliances of selfish individual interests, not vehicles of coherent sets of ideas. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office, and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions. The parliamentary system has failed us.

Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of our major weaknesses. To suggest this is political sacrilege in India. Barely any of the many politicians I have discussed this with are even willing to contemplate a change. The main reason for this is that they know how to work the present system and do not wish to alter the ways they are used to.

Yet the parliamentary system devised in Britain — a small island nation with electorates of less than a lakh voters per constituency — is based on traditions which simply do not exist in India. These involve clearly defined political parties, each with a coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish it from the next, whereas in India a party is all-too-often a label of convenience which a politician adopts and discards as frequently as a Bollywood film star changes costume. Hopping from one to the next — which would send shock waves through the political system in other parliamentary democracies — is commonplace, even banal, in our country.

In the absence of a real party system, the voter chooses not between parties but between individuals, usually on the basis of their caste, their public image or other personal qualities. But since the individual is elected in order to be part of a majority that will form the government, party affiliations matter. So voters are told that if they want a Narendra Modi as prime minister, or a Mamata Banerjee or Jagan Reddy as their chief minister, they must vote for someone else as MP or MLA in order to indirectly accomplish that result. It is a perversity only the British could have devised — to vote for a legislature not to legislate but in order to form the executive.

The fact that the principal reason for entering Parliament is to attain governmental office creates four specific problems. First, it limits executive posts to those who are electable rather than to those who are able. The prime minister cannot appoint a cabinet of his choice; he has to cater to the wishes of the political leaders of several parties. (Yes, he can bring some members in through the Rajya Sabha, but our upper house too has been largely the preserve of full-time politicians, so the talent pool has not been significantly widened.)

Second, it puts a premium on defections and horse-trading. The anti-defection Act of 1985 has failed to cure the problem, since the bargaining has shifted to getting enough MLAs to resign to topple a government, while promising them offices when they win the subsequent by-elections.

Third, legislation suffers. Most laws are drafted by the executive — in practice by the bureaucracy — and parliamentary input into their formulation and passage is minimal, with very many bills being passed after barely a few minutes of debate. The ruling party inevitably issues a whip to its members in order to ensure unimpeded passage of a bill, and since defiance of a whip itself attracts disqualification, MPs blindly vote as their party directs. The parliamentary system does not permit the existence of a legislature distinct from the executive, applying its collective mind freely to the nation’s laws. Accountability of the government to the people, through their elected representatives, is weakened.

Fourth, for those parties who do not get into government and who realise that the outcome of most votes is a foregone conclusion, Parliament or Assembly serves not as a solemn deliberative body, but as a theatre for the demonstration of their power to disrupt. The well of the house — supposed to be sacrosanct — becomes a stage for the members of the opposition to crowd and jostle, waving placards and chanting slogans until the Speaker, after several futile attempts to restore order, adjourns in despair. In India’s Parliament, many opposition members feel that the best way to show the strength of their feelings is to disrupt law-making rather than debate the law.

Apologists for the present system say in its defence that it has served to keep the country together and given every Indian a stake in the nation’s political destiny. But that is what democracy has done, not the parliamentary system. What our present system has not done as well as other democratic systems might, is to ensure effective performance. India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit decisive action, whereas ours increasingly promotes drift and indecision. We must have a system of democracy whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power.

The disrepute into which the political process has fallen in India, and the widespread cynicism about the motives of our politicians, can be traced directly to the workings of the parliamentary system. Holding the executive hostage to the agendas of a motley bunch of legislators is nothing but a recipe for governmental instability. And instability is precisely what India, with its critical economic and social challenges, cannot afford.

The case for a presidential system has, in my view, never been clearer. A directly elected chief executive in New Delhi and in each state, instead of being vulnerable to the shifting sands of coalition support politics, would have stability of tenure free from legislative whim, be able to appoint a cabinet of talents, and above all, be able to devote his or her energies to governance, and not just to government. The Indian voter will be able to vote directly for the individual he or she wants to be ruled by, and the president will truly be able to claim to speak for a majority of Indians rather than a majority of MPs. At the end of a fixed period of time, the public would be able to judge the individual on performance in improving the lives of Indians, rather than on political skill at keeping a government in office.

The same logic would apply to the directly elected heads of our towns and cities — as I have proposed in a Private Member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha — and village panchayats, who today are little more than glorified committee chairmen, with little power and minimal resources. To give effect to meaningful local self-government, we need directly elected local officials, each with real authority and financial resources to deliver results in their own areas.

The only serious objection advanced by liberal democrats is that the presidential system carries with it the risk of dictatorship. They conjure up the image of an imperious president, immune to parliamentary defeat and impervious to public opinion, ruling the country by fiat. In particular they argue that it will pave the way for a Modi dictatorship in India. But a President Modi could scarcely be more autocratic than the prime minister we have seen in office — one who has, thanks to the parliamentary system, a rubber-stamp majority in the Lok Sabha rather than the independent legislature a presidential system would ensure. In addition, the powers of a President Modi would be amply balanced by those of the directly elected chief executives in the states, who would be immune to dismissal by their party leader, or to toppling by defecting MLAs.

Democracy is an end in itself, and we are right to be proud of it. But few Indians are proud of the kind of politics our democracy has inflicted upon us. With the needs and challenges of one-sixth of humanity before our leaders, we must have a democracy that delivers progress to our people. Changing to a presidential system is the best way of ensuring a democracy that works.

This article was first published on Indian Express on 25 July 2020.


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