Bring presidential system to states, cut MLAs to size and watch corruption shrink

[by Arun Raj]

Is being a successful democracy sufficient? Even after more than 70 years of independence, a vast majority of Indians continue to be poor. We only seek to hide our failure with a pitiable definition of below poverty line, which says that if a person earns more than Rs 17 per day, s/he is not poor. India’s maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate are too high to call us socially developed. And in the list of 189 countries on the human development index, we are ranked 129.

A common denominator for all our woes is corruption. It is an open secret that in most government contracts, percentage cuts are shared as commission by politicians and officials at all levels. Corruption can only be tackled effectively if there is a strong push from the highest level — the political executive.

But stopping corruption by politicians is like catching a tiger’s tail — you can either continue holding the tail or opt to die; killing the tiger is practically not possible. This sin of political and electoral corruption spills downwards to the bureaucrats and other officials.

So, how can we ensure that an honest and efficient person heads the government and is aided by an equally good and technically qualified council of ministers? This may seem like asking for the moon in the current circumstances but it is not impossible.

Choosing experts

A reform measure for India can be a shift to a dual system of governance — retain the parliamentary system at the Centre and adopt the presidential system at the state level. Though there are certain drawbacks to the presidential system, the benefits make it worth a serious consideration.

In a presidential system at the state level, the chief minister will have the leeway to rope in experts from different fields. Currently, people mostly vote for the party and not for the candidate. Thus, there is no real quality check on the candidates who later form the council of ministers. Even when the elected legislator shows talent, political considerations outweigh all other considerations while choosing the council of ministers. Political heavyweights (irrespective of their credentials and criminal antecedents) get the most important portfolios. In the process, governance becomes the casualty and this scenario is getting repeated election after election.

Second, having experts as ministers will also pave the way for a specialist-generalist-specialist (SGS) hierarchical model as against the current generalist-generalist-specialist (GGS) system, in which the minister heading a department is a generalist, the secretary — mostly from the IAS — also a generalist, and the concerned departmental head a specialist. The current GGS model is not delivering because each department requires its own specific domain knowledge and expertise, which a generalist minister does not possess. A specialist minister will be able to provide a broad vision and direction to the department, which will be implemented by the concerned department head, and the generalist IAS officer can then serve as an effective organisational link between the two specialists.

More power to voters

Third, the culture of “cash for vote” has already sounded the death knell for our democratic experiment. Having a presidential system at the state level will drastically reduce cash for votes if not totally eradicate it. Currently, people accept money to vote because there is no direct link between the candidates they are voting for and the quality of governance in the state. The candidate may or may not become a minister. Also, the voter is not sure if the chosen party will get a majority and form the government.

However, in a presidential system, people’s vote will have a direct bearing on their future leader and they will certainly weigh the credentials more than the money offered. Face-to-face debates between the candidates will help the voters understand what to expect from each of them.

Separating legislature from legislator

Fourth, the presidential system will not only improve the quality of the top executives (ministers) but will also improve the quality of the legislators. The election to the state legislature will be delinked with the election of the political executive and the legislator’s role will be limited to legislation. In the process, the MLAs will be cut to size; they will no longer influence key postings and awarding of contracts.

With such limited scope, the frenzy to acquire a ticket to contest assembly elections will reduce, with only those genuinely interested to legislate remaining in the scene. Moreover, once voters understand that they are voting not for any government change but only to elect their representatives in the legislature, they will weigh the credentials of the candidates more than any money that they may have been offered to cast their vote.

Stability to elected govt

Fifth, a presidential system with a fixed term for the chief minister will bring much-needed stability to a government. God knows how many defections, horse-trading and regime change — mostly against the people’s mandate — have taken place since Independence. Even during a national public health emergency brought upon by the coronavirus pandemic, Indian legislators couldn’t resist the temptation in Madhya Pradesh or even probably Rajasthan.

Sixth, in the current system, a CM is unable to bring drastic reforms due to multiple factors, mainly for the fear of losing support of the council of ministers and therefore power. The presidential system, which provides opportunities for even a political fresher to become a chief minister, and also guarantees security of tenure, will certainly motivate any willing person to utilise the opportunity to the maximum. In case the person misuses the security of tenure to act against the interests of the state, the existing provisions under Articles 356 and 365 can be invoked. There are enough safeguards in our Constitution to prevent misuse of authority at the state level.

Term limits, end of dynasties

Seventh, we can have a presidential system in which there is a two-term limit for a chief minister. This will end the sycophancy culture in Indian politics. Many states have seen a person hold the CM post for multiple terms. Karunanidhi served as the CM of Tamil Nadu for five complete terms. Similarly, in many posters that were put up by the AIADMK functionaries, one could see Jayalalithaa being described as the ‘permanent CM of Tamil Nadu’. The same is true of many other states. A presidential system will likely put an end to this culture, where leaders within a political organisation lack the guts to ask for a leadership change. A perception is created that the party, and even the entire state, will be doomed without the person running the show.

The other undesirable feature is the dynastic culture where only the son or the daughter of a leader is seen as the natural successor. For all our boasting of being the world’s largest democracy, there is an absolute lack of intra-party democracy in India. This discourages socially conscious youth from entering politics. If we have a two term-limit for the post of chief minister, it will automatically give rise to second-rung leaders. No leader will be considered indispensable and genuine equity will emerge.

The best of both systems

Finally, the presidential system will also pave the way for holding simultaneous elections to Parliament and state legislatures — at least for most states. With every year being an election year in the current system, the central government is always in a state of election fever, which is not an ideal situation to work in.

We have had debates about the idea of shifting to a presidential system. But we can have the best of both worlds — parliamentary and presidential. Critics may argue that India’s managerial crisis has other roots and the idea won’t work. But the fact that we are not progressing at a reasonable pace suggests that there is a systemic malaise.

The idea of dual polity requires a serious consideration and may be tried on a pilot basis in any one state. We must remember that only if the constituent states are governed effectively and efficiently will India progress as a whole.

[Arun Raj is an IRS officer. Views are personal and not that of the government.]

This article was first published on The Print on 21 August.