[By Bhanu Dhamija]
Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Kumar Jha recently argued that Shashi Tharoor’s suggestion that India adopt the presidential form of government confuses the symptoms for the disease. He says the problem is not that our parliamentary system hasn’t served us well, but that it has been “captured” by a demagogic majority. He believes the system should be reformed, not replaced, and contends that it was a well-considered choice by our founding fathers, which serves India’s diversity well. No doubt Mr. Jha is concerned for the future our nation, as are we all. But his assertions are unsound.
This parliamentary system is actually the ailment from which India suffers.
Our system fuses all executive and legislative powers into one individual, the Prime Minister. And because the PM’s party holds the majority in our dominant house, the Lok Sabha, and our President is subservient to the PMO (under the 42nd Amendment), there is no authority that can stop a PM from doing whatever he or she wishes. This allows the entire system to be captured. We have seen that happen more than once in the 70 years since Independence.
President Less Powerful than Prime Minister
It was precisely this fusing of powers that the modern presidential system was invented to avoid. That system gives the President executive powers only. He cannot make laws, amend the Constitution, declare war, draw funds from the treasury, make treaties with foreign nations, or even appoint his own Cabinet without the Legislature’s approval. The President also has zero control over state governments. Each state’s Governor and Assembly are directly elected by its people. All this makes it impossible for the President himself to overwhelm the presidential system.
Although Jha’s fear of “demagogic populism and ascendance of right-wing conservatism,” is real, the difference in the two system’s handling of it is easy to compare. President Trump has been cut down to size in America, while PM Modi has consolidated more and more power.
Presidential System Better for Diversity
As for diversity, it is a myth that India’s system handles it well. The results of the past 70 years tell a very different story. Our society is deeply divided on communal, ethnic and caste bases; insurrections in Kashmir and elsewhere fester, and more people have died from India’s internal strife than all foreign wars put together.
The reason is the parliamentary system’s fusion of powers in the hands of the majority. This invariably creates sectarian governments that must appease either the majority or the minority. What makes it even worse is India’s federalism-of-convenience, which gives state governments a free hand only when the Centre allows it. Perhaps India is too fearful of its separatist tendencies, but what we fail to consider is how this system suppresses regional expression. And like in a pressure cooker, these tensions build.
In contrast, all elements of the presidential system are devised to enable local expression, because the entire system is rooted in the states. It avoids separatist anger because the national Constitution is so crafted that is ratified by each state. Members of the national Legislature (the House of Representatives and the Senate) also reflect the country’s diversity. And as for the executive power, the President is chosen directly by the people, via an Electoral College, and thus reflects the country’s regional diversity. He or she is the people’s direct choice, not an indirect choice by representatives, who so can easily form ethnic and communal majorities.
Parliamentary System was Not Duly Considered
Lastly, Jha’s contention that the parliamentary system was duly considered in India’s Constituent Assembly is false. The selection of the British-model for independent India was a fait accompli even before the matter was presented to the Assembly. The choice was made years earlier by the Congress party’s Expert Committee, and was sealed in adviser B.N. Rau’s first draft of the Constitution in May 1947. Nehru’s Union Constitution Committee adopted it in June 1947, over the objections of Patel and most other leaders. The Assembly only went through the motions of adopting Nehru’s Union Constitution.
In the July 1947 debate that Jha quotes, K.V. Kamath was in fact making a case for a single-person Executive. He said while it was better to have multitudes in the Legislature, “in the case of the executive… the reverse is the case.” Alexander Hamilton made a similar argument in America’s Constitutional Convention in 1787. “Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man in a much more eminent degree than the proceedings of any greater number,” he said. An executive council “tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility.”
It is time for India to put aside fear and prejudice, and take a fresh look at the demonstrated merits of the Presidential System.
[Dhamija is the Founder and CEO of Divya Himachal media group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’ (Harper, 2015). He can be reached @BhanuDhamija]