[Bhanu Dhamija’s opening remarks in the debate ”Should India Adopt the Presidential System or Stay with the Parliamentary System?’]
Parliamentary System Not Suitable for Our Country
There is a long list of people who have said throughout our history that the parliamentary system is not suitable for our country. Let me start with Mahatma Gandhi. He once said that “if India copies England’s system, it is my firm conviction she will be ruined.” He wrote to the British Secretary of State that “my whole being rebels against the idea that in a system called democratic one man should have the unfettered power.” Today, we can all relate with Gandhi’s objection.
There were many who agreed with Gandhi, and advised against the parliamentary system. They usually had two grounds: it over-centralized powers, and it was unsuitable for India’s diversity.
It might surprise you that even the British said their system was unsuited to Indian conditions. In 1933, a British parliamentary committee reviewed all the factors necessary for the parliamentary system to work, and wrote that “In India, none of these factors can be said to exist today.”
B.R. Ambedkar was also a fierce opponent of the parliamentary system. In a secret meeting in 1939, he told the British Viceroy that “the parliamentary system would not do in India.” Before he was made Chairman of the Drafting Committee, he submitted a proposal to our Constituent Assembly to structure India along the lines of the U.S. presidential system. He even proposed a similar name: “United States of India.” But after he was made chairman, Ambedkar adopted the Congress Party’s and Nehru’s preference for the parliamentary system. And became its leading advocate inside the Assembly.
But as many of you know, he bitterly denounced his work only two years later. In the Rajya Sabha, he said he would be willing to burn the Constitution because it serves no one. When a member asked why he defended it inside the Assembly, he responded, “We advocates defend many things. I was a hack. What I was asked to do, I did much against my will.”
Ambedkar wasn’t alone. The choice of the parliamentary system was decried by most luminaries engaged in the framing of our Constitution. That whole story is in my book, but very briefly—Nehru proposed a typical parliamentary system, but Patel wanted the chief executive to be directly elected. Rajendra Prasad called a joint meeting to resolve this discrepancy. In this meeting in June 1947, 36 of the most eminent men involved—Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, KM Munish, Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, Gobind Vallabh Pant, Syama Prasad Mookerjee—all voted down the idea of a figurehead President and asked Nehru to reconsider. But this never happened.
Patel’s proposal that the Governor’s be directly elected was approved by the Assembly. But it was later reversed. It was the only major reversal inside our Constituent Assembly. Objections to the parliamentary system have continued to this day. Many experienced leaders have said that we should consider switching to the presidential system. Listen to some of their names: Atalbihari Vajpayee, Inder Kumar Gujral, JRD Tata, President Venkataraman, Justices Venkatachalliah and Bhagwati, Union Ministers LK Advani, Arun Shourie, Shashi Tharoor, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Chief Ministers Babubhai Patel, Shanta Kumar, Ramkrishan Hegde, Supreme Court advocate Nani Palkhivala, Commentators Khushwant Singh, Kuldip Nayar. And most recent to come out of the closet: Shivraj Patil.
Parliamentary System’s Fundamental Flaws and How the Presidential System Avoids Them
So what troubles these experienced leaders about the present system? Let me highlight five of its most fundamental flaws, and show how the presidential system removes them.
- The first parliamentary flaw is its notion of Majority Rule. This principle allows the winner of an election to completely ignore the losers, by not giving them any share in the executive power or lawmaking. Since parties usually come to power with a minority of votes—the BJP received only 38% in 2019—our Constitution denies most people any say in governance for a long stretch of five years. What’s worse is that in a Hindu majority nation, the principle of majority rule creates sectarian governments. They appease either the majority or the minority in order to gain power.
The presidential system alleviates the problem of Majority Rule in many ways. First, it makes it harder for majorities to form, by enlarging the election constituencies. The local officials are elected locally, but national officials, such as Senators and the President, are chosen in statewide and nationwide elections. It is difficult to win such large elections on communal or caste basis. Second, the presidential system divides powers extensively, so interested majorities can do little harm. Powers of city, state, and national governments are strictly divided, unlike India’s concept of “concurrent” powers. And lastly, that system avoids majority rule by giving minorities more say through its checks and balances. For example, the Senate’s filibuster rule allows only 40% to deny a piece of legislation.
What all this means is that even if a demagogue comes to power in that system, he cannot turn the whole nation into a majoritarian frenzy, because his role and powers would be limited.
- The parliamentary system’s second fundamental flaw is its fusion of executive and legislative powers. Walter Bagehot, British constitutional scholar wrote that this fusion is “the precise principle” of that system. But this is disastrous for a system of government. It eliminates any check on the executive or the legislative. When the survival of one depends on the other, who is going to check whom? They become cohorts in corruption. But that’s not all. The combining of executive and legislative powers makes for bad laws. Because when the executive is guaranteed a majority in Parliament, who is going bother debating legislative proposals? This is why India’s Parliament has become what Shashi Tharoor has called, a “Notice Board.”
The presidential system separates powers by appointing each branch separately, through direct elections. Since the survival of the President doesn’t depend on Congress and vice versa, they are not fearful to check each other. Appointing them separately also allows them to be controlled by different parties. This notion of “divided government” exists only in the US system. It forces each party and each branch to fight for public approval. As American Founding Father James Madison said, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” This is why the US system is so rancorous. It is democracy at work.
- The parliamentary system’s third fundamental flaw is its so-called strong Centre. It is inherently a unitary system. In India, it has created what I call a “federalism of convenience.” The states have rights and freedoms only so long as they’re sanctioned by the Centre. But this is devastating for a diverse society. It suffocates local expression of languages and cultures. We are so fearful of local people controlling their own affairs that we have made a mockery of democracy.
The presidential system is rooted in local governments, so that citizens can engage in self-governance. Let me give you an example, a town’s Mayor and Council are directly elected, so if the population is predominantly Korean, the town can have a Korean-American mayor, have Korean language taught in schools, or posted on street signs. So long as this doesn’t break any state or national laws. Every state has ratified the US Constitution, so there is no fear of secession, nor is there any provision.
- The fourth major flaw of the parliamentary system is its handling political parties and elections. Our Constitution gives power to parties but does nothing to regulate them. The only regulations came with the anti-defection laws, which made the centralization of power even worse. Now the party bosses have carte blanche, and MPs and MLAs have become “bondsmen,” in the words of AG Noorani. The party bosses choose candidates who are loyal to them personally, and they make secret deals to form or break governments.
The presidential system deals with parties and elections entirely differently. Since its elections are conducted by the states themselves, the parties become decentralized, allowing local leaders to control their own affairs. But the national presidential election, pushes regional parties to join the two mainstream national parties. This delivers both local control and national unity. Also, in that system, the candidates are chosen in open primaries, not by party bosses. This not only restricts a party-state nexus, but avoids political dynasties.
- The last fundamental flaw of our parliamentary system I have time to discuss today is its unaccountable judiciary. We have a court system that is entirely aloof from the elective branches. It has no accountability to the people. The judges are appointing themselves and routinely overreaching with impunity. This lack of public accountability has caused delays in delivering justice and corruption. Our vast number of pending cases makes us one of the worst performing judiciaries in the world.
The presidential system remedies this problem in three ways. Its judiciary is decentralized, as the states run their own. This provides efficiency and local accountability. Second, the US Congress is authorized to create additional courts as necessary. This makes people’s representatives accountable for the system of justice. And lastly, under that system judges are appointed jointly by the President and the Senate, giving people a say. The process is politicized, but in a democracy there is no alternative—the people must have a say.
All these differences give the presidential system one overarching benefit: it offers the best protection against one-man rule. There is a myth that the presidential system is authoritarian. The situation is just the opposite. It is our present system which creates the autocrats.
I am a proponent only of the US system, and not its variations like France, since they alter the balance of power.
I am an advocate of the US system, not an apologist for all US decisions, including that of Trump.
I believe firmly that there is nothing lacking in the Indian people. It’s our Constitution that is at fault.
[The Full debate]