[Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s Keynote Address in the debate ”Should India Adopt the Presidential System or Stay with the Parliamentary System?’]
In order to keep this debate going, the point I really wanted to latch onto was your interesting analogy that anyone buying a house would need to look at several other houses of the same type, and that’s not encouraging for advocates of the presidential system.
But if I can continue with your metaphor, those of us who are already living in a house that we’ve already bought, and can see the problems with the structure of that house, can be forgiven for looking for a totally different type of house. And that’s really where I come from; I suspect that maybe true for Bhanu as well but I’ll let him speak for himself.
In my case it’s really a question of relating the parliamentary system as we know it, and the way in which it has operated for 72 years, rather than any theoretical model of the parliamentary system. Because in fact the disgraceful political shenanigans that the nation has been witnessing for some time, and most recently we’ve seen it in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan—horse trading of MLAs to switch allegiances for power and pelf. I mean these are usual occasions for breast-beating about morality in politics, maybe there’ll be comments about the opportunism of the cash rich ruling party. But by behaving in this way we know our politicians are violating every cannon of legislative propriety. And yet we never seem to look beyond their behavior to the reason why that behavior is enabled, which is the system that makes it possible.
So my argument has always been premised on the assumption that the parliamentary system we borrowed from the British has not worked in the Indian conditions. And that’s where I agree with Bhanu Dhamija about the U.S. presidential model because it seems to me to incorporate not just all the safeguards that he’s talked about, that I believe would be very necessary in our system in our country, but it actually also seems to require political behavior that is much more in conformity with the demonstrated political behavior of the average Indian voter and the average member of the Indian public.
Now let me take one step back, since I’ve been asked to speak for 15 minutes and look at the larger arguments against, to summarize my own thinking on this which as you said rightly I have published in various places. The concern remains that our parliamentary system has created legislators who are largely unqualified to legislate, who seek election only in order to wield or influence executive power. And as a result we have governments dependent on a fickle legislative majority and spend much of their time and energy focused on politics and politics of their own survival rather than on policy or performance. And at the same time it does so in a country where the voters have repeatedly demonstrated that they like to vote for individuals rather than parties. They don’t really follow the political agendas of parties and manifestos of parties. In fact in many cases I’m not sure there’s a great deal to be said between the political convictions of many other parties, with the stark exceptions of the BJP on one side and the Communists on the other, almost all the other parties including the regional parties essentially have variations of the same sort of social democratic consensus that has dominated Indian parliamentarianism since the 40s.
And at the same time we are in a situation where it seems to me the current manner of operation of our democracy has become a source of our major weakness in this democracy.
And I know that to suggest this is political sacrilege. In fact I was glad that Bhanu mentioned the U.K. parliamentary committee in 1933 that actually pronounced itself on the unsuitability of the parliamentary system for Indian conditions as far back as 87 years ago. But of course what the Brits didn’t realize is that will immediately make Indian nationalists suspicious of British intentions, because you know after all like the American revolutionaries of two centuries ago Indian nationalists were fighting for the rights of Englishman which they thought the British were determined to deny them. So when the Brit said parliamentary system won’t work in India, they said, “My gosh, it better work because you know clearly the British want to deny us something because it’s good for us.” So they thought the replication of the houses of Parliament would both reflect the rights of Englishman and guarantee them to Indians. In fact, Clement actually had, the former British Prime Minister was a member of a British constitutional commission, and he wrote that when he suggested the U.S. presidential system as a model to Indian leaders he recalled they rejected it with great emphasis—actual quote “I had the feeling that they thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter.”
So that was the problem you know, we really thought the Brits want to deny us the good things they want to keep them for themselves and so let’s go ahead and take what the Brits have been depriving us of. So this is an entirely understandable approach for an entire generation of a political establishment that is suffering exclusion.
But at the same time we have to understand that the parliamentary system devised in Britain which is a small island nation; it was conceived when electorates were initially I think a few thousand voters per MP, even today less than a lakh per constituency; it assumes a number of conditions which simply don’t exist in India. It requires clearly defined political parties with a coherent set of policies and preferences each distinguishing 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. And let’s face it, very often the parties are emanations of a particular identity, you know, and headed by leaders who essentially cannot be changed, and this is true of the vast majority of India’s political parties. They are fuzzily vague about their beliefs, and as we saw with the tragic passing of Raghuvansh Prasad Singh yesterday even the question of which party they give allegiance to can change right up to the very last minute, often on a day-to-day basis. And we’ve seen I mean I won’t name the individual but we have in our midst a politician former Union Minister who has actually been a member of seven different parties in the course of the last 15 years.
So you’re talking about a system where the entire logic of the party system that underpins British parliamentarianism essentially doesn’t exist in India. Our voters vote for individuals. If they want a Narendra Modi as a Prime Minister or a Mamata Banerjee or a Jagan Mohan Reddy as a Chief Minister they have internalized the idea they want to vote for somebody else as their MP or their MLA in order to indirectly accomplish that result. Now this is a perversity that only the British could have devised, to vote for the Legislature not to legislate but in order to form the Executive. It’s really the classic Indian thing about catching your nose from the back of your head. I mean that’s essentially what we’re expecting people to do.
This creates all sorts of problems. I won’t belabor them because you know about them all—it limits executive posts to those who are electable rather than those who are able; the Prime Minister cannot appoint a cabinet of his choice. In fact Modi who likes to do that has brought in an extraordinarily large proportion of his ministers through the Rajya Sabha. But that’s not the logic in any case; most of the Rajya Sabha is still the preserve of full-time politicians so the talent pool has not exactly been significantly widened.
Second, it puts a premium on defections and horse trading. Tarunabh wants to tighten the anti-defection law but in fact the problem is the anti-defection law has actually turned out in practice to curtail the freedom of independent-minded legislators to express themselves.
Legislation itself suffers because the laws are drafted by the Executive, in practice by the bureaucracy, and parliamentary input into their formulation and passage is minimal. Many bills pass after barely 15 minutes of debate. We just saw one today; two bills are passed in a collective 15 minutes of debate today.
So the problem we have in these situations is that the parliamentary system of India does not permit the existence of a legislature, distinct from the executive, applying its collective mind freely and holding the government accountable to the people.
And finally of course, because once you have a parliamentary majority you realize the outcome of all votes are foregone conclusion, all debates are utterly at the end of the day just for the record. I speak because I as an amateur historian I’m still fond of preserving the record that we did say the right thing even if we never got our way.
The fact is parliament is not a solemn deliberative body as it is in Britain, but as a theater for, I mean I called it a Notice Board as Bhanu quoted me as saying. And on the other side from the opposition it’s often a theater for their power to disrupt. This essentially is to show the strength of their feelings by disrupting the law making rather than debating the law itself because the debate ultimately many of them feel is futile.
Now this is the reason why we don’t like the house that we have built for ourselves in the last 72 years. Tarunabh very graciously talks about various reforms. One of the reasons that he says that the presidential system is bad is that it creates fragile regimes. But I would argue that what we have been seeing for the last six years is a system which is deliberately promoting its own fragility, by undermining all the constitutional checks and balances from the judiciary to independent institutions of various sorts, to Parliament itself, even to the free press.
Major Train Wreck Looming in Our Parliamentary System
So ultimately you have something far worse than any presidential system can give you because every decision can be sanctified by a rubber stamp majority in the legislature. Therefore the government can absolutely point to the trappings of democracy by having every one of its decisions ratified by its own in-house clique, while instead a presidential system would have had an independent legislature and put the onus on the President to form his own support based on each different issue with different parties.
On the question of the U.S. system versus other presidential models, I join Bhanu in suggesting the U.S. system. One of the reasons I do so now is because I see a very major train wreck looming in the Indian parliamentary system, when the constitutional amendment which freezes parliamentary seat allocations with the census of 1971 lapses in 2026, and it’s very clear that the majoritarian BJP of Mr. Modi will not renew that.
So you’re suddenly going to find a major expansion of seats in the overpopulated Hindi heartland, which will be supportive of the BJP, and the de facto disenfranchisement of the non-Hindi speaking states, who will no longer have a critical mass in Parliament to be able to have a significant impact including when it comes to votes of confidence and so on. At the end of the time of this parliamentary change, which is understandable, defensible on the grounds of one man one vote has to have any value then surely the vote of let’s say a Kerala voter should not be able to elect more MPs than the same vote of a U.P. voter, and I understand the logic of that. But if you want to care for Indian unity as I do, you do need a system. And in the U.S. presidential system you would be able to borrow the idea of the Electoral College to ensure that a future President cannot be elected without seeking support in other states as well and having therefore a check and balance built into the electoral system too.
Let me then conclude by saying that as far as the reforms that Tarunabh says are needed in the parliamentary system—the elimination of Governors; the reforms in the anti-defection law; and the alternative preference voter concept—I will make him happy and Bhanu unhappy by saying that that combination of reforms may actually be easier to sell to the present political establishment than what Bhanu and I are advocating.
Very simply the political establishment knows the system that it’s currently operating or manipulating or working within, whatever phrase you want, and therefore they will be and are incredibly resistant to changing it. And of course some have also arguments of principle like Tarunabh; many of my own colleagues in the Congress party say that the parliamentary system is the one check they’ve got to be able to empower themselves against an all-powerful Executive. I believe they’re wrong they believe they’re right, you know this is something that time will tell.
We’ve seen in our own history that the parliamentary system can be distorted to give one person an extraordinary amount of power. The “prime ministerial” system run by Mr. Modi, it seems to me is far more autocratic than the presidential system of any theoretical leader that India might produce. Because that President will also be balanced by strong independent chief executives in the states, in the cities and the villages.
But it’s a larger conversation we need to have. I believe this exercise in discussing pros and cons is healthy and useful, but I will concede at the very end of it that the kinds of reforms that Tarunabh is talking about within the existing ambit of the parliamentary system may have a slightly better chance of being actually adopted or voted by the government. But only if the government is filled with people of a broad-minded democratic vision who want to see that happening, rather than actually wanting to see as the present government does, more power entrenched and consolidated in the hands of an omniscient and omnipotent Prime Minister.
Thank you both for a very engaging discussion.
The full debate: