If Prime Minister Modi was running a presidential government he would have less power

[By Bhanu Dhamija]

Many Indians seem to believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running our country as if he was president under a system similar to the US presidential form of government. Nothing could be further from the truth. His government is, in fact, perverted parliamentarianism: wholly centralized, ostensibly in order to deliver “efficient governance”. This allows him to be a so-called “strong leader”, who can make quick, bold decisions and implement them via diktat.

Such autocratic behavior has become painfully obvious. Modi has passed laws without any debate in parliament; cancelled the parliamentary question hour; made a one-man secret demonetization plan; announced a coronavirus-induced nationwide lockdown with barely four hours’ notice; refused to answer questions about the PM CARES Fund; ended transparency in political contributions… the list goes on.

Modi could do all this because of the flawed design of the Indian parliamentary system. It is inherently unitary and brings all powers to the Centre, and then fuses executive and legislative powers in the prime minister’s office. This is done in the name of “efficiency”, so that the executive can enact the laws it wants and be accountable to the legislature for its execution.

But this makes our “British-styled” prime minister all-powerful. “An English prime minister, with his majority secure in parliament, can do what the German emperor, and the American president, and all the chairmen of committees in the United States Congress, cannot do; for he can alter the laws, he can impose taxation or repeal it, and he can direct all the forces of the state,” according to Sir Sidney Low. While that arrangement may have served Britain well for much of its history (though the Scots, Welsh and Irish may disagree), it leads to grave distortions of the federal principle in the Indian Union.

Checks and balances, US-style

If Modi was president under a US-type system, he couldn’t take any of the actions cited above. His executive orders could be overturned by the courts; he couldn’t pass laws on his own and without open debate; he couldn’t change any rules of the legislature; and he couldn’t make a secret decision to change the country’s currency.

As president, Modi could not lockdown the entire country, because that decision would fall to state governors. And he couldn’t raise government funds without the legislature’s approval.

A “President Modi” would have many other restrictions that he doesn’t face as prime minister. He couldn’t appoint or remove state governors or dissolve state governments. He couldn’t pick the chief minister, or any ministers, in any state government. He couldn’t pick his party’s candidates in national or state elections, because they would be chosen in open primaries. He couldn’t use funds from the treasury without the legislature’s approval. He couldn’t order declare war without informing the legislature (at least on paper). He couldn’t even appoint the members of his own Cabinet without legislative sanction.

A wrong impression

Given all these restrictions on a President, it is mystifying to this observer that Indian thinkers keep parroting the line that Modi is running a presidential type government and that is hurting our democracy.

Political commentator Badri Raina recently lamented all the harm Modi has caused, writing, “Although India is still saddled with a parliament, a colonial bugbear, the last six years or so have seen a gradual, but now more rapid, informal switch over to a desired and desirable presidential form.” Raina believes that this form of government is desired by the Indian elite, who think “the panacea for the ills of Indian backwardness is not a party-political system but a strong and self-evidently all-knowing leader.”

This erroneous impression that the presidential system creates a “strong leader” may come from popular culture’s depiction of the US president as “the most powerful man on the planet.” But any such power comes from his nation, not from his office.

The US system vests the president with executive powers only, and that to give him all responsibility, not authority. The limits of his powers and how a president can be cut down to size are evident from Donald Trump’s experience. Within two years of coming to office, his powers were drastically cut by the 2018 midterm elections. He faced numerous investigations, and one sentence from a phone call to Ukraine’s leader led to the man’s impeachment. Within four years he is likely be thrown out of office.

Contrast this with Prime Minister Modi’s consolidation of more and more powers under our parliamentary system.

Even when a president’s party controls both houses of the legislature, the US system allows zero chance of a leader becoming all-powerful. Its checks and balances exert restraining power. The president doesn’t pick the leaders of the legislature, nor does he have any say in picking his party’s lawmakers because all are chosen directly by the people. The president cannot introduce laws.

Party discipline is weak, because survival of the president and members of the legislature don’t depend on each other. Lawmakers are keen to make good names for themselves by championing popular causes. And the list of such best governance practices goes on.

One recent example of how a president can’t use the legislature as rubber stamp, even when it is controlled by his own party, is Trump’s failure to repeal Obamacare, his signature initiative from day one.

Raina’s concern that the presidential system may hurt India’s “party-political system” is well-intentioned but misplaced. The strength of the US system is the give-and-take relationship between the executive and legislative branches at three levels of government – national, state, and local – all directly elected. This delivers a lot more democracy than our parliamentary system.

So, after all that, I wish Modi was running a presidential government. He would have less power. But alas, India continues to suffer under her overly centralized system, and the only reason we don’t change it is our prejudice against a system we don’t understand.

[A version of this article was published on The Wire on 4 November 2020.]

[Bhanu Dhamija is the founder and CMD of Divya Himachal media group and author of Why India Needs the Presidential System. Twitter: @BhanuDhamija]