Any concern that presidential democracies are less stable than parliamentary ones is really academic.
[By Bhanu Dhamija]
The question of whether India should switch to a presidential system and ditch its parliamentary form of government keeps resurfacing. In the 1970s Indira Gandhi considered this switch, and in the 1990s so did Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 2013, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy asked the Rajya Sabha to adopt that system’s key features. And most recently, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor reiterated his long-held stance that changing to a presidential system would deliver a better functioning democracy.
Such bipartisan support over all this time attests to that system’s merits. Many experienced leaders see how it delivers a more robust democracy because it is decentralized and uses direct elections. And it provides greater accountability because it separates executive and legislative powers, making both work under real checks and balances.
Concerns over presidential system
Some Indian thinkers have had valid concerns. Professor Ramesh Thakur, an ex-United Nations colleague of Tharoor, outlined many of them recently in a column entitled “In Parliament’s Defense”. He says the fault for India’s ailing democracy “lies not in the system but in politicians who have corrupted the institutions”.
He argues that parliamentary democracies are more stable and decisive because since powers are fused, executive-legislative clashes are rare. The presidential system frustrates the executive’s capacity to govern, he argues, citing America’s “permanent gridlock”. He calls the parliamentary system a “stabilizer” in societies with sectarian divisions because coalition governments reflect social and political diversity. And he claims that parliamentary systems offer better protection against a bad and incompetent head of government.
Drawbacks in current system
One major sign of a good system of government is how well it is shielded from being corrupted or captured by popular leaders. Our parliamentary system has failed this test from the very beginning. Jawaharlal Nehru respected institutions but was able to bend them according to his personal will. Indira Gandhi made our institutions so subservient that she almost ended democracy here. And PM Narendra Modi has been riding roughshod over them for the past six years.
Any concern that presidential democracies are less stable than parliamentary ones is really academic. The world’s longest-running democracy is the United States, and hers is the only presidential model that Tharoor, myself and others have recommended. “The US constitutional continuity is exceptional,” Thakur admits. Every other presidential regime alters the basic balance of powers from the US original, usually making the President more powerful at the expense of the Legislature.
Stability in presidential system
But there is no concern about the stability of presidential governments. Parliamentary regimes can take forever to form and may fall at any time. They are notorious for their instability around the globe.
In the last roughly 70 years, while India has had 27 administrations, Japan 35, Israel 41 and Italy a whopping 65, the US is nearing the end of her 16th. India tried to address this instability by passing anti-defection laws, but that had the unfortunate consequence of making MPs and MLAs mere bondsmen to political party bosses.
Concerns about the US presidential system’s “gridlock” also fail in the face of facts. Historically, laws there receive an average 78% support in the House of Representatives and 83% in the Senate. This is remarkably bipartisan.
The so-called gridlock has not stopped any recent President from passing his signature program, like Obama’s healthcare and Trump’s tax plan. The US system appears to be so rancorous because the powers are divided, and all sides try to have their say. This is a true democracy at work.
Gridlock is even less of a concern in the Indian political environment of multiple parties. Freed from slavishly voting for or against the executive, the lawmakers would build coalitions around issues.
As for diversity, the US model works better than ours because it is decentralized and controlled directly by the people. America invented the federal structure, which allows for local expression and real self-governance. The parliamentary system, in contrast, is inherently unitary, with the Centre controlling the entire country.
Also, since parliamentary governments are controlled by the majority, a sectarian government can reduce Parliament to a rubber stamp in a way that no presidential system can. Every lawmaker in that system is permitted to introduce legislation and build a coalition.
Parliamentary coalitions share the executive power only with the controlling majority, but the presidential system shares it with the entire people, by virtue of the President’s direct election.
Lastly, with respect to each system’s ability to remove a failing chief executive, impeachment is more effective than a vote of no confidence. While the former is a constitutional provision, the latter is left to day-to-day politics. As we know, parliamentary parties never stop politicking to bring a government down.
India is unfamiliar with the presidential system, and it would take a great national effort to make such a switch. But familiarity is a poor reason to stick to a failing system.
[A version of this article was published on Scroll.in on 4 November 2020.]