Insights into Editorial: Do we need a presidential system?
It is argued by some section of the society that the political system in India was created based entirely on British parliamentary democracy and their experience of what they themselves were deprived of. So, according to these people, the Westminster model of democracy is not suited to our reality.
Traditionally, there have been three criticisms of the presidential form of government: the president can assume dictatorial powers; the executive is not responsible to the directly elected legislature; and finally, if the president belongs to one party and the legislature is controlled by another party, it can lead to conflict and paralysis. Each of these criticisms can be dealt with. As the US experience has shown, there are definite checks and balances in the presidential system.
Benefits of Presidential system:
- First, it will force political parties to be more democratic and robust. All political parties will have to chose their best candidates as there will be a direct head-to-head contest. The people will not accept anyone less. There will be no alternate power centres, no remote controls, and no backseat drivers. Those not in the magic circle will get an opportunity.
- Second, the voters will know their candidates intimately. The electorate has enough data to take calls on their candidates.
- Third, the president will be fully in charge of the executive. He will be able to attract the best and brightest to his cabinet, irrespective of their political affiliations. They will serve at his pleasure and be accountable to him. He wont have to fix quotas for allies or give important positions to senior but incompetent leaders. Nor will he have to waste time thinking about their loyalty.
- Fourth, the government will be stable. The president will be elected by the people and will be voted out by them. He will not have to appease unreasonable allies and indulge in compromises all the time. He can raise FDI sectoral caps, increase the price of diesel, and hike train fares without thinking that his job is in danger or that he will be forced to rollback these measures.
- Fifth, the legislature will be free to do its work. The job of parliament is to pass laws. But opposition law-makers have begun to believe their duty is to bring down the government. Once that power is taken away from them, it will bring them back to their primary task of discussing bills and passing laws that will improve the lot of the people.
Arguments against Presidential system:
- A presidential system centralises power in one individual unlike the parliamentary system, where the Prime Minister is the first among equals. The surrender to the authority of one individual, as in the presidential system, is dangerous for democracy.
- The over-centralisation of power in one individual is something we have to guard against. Those who argue in favour of a presidential system often state that the safeguards and checks are in place: that a powerful President can be stalled by a powerful legislature. But if the legislature is dominated by the same party to which the President belongs, a charismatic President or a “strong President” may prevent any move from the legislature.
The presidential system’s reputation in India is sullied because its name became associated with an autocrat. How exactly does the American structure make it impossible for the president to become a dictator?
- First, there is the federal structure. The state governments are genuinely sovereign. They cannot be controlled, even by the combined forces of Congress and the president.
- Second, the executive, legislative and judiciary are not just separate in powers but in institutions. Each institution derives its legitimacy directly from the people, not from another branch.
- Third, each institution is balanced with others. In the legislature, the balance is between the House and the Senate, and then with the president. In the judiciary it is with the executive and legislature, and with the states. The executive is balanced with the Senate with regard to treaties and appointments.
- Lastly, the people hold direct sway over them all. They elect the legislative and the executive branches separately.
Need for a shift:
Our parliamentary system is a perversity only the British could have devised: to vote for a legislature in order to form the executive. It has created a unique breed of legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only in order to wield executive power. There is no genuine separation of powers: the legislature cannot truly hold the executive accountable since the government wields the majority in the House. The parliamentary system does not permit the existence of a legislature distinct from the executive, applying its collective mind freely to the nation’s laws.
- For 25 years till 2014, our system has also produced coalition governments which have been obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office, and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions, since withdrawal of support can bring governments down. The parliamentary system has distorted the voting preferences of an electorate that knows which individuals it wants but not necessarily which parties or policies.
- Besides, India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit decisive action, whereas ours increasingly promote drift and indecision. We must have a system of government whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power.
Concerns in the Indian context:
The notion that the presidential system could lapse into dictatorship took root first during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the mid-1970s. It was widely believed that she wanted to adopt the presidential form of government to further her own autocratic reign.
The fallacy that the presidential system has autocratic tendencies, however, still prevails.
Why Presidential system may not be suitable for India?
- A diverse country like India cannot function without consensus-building. This “winner takes it all” approach, which is a necessary consequence of the presidential system, is likely to lead to a situation where the views of an individual can ride roughshod over the interests of different segments.
- The other argument, that it is easier to bring talent to governance in a presidential system, is specious. Besides, ‘outside’ talent can be brought in a parliamentary system too. On the other hand, bringing ‘outside’ talent in a presidential system without people being democratically elected would deter people from giving independent advice to the chief executive because they owe their appointment to him/her.
- Those who speak in favour of a presidential system have only the Centre in mind. They have not thought of the logical consequence, which is that we will have to move simultaneously to a “gubernatorial” form in the States. A switch at the Centre will also require a change in the States.
However, a switchover to the presidential system is not possible under our present constitutional scheme because of the ‘basic structure’ doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court in 1973 which has been accepted by the political class without reservation, except for an abortive attempt during the Emergency by Indira Gandhi’s government to have it overturned. The Constituent Assembly had made an informed choice after considering both the British model and the American model and after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had drawn up a balance sheet of their merits and demerits. To alter the informed choice made by the Constituent Assembly would violate the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution.
The system of government under which man lives is fundamental to his being. Government is behind every evil in society, and every virtue. It shapes a society’s character. A good government allows individuals to become honest and virtuous; a bad one makes them wicked and corrupt. A system of government, therefore, isn’t simply a matter of man’s prosperity or liberty; it is also a matter of his morality. For a nation to prosper, its political system must foster a national vision, ensure fairness and encourage participation. When a nation has vision, when its citizens’ efforts are fairly rewarded and when there are opportunities for participation, the nation rises. Hence, an informed debate is necessary in this regard.