Presidential Democracy for India: An analysis
James Madison, the chief architect of the US constitution once wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary”. Ironically, if the men were angels, no constitution would be necessary. The debate between India considering a presidential system isn’t a recent one but dates back to the time of framing and drafting the constitution. This essay encompasses a brief history of India’s decision for a parliamentary democracy, an American perspective of the presidential system and a structured argumentative expression supporting the decision of India choosing a system similar to the US presidential democracy and its merits.
History of the Indian Parliamentary System
Like most people believe, the decision of adopting a parliamentary system for India was not unanimous. It is perceived to be a one-political party decision that was taken in the summer of 1946 during a congress party meeting. An expert committee was formed within the Congress party under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru that decided India shall have a parliamentary system identical to the British. (The Framing of India’s Constitution by B.S. Rao, Universal Law Publishing, Delhi, 2006, Vol. 1, P 331). Various leaders ranging from Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Dr. B R Ambedkar up to Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah were against the idea of a strict parliamentary system. When ideas were brought, they were turned down by the expert committee. Gandhi had already shared his opinion by saying that “If India copies England, it is my firm conviction that she will be ruined.” (Gandhi and Constitution Making in India by D.K. Chatterjee, Associated Publishing House, 1984, P71)
The two questions that had to be answered were if India should adopt a unitary or federal government and if the head of the state should be directly or indirectly elected. On 10th-11th June, a joint meeting between the Union Constitutional Committee and the Provincial Constitutional committee was chaired by Dr. Rajendra Prasad that decided to adopt a directly elected President and Governor; Jawaharlal Nehru and his committee was asked to reconsider their decision (Minutes, Joint Committee Meeting of the Union and Provincial Committees, June 11, 1947, Rao, Vol. 2, P 612). The decision was not reconsidered and the assembly unaware of the conflict of opinion between Nehru and Patel accepted the presidential system recommendations. However, two years later on 31st May, 1949, the assembly reversed its decision, making it the only reversal of a major constitutional decision in the assembly’s history. During the same period, without the Muslim League, the Congress had 70% of the seats and the first ever constituent assembly that functioned under the whips of a party high command that approved the parliamentary system for India.
With a decision that began with misunderstandings, political pressure and absence of a free voice, parliamentary system in India has always been a questionable gesture and topic of debate.
Before analyzing India with a presidential system, it is important to analyze the principles, working and the case of the United States.
US Presidential System
The US presidential form of democracy has undoubtedly seen great success with zero impeachments and a smooth-running government mechanism. The working of its government is an elaborate process.
In the US presidential form of Democracy, the president is elected every 4 years and can serve up to two terms. He is not elected directly by the people but rather through an electoral college which is a process in which electors chosen from different states based on the population (except Nebraska and Maine) vote for a desirable president. A President has to get at least 270 electoral votes in order to win the elections. A Vice-President and a 15-member cabinet, in order to handle different ministries, are chosen by the president and confirmed by the senate. The house of representatives and senators on the other hand are directly elected by the people. Each state is represented by 2 senators and house of representatives relative to the population of the state.
Law making in the US involves the President and the Congress (House of representatives and the Senate). The President’s assent is an important part of the process of transformation - from a bill to a law. The President has the veto power to decline a law proposal but the Congress can override him with a 2/3rd majority. The Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, who form the most important part of the judicial wing of the government are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The President is the head of the State, commander-in-chief of the military and maintains foreign policies. However, wars can only be declared and treaties can only be signed with the confirmation from the Congress. The House of Representatives is elected every two years which acts as a mid-term evaluation of the President. Coming up of another party during these elections would weaken the President’s ability to pass laws supported by his/her party. Apart from a resignation or a term-end, the President can be removed through impeachment if charges are presented in front of the house of representatives. Therefore, the legislative wing of the US presidential democracy consists of the Congress which is the house of representatives and the Senate, the executive wing consists of the President, Vice-President and the cabinet while the judicial wing is a structured federal court system.
The US government works on the principles of checks-and-balances. Each of the branches are liable to one another through various means making them merely accountable to themselves.
India with a US presidential system
The question for India to choose a presidential form of democracy has been resurfacing over the years. Indira Gandhi wanted it in the 1970s and Vajpayee wanted it in the 1990s. Recently, Shashi Tharoor has shown his immense support for India to adopt a parliamentary form of democracy to uplift a failing system.
Most critics such as professor Ramesh Thakur who are against such a viewpoint argue that the problem is not with the system but rather with the corrupt politicians. He believes that the parliamentary system of democracy is decisive because of fused power between legislative and executive therefore avoiding conflicts and a stabilizer for a diverse country like India through its coalition governments.
The real test for a government is the one that shows how shielded the government is from corrupt power and capture from strong political leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru had immense respect for institutions but continued to bend them at his will and Indira Gandhi almost ended a democratic form of government in India. Do these questions ring a bell?
Presidential democracy comes with its own concerns of a gridlock situation but such situations do more good than harm. The gridlock situations have represented the role and importance of different opinions and brought down the barriers of a single party rule or dictators. It’s inability to peacefully pass laws has been further disproved through the passing of Obama’s healthcare schemes or Trump’s tax plans.
Presidential system has shown more stability than any other democracy in the whole world and is an apt form of government for a diverse country like India that currently runs with a unitary government. The system of impeachment in terms of both theory and practice is more efficient than the vote of no-confidence as explained in the next section.
How does the presidential system solve most of our problems?
Neither is the Presidential System a solution to all our worries, nor is the parliamentary system an incapable government. This section shall dwell into why India should adopt a presidential form of government over the parliamentary form.
Firstly, a parliamentary government is based on a majority political party rule that heads both the legislative and executive branches of the government making it ambitiously powerful and opening the doors for a dominant government and majoritarian rule. However, a presidential form of government is primarily based on checks and balances with possibilities of different parties at the house of representatives or the Senate or the party of the President being accompanied with a mid-term check through the elections of the house of representatives.
Secondly, a Presidential System of government has clearly divided powers with extensive break-up, eliminating the concept of a concurrent list which inculcates clarity, avoids clashes, and better organizes the working of the government.
Thirdly, the fusion of the legislative and executive powers in the parliamentary form of government, results in monotonous laws supported by a single majority party questioning the diversity of opinions as a requirement for law-making in democracy. Even though arguments have been raised against the gridlock concerns, ample evidence over the years has shown that its effects are superficial and does not come in the way of good decision making.
Fourthly, Indian government is based on a strong Centre that supervises the state governments paving the way for an authoritarian government. It is humorously quoted as the ‘Federalism at its convenience’. The presidential system on the other hand, provides sufficient powers to the state, both theoretically and practically, that helps manage diverse countries such as India.
Fifthly, the Prime Minister being directly elected by a political party results in party bosses and secret deals which breaks down the integrity, federalism and honesty of these parties which are the foundation stones of a democratic government. Presidential Democracy is seen as a more viable option with respect to honest party politics and campaigning since people vote for a party rather than an individual, unlike in parliamentary democracy.
Sixthly, a system of impeachment is more preferable over the vote of no-confidence. It is surprising how most dominating leaders in India looked to switch to a presidential form of democracy to retain their powers. An impeachment procedure is more organized and legitimized, whereas the vote of no confidence is a weapon used by the opposition every now and then, to take over the power from the government. The vote of no confidence creates an unstable economy with governments failing before their term. The US presidential system also provides the provision for a mid–term check through the elections of the house representatives that avoids a one-man rule and a retrospection on where they stand.
Seventhly, the judiciary in India is enormously strong with a larger original jurisdiction, unlimited appellate jurisdiction and advisory powers. The Judges appointed in the Supreme Court do not require any confirmation from the houses of parliament. Unlike India, US supreme court is a chain of union courts and a Supreme Court that has a smaller authority, no advisory power and limited appellate jurisdiction. The judge of the supreme court can be appointed only with the confirmation by the house of representatives and the Senate. This ensures that no particular organ of the government is over powerful and is a part of the checks and balances.
It would take a great national effort for India to switch to a presidential form of government considering its non=familiarity and opposition, but it also takes a great deal to switch to a system that is able to solve most of our political problems.
In conclusion, even though the presidential system is not an extremely ideal system, if not for the accountable and honest leadership, the parliamentary form of government has over the years, demonstrated every decision as a rubber-stamp of the majority. Structural Decentralization and protection against a one-man rule are the two solutions to barriers of development. Various reforms ranging from stricter anti-defection laws, elimination of the governor and alternate preference vote concept within the parliamentary system will remain effective considering the complexity of the change in the form of government. Most Indians are unfamiliar with the presidential system of democracy but familiarity is not a good rationale to stick to a failing system.