India’s old constitutional system has broken down and this is poisoning the governance of the country
An Israeli defence scientist, now a member of the country’s Parliament, once told me in another context, that it is important to learn to recognise organisations that have gone beyond the capability of being reformed; they malfunction to the point where the only option is to dismantle, and then reconstitute them. The Union of India as created by the Constitution of 1950 seems to have reached what is called in Army terminology “beyond economical repair,” in other words, it is kaput.
The events of the past week may appear disparate, but they are all linked to the collapse of our political and administrative system and show that the old structure of governance is unable to cope with the demands of the era. The problem is systemic, and cannot be handled by fixing one or the other element of it.
Almost every analysis of the failure of the state to tackle terrorism comes up with the conclusion that the Union government and the States are unable to cooperate in this fight. Neither are our reformed intelligence agencies which suffer from poor leadership anyway. Some say this requires the creation of a federal intelligence agency, others claim that strong anti-terrorist legislation is the answer.
On the other hand critics point out that both would be misused just as POTA, TADA and the CBI have been. Even more fundamental is how in the present system political parties use caste and creed for mobilisation and do not hesitate to demonise other groups for electoral gain.
The faultlines are not only visible in the case of terrorism. They were visible also in the trust debate and its outcome. Over the years, the experience of “Aya Rams and Gaya Rams” led Parliament to pass stringent anti-defection measures to prevent parties from opportunistically splintering. Yet, in a crucial vote the second largest party in the country suffered an attrition of as many as 9 MPs. Cracks appeared in other parties as well.# The issue that has emerged is not just defection, devoid of anything called ideological principle, but a situation where our already fractured party system is held hostage by parties of one or three or six individuals, which destabilises the entire governmental system.
An associated issue is the subject of the debate itself — the Indo-US nuclear deal. Ever since it sharpened its opposition to the deal, the Left had been arguing that a Parliamentary majority was against the deal. Some other parties wanted Parliament to vote on the deal itself. Yet, in the Parliamentary system, there is no provision for approval or disapproval of such international agreements.
The Indo-US deal was discussed threadbare at almost every stage since the July 2005 agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush, but it was never voted on since that was not required. The idea of voting on an international issue really comes from the Presidential form of government like that in the US.
In the Parliamentary system, the legislature is supreme and the government formed by the leading party in the lower house is presumed to act on behalf of Parliament as long as it is able to maintain its majority on the floor of the house. India needed no Parliamentary approval to enter the WTO, or to agree to the South Asian Free Trade Agreement. In the future, too, should the government wish to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it would not need the specific approval of the Lok Sabha. Associated with this debate, and as a subtext to it as it were, was the legitimacy of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. No one questions the legality of his position. What was in question was his authority, since it is known that he is not the true leader of the legislature party in the Lower House; that position is held by Sonia Gandhi. In fact, the Prime Minister is not even a member of that house. He is an indirectly elected member of the Rajya Sabha. #
In my view, we need to seriously think about reconstituting the Republic on the lines of a presidential system. Our 1947 unitary-federal Constitution was created by a group of people who were most comfortable with the Westminster system which had been partially introduced in the country through the 1919 and the 1935 Government of India Acts. Sixty years later, the writing is as clear on the wall as it can be — the system is not working.
A system with term limits for the chief executive, and a scheme of countervailing powers for Parliament, Judiciary and the States has many advantages that will help our country to overcome its present stasis: First, the issue of a strong or weak Prime Minister will be settled by having him be directly elected by the entire voting population of the country. Since each vote from every part of the country and its many communities would count, it would go a long way in doing away with exclusionary politics of the BJP type.
The executive president would choose his own Cabinet which would be responsible to him or her, rather than Parliament. Second, the executive would be empowered to act on “national” issues, relating to security and the economic well-being of the country. Third, Parliament would be given the right to vote on the appointment of the Cabinet, approve international agreements, or amend and block legislation presented by the executive.
Fourth, the Upper House, which is currently neither here nor there, would need to be reconstituted to provide it equal or near equal representation for all the states of the federation. Its members would be empowered by being directly elected in their respective states. In this way small states could have some influence in the large federation. At present if Mizoram or Nagaland have a view on relations with Myanmar, which they border, they have no way of influencing policy in South Block.
By having an upper house directly elected by the entire populace of a state, we would prevent the present tendency towards political fragmentation that has emerged from the operation of a Parliamentary system upon the Indian social structure.
As for terrorism or other national issues, a Prime Minister, directly elected by the people will have far more moral and real authority than one who is elected by a single Lok Sabha constituency, or worse, indirectly into the Rajya Sabha. Yet, at present he has unchecked powers to take India in any direction he chooses, our only remedy being to act against him by voting his government out in Parliament or through a general election. A presidential system that strengthens the PM and Parliament, will inevitably also empower the people.
The idea of switching to a presidential system is not an original one. It has done the rounds earlier but few have bothered to pay it any attention, in part because they suspected the motives of one of its proponents, L.K. Advani. Given the vested interests in the present system, I am sure that a change will only occur when the crisis deepens. All I can do is point to the fact that the present system is not working and we stand on the brink of disaster.
This was published in Mail Today July 30, 2008