Democracy or Deceit

Crying Need for Presidential System



Krishan Tyagi


(Former BBC Researcher and Contributor)

(L) Indian Parliament (R) The Parliamentarians

“They (the Left Parties) wanted me to behave like a bonded slave."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 22nd July 2008.

“Our experience during the last decade has proved that minority government based on the support of small parties, either from inside or outside the government, has been an exercise in self-deception. 

Former President of India, Mr R Venkataraman, 1999

India is the largest democracy in the world!  Very nice to hear! 

But one thing that flabbergasted a lot of Indians during the debate on Reservations in Jobs and Educational Institutions was the fact that both Houses of Parliament passed the 93rd Constitutional amendment unanimously (invalidating a Supreme Court judgement on the issue)!!  All the political parties voted in favour of the amendment – only two independents voted against it.  Most of the people just shocked by the finding could not understand how that came about.  The pro-reservationists argue that the OBCs and SC/STs constitute about 64 percent of the population in the country.  Even if we accept this questionable figure as correct, and for argument’s sake also accept that all the people from OBCs, SCs and STs stand for reservations (which is also not true, as demonstrated during the anti-reservation protests in the country wherein a lot of students from those categories participated), it is beyond dispute that the caste-based reservation policy cannot have more that 64 per cent support in the country, since the people of the so-called forward castes, except a few JNU “intellectuals”, are very much opposed to this policy.  In every television studio debate, the public opinion was very much divided – in fact, in favour of the anti-reservationists.  And yet, the Indian parliament passed the 93rd Constitutional Amendment “unanimously”!  Accepting the pro-reservationists’ figures of support for reservations, how come the 36 percent solid anti-reservation segment of the population found no representation in the parliament!  With this blatantly false “unanimity”, could one really say that the Indian parliament represented the will of the people!!

Let’s look at some more prominent cracks in the Indian system of democracy. 

In the previous general elections to Lok Sabha held in 2004, DMK’s share in the total votes polled in the country was 1.81 percent, and the party won 16 seats in Lok Sabha.  On the other hand, ADMK’s share was 2.19 percent, and it got no seat whatsoever in Lok Sabha!  Is it really fair and democratic?

In those elections, the Congress party received only 26.53 percent of the votes polled in the country.  The share of all the present parties within the UPA government put together was under 35 percent.  If we include the share of votes polled by the parties supporting this government from outside, it has been still under 48.1 percent.  And, this is not the first time that a minority government is ruling India.  In none of the general elections since 1951 did the ruling party ever get a majority of the votes cast.  Even in 1977, despite the great anti-Emergency wave, the Janata Party, which secured 298 seats in Lok Sabha, received only 43.04 percent of the votes polled.  Similarly in 1984, the Congress party which secured a massive 414 seats in Lok Sabha received only 48.12 percent of the votes polled.  Thus, political parties with minority popular support have been ruling the country.  The majority of the votes cast in the elections were not in favour of those parties.  

The question arises, with these glaring contradictions, is it a democracy?  Well, the answer is – Yes, it is a democracy …of a sort.   Actually, these glaring contradictions are the result of the flaws in the model of democracy India has adopted.  Political scientists call it a parliamentary system of democracy – more specifically, the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy – accompanied with the ‘first past the post’ electoral method.

In scholars’ judgement, the Westminster model of democracy is only compatible with a two-party system.  Ivor Jennings, an authority on the subject, describes the British constitution as one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in the world. However, he concedes that this assumes a continuance of the two-party system: "If major parties break up, the whole balance of the constitution alters….”   That’s why the Westminster pattern of parliamentary democracy has succeeded only in countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, apart from Britain, all of which have a sound two-party system. Despite centuries, these countries and the United States have had strong two parties so that one or the other party represents the majority of the nation in a general election.      

The forefathers of the Indian Constitution were greatly influenced by the British system of democracy and looked at it as a model to follow – many of them had their education in England.  Dr K M Munshi, one of the architects of the Indian constitution, said in his speech in the Constituent Assembly: "Most of us and during the last several generations before us, public men in India, have looked up to the British model as the best."

Furthermore, in the Constituent Assembly, which also acted as the first Parliament of India from 15th August 1947 onwards, the Congress party had a majority of 69 percent to begin with.  And as the Muslim League almost dissipated into Pakistan, the majority of the Congress party climbed up to 82 percent.  With such a preponderance of the Congress party in the Constituent Assembly, even the emergence of another party in the country that could pose a serious challenge to the Congress party must have looked like a very distant possibility.  Coming out of the long struggle for freedom, the members of the Constituent Assembly seemingly couldn’t imagine that in independent India, political parties would be formed on racial, provincial, language and caste lines.  Therefore, probably they couldn’t foresee the permanent scenarios of hung legislative assemblies and hung parliament. 

For almost two decades now, due to the multiplicity of political parties in India, not to speak of getting the majority of votes cast, no single party has been able to secure a clear majority of seats in the parliament.  Since the days of VP Singh as the Prime Minister, the governments at the Central level have been dependent on the support of other parties.  The former President of India, Mr R Venkataraman, in a lecture delivered in 1999 said: “During the last ten years, there had been seven governments at the centre. These minority governments have been unable to provide a stable government and stable policies. Barring the Narasimha Rao government, which had a precarious existence for a full term of five years, others were in office for a few months each. …. Recently the situation had deteriorated so much that the smaller parties had begun to blackmail the leadership with threats of disruption of the government.”

Speaking in Kannur on 08th May 2007, the CPM General Secretary, Prakash Karat, said: "Like the previous BJP-led NDA ministry, the UPA government also wanted to continue liberalised economic policies giving more thrust to privatisation.  But the CPM and other Left parties have been able to put up stiff resistance against successful implementation of neo-liberalisation policies by extending outside support to the government."  In other words, Mr Karat was bragging that through “outside support” the Left parties have been able to scuttle the economic policies adopted by the Congress party, the BJP and other centrist parties and supported by the people at large in the country.

Mr Venkataraman, was talking about precisely this phenomenon when he said: “Governments depending on the whims and fancies of small parties supporting from inside or outside were all the time striving to survive in office and had no time to serve the people or the nation.  The minority governments were not able to act freely and have had to look over their shoulders, all the time nervous, anxious, and uncertain as to how the supporting parties will behave.  The minority governments had to spend all the time placating their supporters and making unconscionable concessions and compromises.

Former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujaral often described himself as “a helpless and hapless prime minister”.  Before they finally withdrew their support, the Left parties issued threats to the Manmohan Singh government religiously every week – for four years.  Finally rid of them, Dr Singh said: “They wanted me to behave as their bonded slave." (, 22nd July 2008).  

This only goes to re-establish the conclusion drawn by Mr Venkataraman in 1999: “Our experience during the last decade has proved that minority government based on the support of small parties, either from inside or outside the government, has been an exercise in self-deception.

And, the daily performance of somersaults by Swaayi Amar Singh, Lalu Yadav and A Ramdossa shows that the menace of smaller parties trying to manipulate the mainstream parties is not over. 

The government’s inability to implement the policies supported by their own voters and voters at large confirms the democracy isn’t working in India.  And, the problem is, the people cannot do anything more about it, under the present system.

To cure the ills of the Indian democratic system, some people still suggest developing a two-party system or constituting national governments.  However, these suggestions amount to no more than wishful thinking.  The fact is that not only is it the second biggest country in the world, India is also the most diverse country in the world – with three main races, half a dozen main religions, more than fifteen major languages, and hundreds of cultural and ethnic groups.  The thinking of such a mass of diverse people towards social and public affairs cannot be confined to just no-more-than-two political views on each and every issue.   The variety in people’s thinking is bound to be expressed through a variety of political parties.  So, rather than hoping against hope for the growth of just two parties in the country and the demise of the plethora of parties that have mushroomed over the past five decades, we need to devise a system wherein every political view is listened to, and a consensus, or a real majority public opinion, prevails.

For a big and diverse country like India where a multi-party scenario is natural, a combination of a presidential form of government and single transferable vote system would be the right solution.  In the presidential system, a president is elected directly by the people for a fixed term (in the US, it is four years), who appoints his own ministers to run different departments of the government.  Similarly, the parliament (lower house) is elected directly by the people for a fixed term, and, unlike the parliamentary system, it cannot be dissolved before the expiry of its term.   Since a president normally serves his full term and is not dependent on the strength of his party in the parliament, the biggest advantage of the presidential system is that it provides stability of government – necessary for economic and social growth.  No progress, economic, social, cultural or other can be achieved unless there is internal stability and continuity of policies. 

It is not just in India, the parliamentary system has created chaos in many countries.  Just this year in Israel, though the general elections took place on 10th February, no government could be formed there until the end of March.  And this is not the first time that such a situation arose in that country. After general parliamentary elections, this is quite normal in Israel.  Similarly, in Italy quite often there is virtually no government for months after parliamentary elections.  Seeking stability, France moved to a somewhat modified presidential system.  During its civil war time, Sri Lanka did the same.  In both cases, the results are widely considered to have been positive.

In 2007 the people of Uttar Pradesh (not politicians) breathed a sigh of relief to see Mayawati winning a clear majority in the state assembly.  Imagine if the exit polls for the UP elections were correct – within months we would have been looking for another election to the state assembly!  The system can only cope with the situation when one party gets a clear majority, and maintains that majority!  As state assemblies quite regularly transform themselves into fair-grounds for horse-trading, even a two-party system cannot ensure stability in government under the present system.  It is still possible for a “dissident group” of the ruling party to defect and defeat the government. It first happened in Kerala in 1957 and thereafter the pattern has been repeated scores of times all over the country.  In the 2005 elections to their state assembly, the people of Jharkhand couldn’t even think that an independent Madhu Koda, a BJP rebel with RSS background, who was voted to victory against a Congress party candidate, could become their chief minister with the Congress party support!  A direct election of a state governor for a fixed term would save the public from such bizarre games being played upon them.  It would certainly provide relief to the people who in the present system do not know who their chief minister is going to be and for how long.

The presidential system renders defections from political parties harmless.  Defections take place in parliament and legislative assemblies largely for selfish ends like defeating the present government in order to get more personal benefits from the new one.  But in the presidential system, once the president is elected directly by the people, Aya Ram Vilas, Gaya Ram Vilas cannot make any difference as regards the survival of the government. Chandra Babu Naidu’s experimentations with the “Third Front”, or “Fourth Front”, or “Fifth Front”, or any “Front” would not destabilise the central or state government of the day.  In the presidential system, such experiments can be freely conducted as they would be under controlled conditions.  On the other hand, since under that system neither the executive, ie, the president and his ministry, can be thrown out of office, nor the parliament dissolved before the expiry of their respective terms, there is no reason why the members should not have the right to speak or vote against Government's proposals.  In fact, in the US, members of the House of Representatives and Senate quite often speak and vote across party lines.  Nobody looks upon it as blasphemy. It is our fixation with the British model of parliamentary democracy that actually inhibits objective thinking on such matters.  Under the presidential system, there would be no need for anti-defection laws.  The system takes the sting out of such actions. 

Actually, strict party discipline is not as noble an ideal as a lot of people think.  In Romania, while Nicolae Ceauşescu (who was later executed) was occupying seven palaces in the name of socialism while the majority of the people were steeped in poverty, none of his party members seemed to have raised a voice against it.  In our neighbourhood, Mr Ten Percent was robbing the country, and his party members were observing “good party discipline”!  In the Indian Parliament, the deconstruction of the “unanimity” over the 93rd Constitutional Amendment would show that the party bosses, in pursuit of the so-called Backward votes, gagged their members from speaking or voting against the Amendment.  The cases of Navjot Sidhu and Kapil Sibal were just the tip of the iceberg.  Long gone are the days when Feroze Gandhi and Mahavir Tyagi could challenge Pundit Nehru in the Parliament while still being in the Congress party.  Now even ‘the Prime Minister’ dare not question ‘Madame’ or the ‘Crown Prince’!  Actually, given the history of party bosses using whips and gagging their members, preventing people’s elected representatives from voicing the electorate’s concerns, as it happened in the Congress party, the BJP and the CPM on the issue of Reservations, it wouldn’t be a wrong idea to allow members of parliament and legislators freedom to express their personal opinion on individual issues – provided the dissent is not due to any pecuniary reason.  Democracy should have a place for mavericks and genuine rebels.  Presidential system allows dissent without any harm, making the governance of the country more rich and democratic. 

Some political scientists say that the presidential system has a tendency towards authoritarianism.  Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all prize: unlike a prime minister, who may have to form a coalition, a president's party can rule without any allies for the duration of full term, a worrisome situation for many interest groups. An expert on the subject Juan Linz argues: “The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president's fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate.  …losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage.”

However a close look would show that this apprehension is not well-founded.  The fact is that if ever a situation arises that a president is elected with a very thin majority of the popular vote, then the electorate, voting for the parliament at the same time, would be creating an almost equally divided parliament, where the opposition party (or parties) would have ample opportunity to restrain the president if he or she follows an unpopular policy.  Moreover, as it happens with the Senate in the US and Rajya Sabha in India, the elections to the upper house of parliament every two years for its one-third members can take care of the whims in popular sentiments and can again check the president if his/her policies are seen to be stuck in the past when he/she was elected and the popular sentiment has moved on.  We witnessed this happening to President George W Bush from 2007 onwards with the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress (the US parliament).  So, it is not right to say that in a Presidential system, winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate.  Losers in presidential elections don’t need to wait for four or five years to restrain a President whom the public feels is following an unpopular agenda. 

In fact, the checks and balances in a presidential system are much more pronounced as the executive and legislature in this system are not dependent on each other for their survival. On the contrary, in the parliamentary system, to vote down the cabinet’s legislation is to bring down a government and have new elections, a step few backbenchers, even if they disagree with the legislation, are willing to take. A former British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, once famously said: "Parliament has really no control over the executive; it is a pure fiction."  The fact, that in a presidential system elections are fixed, is often held as a valuable "check" on the powers of the executive.  While parliamentary systems often allow the prime minister to call elections whenever he/she sees fit, or orchestrate his/her own vote of no confidence to trigger one when he/she cannot get a legislative item passed, the presidential model disallows this sort of opportunism, and instead forces the executive to operate within the confines of a term the president cannot alter to suit his/her own needs.

Furthermore, in a presidential system, the executive has the benefit of having direct mandate.  A prime minister is usually chosen by a few individuals of the legislature, while a president is chosen by the people. A popularly elected leadership is inherently more democratic than a leadership chosen indirectly through a legislative body.  The direct mandate of a president makes him or her more accountable.

Actually, while no US President has been seriously accused of being authoritarian, Mrs Indira Gandhi, elected through a parliamentary system, not only imposed the Emergency in 1975, even later behaved quite dictatorially in removing elected governments in Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

Additionally, it is also well accepted that presidential systems can respond more rapidly and decisively to emerging situations than parliamentary ones.  Explaining the British government’s inability to act promptly to meet Hitler’s challenge, Former US President John F. Kennedy said that Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were constrained by the need to maintain the confidence of the Commons.

While in the time of emerging crises, particularly on foreign fronts, the president can respond more rapidly and decisively – as the nation would like them to do – in normal times, the presidential system can slow down decision making to beneficial ends.  A divided government, where the presidency and the legislature are controlled by different parties, is said to restrain the excesses of both parties, and guarantee bipartisan input into legislation.  In the United States, Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel wrote in 1995: “There are some of us who think gridlock is the best thing since indoor plumbing. Gridlock is the natural gift the Framers of the Constitution gave us so that the country would not be subjected to policy swings resulting from the whimsy of the public. And the competition – whether multi-branch, multi-level, or multi-house – is important to those checks and balances and to our ongoing kind of centrist government. Thank heaven we do not have a government that nationalizes one year and privatizes next year, and so on ad infinitum.”  And, despite opposition parties being dominant in the Congress, the legislative programs of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, or Lyndon Johnson were passed through.

One problem in a multi-party system, as shown above, is that no candidate to the legislature normally secures more than 50% of the votes cast in his constituency.  Each candidate usually secures say 35% or 30% or 25% of the votes cast, and the candidate who gets the largest number of votes is declared elected.  Similarly, if in all the other constituencies the candidate with the largest number of votes (but not a majority) is elected, the House so constituted reflects the minority and not the majority of the voters.  This problem can be resolved, as mentioned above, by adopting the single transferable vote system for electing the president, governors, and members of Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies.  In this age of computers, the single transferable vote system can be very easily handled, and even for the illiterate masses it is not difficult to understand.  And, to deter an unduly large number of candidates fighting for elective positions in various elections, as the former President has suggested, it may be provided statutorily that candidates will forfeit their deposit if they poll less than 20% of the votes cast, and those who forfeit deposits in the National and State elections shall be debarred from contesting for any elective post in a statutory body from Panchayat, cooperatives to the President for a period of six years. This will enable a smoother election for offices of national importance.

And last but not least, to make its democracy more vibrant, responsive and responsible, India needs to introduce compulsory voting for all its adult population.  In a democracy the citizen has a duty to elect a government for himself.  If more than 40 percent of the people eligible to vote keep away from the elections, as happened in the 2004 general elections, how can the blame for the bad state of affairs in the country be solely put on the politicians?  Dr Ambedkar, who piloted the Peoples Representation Bill in the Provisional Parliament in 1951, while expressing sympathy with the idea, pleaded practical difficulties in accepting the suggestion. It might have been difficult to introduce compulsory voting in 1951 when adult franchise was introduced for the first time.  Fifty eight years later no one should plead practical difficulties as an excuse against a salutary reform.

A presidential form of government at the central and state levels, elected by all adult citizens through the single transferable vote system would be a majority government – representing a real majority of the public – and the country would achieve a very much needed stability and a much higher degree of democracy.

It is time that India takes some bold and wise steps to govern itself properly.

Copyright © 2009 Krishan Tyagi. All Rights Reserved.


Suggestion to constitute a new Constituent Assembly

The time has come for Indians to have a fresh look at their constitution, and rewrite it, in the light of the experience of the last 59 years – of course, without abrogating the basic principle of democracy, equality for all its citizens, universal franchise and independence of judiciary.  A new Constituent Assembly should be elected directly whose sole function would be to rewrite the Constitution.  The country’s population would be divided into 100 parts irrespective of the present state boundaries to elect 100 representatives of the Indian people to this assembly through a direct election.  To bring in more independent thinking into the thought process of the constituent assembly, formal members of the present political parties would not be allowed to stand for election to this institution.  But what is a must is that the candidates for this body must have a post-graduate qualification in the field of political science, law, history or economics.  The Constituent Assembly would then elect a Chairman and a ten-member drafting committee whose job would be to draft various provisions in the proposed constitution for discussion in the assembly.  The Constituent Assembly would be free to constitute various other specialised committees to study & explore various aspects of the constitution such as citizenship issues, fundamental rights and centre-state relations.  The assembly would also be entitled to call eminent jurists and constitutional scholars from within India and abroad as witnesses to get expert opinion on different aspects of the proposed provisions in the constitution.


Copyright © 2009 Krishan Tyagi. All Rights Reserved.







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