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Friday, August 07, 2020

Why Shashi Tharoor is wrong

India needs to revive, strengthen and reinforce the ideals of pluralism and decentralisation of power, not abandon parliamentary system for a presidential form of government

Written by N Sai Balaji | Updated: August 2, 2020 6:15:51 pm
Democracy is not just limited to the floor of the legislature.

The article (‘Case for presidential system’, July 25) by Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor, on the current political situation concludes that the parliamentary system has failed the country. He suggests that India should shift to a presidential form of government. Tharoor’s analysis stems from a top-down approach to politics and fails to identify the root causes of the crisis that has engulfed Indian democracy.

Tharoor has reached the wrong conclusions because he has been asking the wrong questions. The issue is not about a parliamentary system or a presidential one — the presidential form of government is as alien a system to India as the existing one. The real crisis is our failure to democratise democracy. We need to understand the structural flaws in the system rather than propose superfluous changes. Be it presidential or parliamentary, the intent has to be delivering democracy. So, we ought to be looking at issues such as centralisation of power, undemocratic methods of decision-making, and the influence of money and criminal nexus on elections.

Tharoor has pointed out that people choose leaders, not parties, and that their loyalty is towards individuals and not a set of ideals that a party represents. However, because the parliamentary setup in India is being turned into a presidential system in form doesn’t mean we formalise the shift. We should come together and comprehend the reasons for such a turn. It is important to understand the failure of the idea of representation at the constituency level. This understanding is possible only if we have a holistic understanding of the election process — i.e. from the selection of a candidate to her performance in the election. We ought to understand how democratic processes and the healthy culture of a multi-party system have been reduced to a game of defections and horse-trading.

The lack of “talent pool” at the prime minister’s disposal should not be seen as the shortcoming of the parliamentary system, but rather as an outcome of the manner in which it is practised in India. When have political parties in India encouraged people who are motivated to transform public life and society to fight elections? The continuation of historically sedimented power relations in the society, which are based on caste and religion, have more often than not culminated in persons with a criminal background being preferred as candidates. Such choices have entrenched social inequalities and strengthened the status quo. This is how the parliamentary system ended up reinforcing age-old power relations. A review of last six year shows that the present regime of BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah has unleashed an agenda to undermine institutions that were built for the democratisation of society.

Also Read | India needs a new political culture, not a presidential system

Whatever little left is captured through money, intimidation, or co-option. All kinds of pluralities are being annihilated by reducing complex issues to binaries — Hindu-Muslim, national-anti-national. Clearly, the attempt is to further an agenda of uniformity in politics, culture and society. Tharoor’s analysis of coalition politics and governments is flawed because he fails to see this agenda for uniformity as the antithesis of democracy. Coalition politics is a manifestation of the diversity in our country at the social, cultural and political levels. Coalition politics ensures checks and balances against forces that push for homogeneity at the national level. In the absence of assertion of diverse interests, we are witnessing an unprecedented accumulation of power at the Centre in the name of national interest. This is because regional voices that were emboldened through coalition governments no longer exist, or have been muffled. The indecisiveness of coalition politics is also a false claim given that coalition governments delivered progressive legislations like Right to Information, Right to Food Security, Forest Rights Act, MGNREGA and others.

Moreover, democracy is not just limited to the floor of the legislature. The current crisis is not limited to Parliament, but is a wider phenomenon that encompasses the failures of the judiciary, media, executive and legislature in enabling the process of democratising the people. What have been our efforts to democratise our homes, institutions, universities, media, cultural, social and public spheres? How would the presidential form of governance ensure that democratic values trickle down to the grass roots? Press freedom is under threat from intimidation, censorship, attacks on journalists. Corporate takeover of news dissemination has become the new normal.

We can draw a parallel here with the US, which, though having a presidential government, is facing a crisis similar to ours. Hate crimes, atrocities against minorities, crony capitalism, insensitive response to epidemics etc have been reported from the US as well. The only difference is that American media is standing tall against the attacks on institutions, democracy and their constitutional ethos. Even social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are facing a backlash from its employees and people in general for their failure to stop hate campaigns and fake news.

The point is that the challenges posed by both presidential and parliamentary forms are similar and reflect a crisis in practise of democracy — the failure to build trust between citizens and institutions. The challenge before us is to further the democratisation of democracy. A change of form of government will not help achieve this. Rather, we need to revive, strengthen and reinforce the ideals of pluralism and decentralisation of power.

The writer, a former JNU Students Union president, is National President, AISA

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