August 17, 2020 8:56:07 pm
Uninformed voices might enter the debate on the presidential system of government with an impression that India became a parliamentary democracy without duly considering other alternatives. The truth is that this debate is as old as India itself.
On July 28, 1947, the issue made an entry in the Constituent Assembly. Making an intervention on the subject, H V Kamath argued, “the most elementary as well as the most fundamental principle, to my mind, of a democratic, efficient and dynamic government is that while every shade of political opinion and every school of thought should be adequately represented in every legislature, because in a legislature two heads are better than one, 20 heads are better than two and 200 heads are better than 20…”. Joining in the debate, Jawaharlal Nehru was emphatic while stating that, “so far we have been proceeding with the building up of the Constitution in the ministerial sense and I do submit that we cannot go back upon it and it will upset the whole scheme and structure of the Constitution.” The tone and tenor of the debate in the Constituent Assembly set the foundation of the parliamentary system ensuring representation to diverse groups of people, which was much needed for a diverse country like India. It was in this backdrop that a close and proximate relationship evolved between the executive and the legislature. There are instances galore when the executive was held responsible for acts of omission and commission.
Thirty-seven years later, Vasant Sathe revived the debate on a Congress platform pitching for a presidential system by arguing that such a change is necessary because regional parties are emerging all around, and a coalition of these parties, even if it wins a majority, will not be able to “tackle problems like that of terrorists…”.
I read my esteemed colleague, Shashi Tharoor’s recent piece (IE, July 25, 2020, ‘Case for presidential system’) on his discontent with the parliamentary system with much alarm. The ever articulate parliamentarian mounts a scathing attack on the present democratic system, conflating the symptoms, it appears, with the disease. While there are several counts on which one strongly disagrees with Tharoor’s prescription, let me just broadly outline three that need to be seriously considered by the votaries of the presidential-style democratic system.
One, a cursory knowledge of the incumbent presidency in the US should be enough for us to summarily reject Tharoor’s arguments advocating for a presidential system in India. Several commentators have pointed out the similarities in how a combination of demagogic populism and ascendance of right-wing conservatism has eroded decades of progress achieved by democratic people’s movements in both India and the US. There is no political system that cannot be undermined if the democratic bulwark gives way.
Two, Tharoor assumes that the pathologies of the contemporary political system are innate to its design and structure. His arguments seem to suggest that the present system is particularly vulnerable to being undermined. While one shares his concerns — one is actually quite distressed at the sorry state of affairs — his diagnosis is quite off the mark. The system has served our extremely diverse country reasonably well in creating pathways to all kinds of groups and interests for participation in the political processes and governance structures. It has responded, even if inadequately, to the often competing, aspirations and claims of the citizens. The questions of inequitable distribution of resources and power, let us admit, are far from being settled. While these have been fundamental and enduring concerns, there are no easy shortcuts to substantively surmount them. It is through negotiating the hurly-burly of the political terrain that we may hope to redress them. If the process is messy, so be it. Let us understand that democracy is not merely a mechanism for governance, but crucial in giving a sense of representation, autonomy, and self-respect to those who participate in it.
Where I join Tharoor in his concern for the future of our country is the systematic way in which this system is being taken apart through blatant disregard of democratic norms, perversion of institutions, and undermining of people’s will. No system can withstand for long such a multi-pronged and relentless onslaught. It is not a bug in the system — it is the capture of the system that we should be concerned about at this stage. What we urgently require is un-barricaded spaces for fearless discussion to help people have an “informed opinion” and that would lead ordinary citizens to feel that they are part of the processes which will ultimately strengthen the edifice of democracy.
Three, there is always room for systemic reforms. In fact, there is no realm of our public life — from the policeman on the street to Parliament and the judiciary— that does not need to be made responsive to the demands of our times. But this cannot take the form of a managerial approach; it has to be mediated through politics, where people participate as citizens instead of consumers. Increasingly there are some small, but vocal, sections of society who have come to consider politics, and more broadly even democracy, as impediment to “development” and “growth”. Governance, they believe, should better be left to the “experts” — a shorthand for private capital operated technocratic bots.
However, it is the have-nots who have reposed their faith in politics time and again, with a hope that their voices and aspirations matter and they cannot be wished away or written out of their country’s destiny. We need more politics than less, now more than ever. The capture of the system will be resisted by the people, if those entrusted to protect it abdicate their responsibilities. As representatives of the people and a responsible Opposition, we need to make sure that we are on the right side of history.
The writer is a professor at University of Delhi and a member of the Rajya Sabha
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