SHOULD WE CHANGE THE SYSTEM?

 

Prof. A. PRASANNA KUMAR

 

            During the last one year there has been a great deal of discussion about the system of government in India, with strong pleas being made for a switch over to the Presidential type. On the other hand equally strong arguments are being put forth for the retention of the Parliamentary system which is now over 33 years old. Similar discussion was there in the mid and late ’Sixties when the same question was actively debated. The only difference then was that the ruling party at the Centre and in many states did not enjoy an overwhelming majority as it does now. Some ask, why revive the question now? Is there really a need to revamp the structure in favour of a single executive, say, as in the United States or elsewhere? What are the compelling reasons for such a change over when the party in power now can do anything it wants to do, subject to, of course, occasional checks by the judiciary?

 

            We adopted the British model (not wholly though) after years of deliberations and discussions in the Constituent Assembly which contained “the best minds” of those times. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar observed that the Constituent Assembly had greater modicum of knowledge than the future Parliament was likely to have. Nehru pleading for restraint at all levels proclaimed: “Power is necessary but wisdom is essential; it is only power with wisdom that is good.” By and large many experts hailed the system of government that was set up and the manner in which it began to function. Even the usually critical Manchester Guardian lavished praise on Nehru’s democracy likening it to Pericles’s Athens. Granville Austin in his monumental work on the Indian Constitution said that the Constitution expresses the will of the many rather than the needs of the few.

 

            The Parliamentary type has its origins in England where an ensemble of several things like conventions, customs, accidents and design helped in the evolution of a healthy system of government. The executive, in the Parliamentary type, emerges in and is responsible to the legislature. The executive is the “effective policy-maker.” So long as the cabinet enjoys an absolute majority in Parliament there is very little it cannot do. Woodrow Wilson called it superior to the American Presidential-Congressional system. It has its undoubted virtues, though the system did not produce the same stability in other European countries for a variety of reasons.

 

            The Presidential system which came into being much later than the Parliamentary type, is found in the United States and in some other countries. Both the systems do not strictly conform to a pattern and quite a few deviations are found in each of these wherever they exist. In France for instance the President under the V Republic is the key figure and the powers of Parliament have been drastically reduced.

 

            Let us also not forget the fact that the American system of government was created and moulded on lines dissimilar to those of the British. The fathers of the American Constitution had not only a strong dislike for the British type but also harboured a “mistrust” of executive and governmental authority. The accretion of power to the President took place in the time of such strong Presidents like Jackson and Lincoln and enlargement of the role during the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Some of the important features of the Presidential system, as it obtains in the United States, are: (1) centrality of an elective President who is Chief of State and Chief of Government, (2) the separation of the legislature from the executive (checks and balances), (3) the absence of a party tie to unite both, (4) the independence enjoyed by the bureaucracy which is accountable to both the executive and the legislature, (5) the existence of 50 States which are free of Federal control in many matters and which at times act as rivals to the Federal authority and (6) the important role played by the Supreme Court as the interpreter and as the “watch-dog” of the Constitution.

 

            Both the Presidential and Parliamentary systems have undergone changes, particularly after the world wars due to the impact of rapidly progressing science and technology. The role of mass media in the making or unmaking of the chief executives and in unmasking governmental excesses cannot be exaggerated. Equally relevant it is to mention that economic factors have come to profoundly influence the domestic and foreign policies of many countries, big, or small, advanced or developing. The erosion of values and the adoption of new styles of political behaviour have brought about perceptible changes in many systems. The radio and TV, for instance, have eroded the popularity of Parliamentary debates.

 

            It is indeed ironic that at a time when some voices are being raised in the United States in support of “structural changes” even a slight tilt toward the Parliamentary type, we in India are thinking of switching over to the American type. Lloyd Cutler writing in “Foreign Affairs” (fall 1980) observed that the main problem of the American Government is the stalemate that results due to the rivalry between the Congress and the President. Programmes, Cutler points out, cannot be implemented. He says that Chancellor Schmidt of West Germany with a bare majority of 4 could carry out programmes whereas “no President of modern times could form a government that could legislate and carry out overall program.” Cutler quotes Woodrow Wilson in support of his argument and pleads for changes to correct “structural faults.” In the words of Wilson “power and strict accountability for its use are the essential constituents of good government.” Wilson even preferred a Parliamentary type for the U. S.

 

            The question then is, whether there is a need for a change over in India to the Presidential type? Does the executive really find it difficult to carry out programmes? It is worth quoting in this context the observation that even the British system is “turning Presidential with the cabinet being a staff to the Prime Minister.” It is said that it would be more appropriate to call it “Presidentialist system” and the cabinet “Presidentialized cabinet.” Such is the power of the Prime Minister under the system that in comparison the American President often pales into insignificance. In reshuffling the cabinet or in allotting portfolios or even in sacking ministers, Prime Ministers of England and India have been as free as the American President.

 

            To my mind two reasons seem prominent for the protagonists of switch-over to the Presidential type. Firstly the Prime Minister will have a broader base, beyond the boundaries of the party, in making ministerial appointments. The Prime Minister can, if there is a change of system, appoint anyone outside Parliament as a minister. But that should not be difficult even under the existing system. Our parliamentarians and legislators are known for their quick-footedness and a mere hint of induction into the cabinet would be enough for them to shift loyalties without hesitation or delay. Outsiders can be inducted into the cabinet and elected to Parliament later as it happened several times in the past. The second point seems more important than the first. That is the Prime Minister and her Cabinet (not many in it being well-versed in the art of debate) need not have to face the opposition in Parliament, reply to questions and take part in debates and discussions. A lot of embarrassment and tension for the ruling party can be done away with if it is changed to the Presidential system. And with the mass media being neither as free nor as bold as their counterpart in America the executive can be free from the headaches of parliamentary business.

 

            I am reminded of the venerable Prof. Bhaskaran’s suggestion some years ago that the Swiss type of executive would perhaps be more suitable to us. He pointed out that at the state level political instability and corruption, severely damaged the democratic system in India. Let us take a quick look at the situation obtaining in most states. The Chief Minister generally is either a tyrant, caring little for his colleagues and the party or a political nitwit who is in the hands of powerful groups or a pathetic dependent on central leadership for survival. His aim is to make hay while the sun shines and the sunshine is never long enough. If that is the case why not we make some structural changes so that better leadership can be provided at the state level? Should it be a Swiss type of executive with a fixed tenure of office and with the members drawn from different groups and areas? Or the American governor-type executive for a period of four years or less? Can we afford for long the luxury of frequent cabinet expansions, regular defections and woefully wasteful spending of precious public money? Has the performance of State Governments in general strengthened public confidence in democratic system? Has not the failure of Panchayati Raj been a dark spot on Indian democracy? We often pride ourselves on the stability of our democracy. To some extent it is justifiable pride. But stability as Carole Pateman says “is not longevity but a capacity for adjustment to change, realization of political aspirations and the keeping of allegiances.” By that yardstick if we measure the progress of our democracy the record has been anything but good.

 

            Change for the sake of change could be disastrous. We cannot possibly throwaway a system that is supposed to have struck roots. We know too well that amending the Constitution is not very difficult. One is reminded of the comment that “the constitution of man changes the Constitution of State.” But any change that is effected must be preceded by careful deliberation of all aspects of the problem. Equally necessary it is to bear in mind that clinging all the time to the words of the fathers of the Constitution may not take us far. Even Thomas Jefferson by whom Americans often swear, remarked: “Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did beyond amendment....laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”

 

            So, the question of a change over to another type of government needs very careful examination. At the centre minor structural changes may be enough and the Parliamentary type need not undergo major constitutional surgery. But at the state and lower levels the situation in general is different. It calls for some major and urgent structural changes so that wastage of public funds and corruption can first be checked. Achievement of developmental goals will come later. Blaming the politicians all the time is no good as they are the products of our own society. Governments, as Chesterton said, are like clocks, run on the motion men give them. Years ago it was the Gandhian ethic that appealed to people and leaders, the ethic that placed sacrifice above selfishness and self-denial above self-gratification. The ethic is now reversed. Unless the Gandhian ethic is placed back on the high pedestal which had once been a beacon to all in India, no amount of structural change would help us in the gigantic task of building a stable and successful democracy.

 

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