Narendra Modi’s rise owes much to his image as a decisive, efficient go-getter. A recent magazine poll showed 86% of new voters wanting an “authoritative and decisive” prime minister. They hate the corrupt bumbling and drift of the UPA government.
For the same reason, many Indians favour a presidential system of government, to ensure decisive and clean governance. Remember, during the debates on the creation of the Constitution, a presidential system was favoured by big names like BR Ambedkar and Shibban Lal Saxena.
In a presidential system, the ruler has a clear mandate personally from the people. This contrasts with parliamentary systems with coalitions. The Prime Minister can emerge after much negotiation, and can be a non-entity with no public backing, like Inder Gujral. Parliamentary systems can lead to hung parliaments that are highly instable, indecisive and corrupt, leading to the purchase of legislators with promises of office or cash. Actual policies and outcomes bear no relation to what voters want, or what the public interest may be — the very private interests of a few legislators can decide who rules and what laws are passed.
These are good reasons for reforming the current Indian system. But the current political farce in the US proves that a presidential system can be just as indecisive, bumbling and corrupt as a parliamentary system.
Indians moan and groan about their political system but so do Americans. The US President is directly elected, and so cannot be toppled by defectors (the fate of VP Singh), or the break-up of a ruling coalition, or by withdrawal of outside support to a minority government (the fate of Gujral). Yet, as Obama has discovered, direct election does not make him authoritative, decisive, or free from constant deal-making.
There is no guarantee that the President’s party will control both houses of the US Congress. Today, the Republicans control the House of Representatives, and so can defeat Obama’s budgets, nominees for office, and proposed laws. The Republicans have just ensured that many parts of the US government have to be shut down for want of funds. They now threaten to halt any increase in the government’s total debt, which means that by late October the US government may default on its debts. India is guilty of a thousand sins including corrupt and wasteful spending, but its Opposition parties cannot shut down the government or force a debt default. Warts and all, the Indian parliamentary system looks saner and stabler than the American one today.
Even when the US President’s party controls both Houses of Congress, legislators have agendas of their own. The President has to cajole or bribe them with promises of projects or subsidies for their districts and favoured vote banks, and even so may fail. President Clinton, for instance, was elected in 1992 on a platform promising healthcare reform to cover all Americans. But despite all his deal-making and cajoling, he couldn’t get Congressional approval, even though his party controlled both Houses.
Sobered by this history, Obama refrained from crusading for his own version of healthcare. Instead he just provided a broad outline, and left all reform details to the two Houses, accepting the many compromises that emerged. Lesson: even on a top priority issue, the US President cannot be “authoritative, forceful and decisive”. He has to persuade others, and such persuasion includes deals to meet the demands of key legislators. This is not quite cash for votes, but stinks morally. Let nobody think that the US system ensures noble adherence to the public interest, or lessens the influence of key vote banks and politicians.
Now, presidents have certainly been all-powerful in communist countries and dictatorships across the world. They have certainly been authoritative and decisive. But that’s not what Modi’s supporters want. They seek a democratic government that is stable, decisive, and free from blackmail or corrupt demands.
Switching to a US-style presidential system cannot ensure this. Directly elected presidents have to deal with elected legislators having their own agendas, and cannot steamroller them.
Rather than go presidential, a good reform of our system would be for Parliament to elect the prime minister after every election for a full term. This means he cannot be toppled, can focus on good governance, and resist blackmail by corrupt legislators and vote banks. However, the prime minister will still need to take others along with him. Legislators will continue to wield much power, and rightly so.
Democracy means spreading power among several people and institutions to act as checks and balances, not concentrating all power in a president. Our governments should be somewhat more decisive, but not completely so.