Obama shows why India must not seek a presidential system

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.

6 thoughts on “Obama shows why India must not seek a presidential system”

  1. you mean to say India should wait till a 100% PERFECT political system comes out in this world and let the politicians feed on blood of people. Why don’t you understand that nothing is perfect (if you come to fault finding then even ramrajya will fail) and it two systems stink then we should choose something which stinks less.

  2. Sir,

    The anti-defection law in our country glaringly misses mention in this article.

    [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.]
    Since anti-defection, law-making is done by political parties, where as the voters elect legislators. Given this scheme of things, it is not at all surprising that policies and outcomes bear no relation to what voters want.

    [These are good reasons for reforming the current Indian system.]
    Double thumbs-up!

    [The US President is directly elected,]
    Would that he was. They include some electoral-college intermediate, which is FPTP state-wise, to complicate matters. Not unlike our laws. But to salvage them somewhat, perhaps reliable counting equipment was not available when they designed this system.

    [and so cannot be toppled by defectors (the fate of VP Singh),]
    No longer possible!

    [Today, the Republicans control the House of Representatives, and so can defeat Obama’s budgets, nominees for office, and proposed laws.]
    But sir, law-making is the Parliament’s (or the Congress’s) job.

    The problem, in general, seems to be that the executive, especially the political executive, is unhappy with the checks and balances placed upon it. And that is understandable, since its JD doesn’t offer much scope for creativity.

    This is especially true when — as in India — the legislature comes up with daunting behemoths for laws.

    In the USA, it doesn’t help that the President comes from the same two political parties which largely occupy the Congress. This problem is magnified severalfold in India.

    At the end of the day, though, as you pointed out in your “End of US individualism” article, the governments need to watch their welfare spending. While the US debt ceiling HAS to be raised now, it should not be done again and again, recklessly.


  3. No system is free from flaws and at last it has to depend on people involved in carrying out different functions. As you are pointing out that opposition can force debt default in US, I do agree that constitutionally it is possible but at stake is not only president but also in two party system republicans have to keep future polls in mind. So the function of opposition is not only controlled by constitutional mandate but also by public sentiment. And in our system without strong and responsible leadership, opposition is not even needed, the government itself can bring country under huge debt through inadequate policies and mountainous scams. I am not in support of any particular leader like Narendra Modi but I do share the conviction of Nehru of powerful Prime Minister.

  4. The Leader of a nation (the PM in our case) has to have the people’s mandate and should not be indirectly elected by proxy by elected members.

    Having the people’s mandate provides a important credibility to the leader who then is made accountable for his/her actions.

    Our country is now in an uneviable position of having a proxy leader hoisted upon them who neither has the people’s mandate nor the accountability that comes with it. The person who has the mandate is not in the picture after she did not fulfill the mandate that was bestowed upon her. This is a systemic failuire.

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