India needs a new political culture, not a presidential system

Mohammed Ayoob


Congress MP Shashi Tharoor (‘Case for presidential system‘, IE, July 25) has very thoughtfully reopened the debate on the parliamentary versus presidential systems that had been dormant for several decades. He makes several valid points, including the propensity of lawmakers to defect at the drop of a hat in search of perks and offices, which he blames on the parliamentary system.

Consequently, according to Tharoor, the system produces governments focused more on politics and personal aggrandisement rather than policy. The sordid spectacle in Rajasthan bears testimony to the lack of interest on the part of the executive and the legislature in policymaking and legislation, preoccupied as they are with retaining or capturing power. Unfortunately, this continues to be true even when we are in distress today because of the pandemic.

I am not certain that this is the fault of the parliamentary system. The causes for the political malaise in India are manifold and they are not limited to a particular form of government. The first is the lack of ideological commitment, with the exception of a substantial portion of the devotees of Hindutva, on the part of the political class. Devoid of political principles many, if not most, politicians are up for sale. For these venal politicians, defection and party-hopping are not serious political maladies but essential components of their political strategy to attain or retain power.

This is unlikely to change even if India moves to a presidential system. In fact, it is probable that it will contribute hugely to an executive-legislature deadlock as a result of competitive buying or a legislature that is completely bought off by, and therefore totally subservient to, the executive by the offer of perks. The latter will completely invalidate the basic principles of separation of powers and checks and balances that are essential pre-requisites for a presidential system.

Second, caste and communal considerations play a big role in Indian elections. This is a societal virus that is unlikely to disappear by switching to a presidential system. The same considerations will apply in choosing a presidential cabinet that affects cabinet formation in a parliamentary system. It is utopian to assume that the president will choose his cabinet based primarily on considerations of merit. In fact, leaving the choice of the cabinet to the whims and fancies of the president will additionally vitiate the process.
Third, in the absence of a viable party structure, the presidential system will encourage even more irresponsible behaviour by elected legislators, especially those belonging to opposition parties. If the current Indian legislatures are a cross between rubber-stamping bodies and those engaged in creating mayhem, legislatures in the presidential system will become infinitely worse with both these characteristics on display on a much larger scale. They are unlikely to transform themselves into genuinely deliberative bodies that Tharoor imagines they could become. It is far more likely that they will turn into highly reckless gatherings engaged in pork-barrel activities primarily for personal gains.

The problem lies not with the parliamentary system but with the political culture of the country. This is demonstrated above all by the way voters make their choices based on communal, caste and other primordial considerations and in response to emotional appeals rather than making informed choices about public needs and services. The sorry state of India’s public health system during this pandemic is clear evidence that public health was not a consideration for the voters when casting their ballots in state and parliamentary elections. The wasteful expenditure indulged in by governments is testimony to the callousness of the authorities as well as the apathy of the general public. All this proves the truth of the maxim “people get the government they deserve.”

Misplaced, indeed highly distorted, public priorities and the ingrained venality of the political class are the root causes of the malaise in the Indian polity. These twin factors and not particular forms of government are the independent variables that help explain the sorry state of democratic institutions that Tharoor laments so eloquently. I am afraid Indians will have to live with this situation until the political culture of the country at the popular level and at the level of the political class undergoes a radical transformation. Changing the parliamentary form into a presidential one is not the panacea.

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