I believe it is time for the world’s biggest democracy to take a page out of the oldest democracy—for India to adopt a U.S-style presidential system, with the parliament acting as do the American Senate and House.
India was born as a sovereign nation in 1947 after an unprecedented non-violent freedom struggle and liberation from the British. India benefitted from adopting many British traditions—their system of parliamentary democracy, the English language, the legal and court system, to name a few.
Parliamentary democracy served India well when there were leaders of national stature and credibility. However, since Indira Gandhi and, to some extent, Rajiv Gandhi, we have not seen a national leader emerge as the Prime Minister who can attract the support and earn the respect of voters from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Instead, India has had successive coalition governments with talented people such as Manmohan Singh hampered by the whims and antics of powerful regional politicians who use their support to the Government as a bargaining chip to further their narrow political ends while never providing the sustained support to any elected government to serve out its term. A simple no-confidence motion has been used many times in the last two decades to bring down the elected government. These coalition governments, formed with support of political parties with no common ideology, allow fringe parties to hold the government and the nation to ransom, with the resulting paralysis of governance.
Besides promoting a national sense and purpose, with the assurance of stability and the promise of being able to govern an entire term, the presidential system will also allow and encourage talented achievers in academia or the private sector to step into the public arena. Can you imagine the quality of governance and the possibilities that India can achieve if an eminent person like the former Infosys Chairman Narayana Murthy or the former (appointed) President Abdul Kalam was a directly elected President of India?
Unfettered by party politics or the need to horse trade for majority in parliament, someone like them can chart a progressive course for success in both social and economic spheres.
Requiring a presidential aspirant to appeal to over 700 million registered India voters will force the candidate to understand, relate to, and propose solutions that will work across the nation with sensitivities to the regional, demographic, language, and cultural differences.
A directly elected President in India, along with a Senate and House that act as checks to power, will bring greater stability of governance, attract eminent talent into public service, enhance economic and social progress, promote national integration, and accelerate India toward being the economic powerhouse of the world.
Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.
No, the American system has too many problems to be imported into India.
The United States has a presidential system where the chief executive is a directly elected representative of the people. So are members of congress. This gives rise to an inherent conflict for legitimacy. The most recent demonstration of this was seen last summer in the fight over raising the debt ceiling. Currently with the executive and legislative branches belonging to two ideologically different political parties, government has pretty much come to a grinding halt. India has risen to economic prominence in the past two decades while being under the parliamentary system. It is a system that has worked for a majority of the countries around the globe and deserves to be preserved.
If the argument is that there should be one chief executive who can represent all of the people of India, it is worth considering if this is possible with the country’s diverse electorate.
Can a single person represent the interest of all citizens? This seems to be a tough task even in United States where there is just one official language.
One of the problems with the presidential system is that the President is often credited with too much influence on the success or failure of the economy. What voters tend to forget is that tax, regulatory, and trade policies are not the main drivers of economic prosperity.
Economic upturns and downturns are cyclical and depend on the actions of the Federal Reserve and the global dynamics of a world that is getting increasingly flat. Voters invest the office of the presidency with often superhuman powers, leading to widespread disappointment with even the most well-intentioned leader.
The presidential system is supposed to be lead to stable governance. But we’ve seen in the United States that 24-hr news cycle makes presidential elections a gladiatorial contest in which campaigning for the next elections begins as soon as the first one is over.Fundraising needs mean that even when elected, the President has to remain in campaign mode, tailoring his words and public actions to remain electable for the second term.
A key component of a functioning democracy is having a well informed electorate. Recent data would suggest that this is easier said than done. Consider the 2008 election where there was a democratic “tidal wave.” This was immediately succeeded by a Tea Party takeover in 2010 where the darlings in the previous cycle became the bums who needed to be thrown out. Polling of the American electorate often indicates a very low congressional approval rating while a vast majority of congress gets re-elected every election cycle. This suggests that the governing system in the United States has led to a whimsical electorate and a dysfunctional government. There are many fixes for this such as campaign reform, eliminating the filibuster rule, congressional term limits and so on. Before we fix these problems in United States, let us not tinker with the Indian parliamentary system.
Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.