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If Only Prime Minister Narendra Modi Was Truly ‘Presidential’

Bhanu DhamijaBhanu Dhamija

Founder of Divya Himachal & Author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’

Many Indians believe Prime Minister Narendra Modi is governing India as if he was President under a US style presidential system. Nothing could be further from the truth. No doubt Modi has copied many of the presidential system’s practices, especially in his style of campaigning, but in his governing style, Modi is entirely free from the famous checks and balances at the core of that system. This has left India with the worst of both worlds: a “presidential” PM who practices populism but wields unfettered power.

Checks and Balances in Presidential System

Nationwide popularity and control over the country’s legislature and state governments doesn’t make a Prime Minister “presidential”. In fact, it was to avoid this dangerous combination that the presidential system was invented by America’s founders. They worried that a popular leader elected directly by the entire country would become autocratic.

They placed in their Constitution a slew of checks, including a legislature that is beyond the president’s control. As a result, no American President in history has been able to rule autocratically. And we all see now how President Trump’s shenanigans have been cut down to size by that system’s controls.

Modi is not our first “presidential” Prime Minister. Since our Independence, reigning PMs have been viewed as “rulers” of the country. For 17 years, Jawaharlal Nehru was an unquestioned leader who could make or break state governments, and pass any legislation in Parliament. Indira Gandhi reigned supreme for most of her 15 years in office. Her Emergency was the epitome of unfettered rule.

* To avoid just such unrestrained power, many of India’s leading thinkers – from BR Ambedkar to Shashi Tharoor – have advocated adopting the presidential system, or at least its key features

United States of India

Indians tend to forget that establishing runaway PMs is in the very nature of India’s system of government. In his recent article ‘The Presidential Prime Minister Narendra Modi’ (published in ThePrint, 18 September 2017), Ashwani Kumar contends that Modi is “a new hybrid political creature.”

He bases this on how Modi has converted 543 Lok Sabha constituencies into one national constituency, and how he is reorganising ministries, administrative departments, and regulatory processes at will. “Suffused with the Nietzschean will-to-power,” Kumar says, “Modi does not bother about the cacophony of hoots, cackles, and wails in legislative debates.”

Ambedkar proposed to India’s Constituent Assembly that the country be named the “United States of India,” with a government similar in many ways to the US system. “The British type of executive,” he wrote, “will be full of menace to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for India’s minorities.”

Tharoor’s case for the presidential system is well known; he says we must have a system of government whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power. KM Munshi, JRD Tata, Nani Palkhivala, Khushwant Singh, LK Advani, Arun Shourie, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee are just a few of the others who have suggested that India should consider that form of government.

Strengthening the Legislature

The presidential system’s advantages to India have never been clearer. Today, the country needs more than ever a good system to protect its “unity in diversity.” This can be accomplished only with a mix of national supremacy and local autonomy that the presidential form of government offers. India urgently needs a strong legislature. This too is possible only when people’s representatives are empowered individually as in the US system.

We have a dire need for more effective governance on the ground. This can be met only when local governments are made accountable to the people via direct elections. And there is no doubt that India desperately needs stronger oversight of government, which is possible only when legislatures are not under government control, as in the presidential system.

The American presidency is the most restricted type of executive in the world

America’s founder chose a single-person executive not to grant him all powers, but to assign him all responsibility. When James Wilson, father of the American presidency, first proposed a one man executive, he did so because the office required “energy, dispatch, and responsibility.” There was to be no British-type Cabinet, because it “oftener serves to cover than prevent malpractices,” he said. The framers of the US Constitution put this one person executive under unprecedented checks. The primary check was an independent legislature, in which the executive couldn’t even sit, let alone control.

Modi’s Governance in Presidential System

Without such structural checks, it is no wonder that Indian PMs have routinely become “rulers”. If Modi was governing under the presidential system, he wouldn’t be able to do 80 percent of what he now does. He wouldn’t be engaged in forming or dissolving state governments. He could still be a star campaigner in state elections, but he would have no control over who becomes governor or chief minister of a state, or what laws are passed by state governments.

Modi wouldn’t be able to make laws needed by his own central government. The nation’s legislature would be run by representatives and senators elected independently and directly by the people. He couldn’t dictate or dissolve Parliament. He would have veto power, but that could be overruled if there was wide support behind a bill in the legislature.

Under the presidential system, Modi wouldn’t even be able to appoint his own Cabinet without the approval of the legislature. All key ministers – External Affairs, Home, Defence, and Finance – would need to be confirmed via public hearings on the floor of Parliament.

So, when an Indian PM starts to behave with fiat, we must ask whether this is in the country’s larger interest. Modi might be governing with “non-legislative unilateral executive orders,” or engaged in “stealthy transformation of the parliamentary system,” as Ashwani Kumar says. But, he is not unique in India’s history, nor is he making our system of government any better for future generations.

For those of us who know about the presidential system, Modi has not bamboozled us, as Kumar said. He has only made us more worried about our country’s future.

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