Dr Shashi Tharoor’s address on the occasion of
the 10th Upendra Vajpeyi Memorial Lecture
on 6th April 2017
Mrs. Upendra Vajpeyi, Ambassador Lakhan Mehrotra, Mr. Raj Chengappa, Mr. O. P. Tandon, Mr. Ashok Tandon, distinguished members of the audience, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends, I hope that covers everybody. Thank you again Lakhan Sahab for a very generous introduction. I must say you are very very kind to cover such a vast area of my, not always joyful, life but you made it sound like an unbroken string of wonderful things to look back upon, which I am very pleased about. He even went so far as to mention my fondness for cricket. I have to confess that as a child I always wanted to play cricket very badly. And, unfortunately that’s just what I did, I played cricket very badly. So that is something that I did on weekends but I did right and I am so pleased that Ambassador Mehrotra liked the book Pax Indica because that is one which is about the field that he knows so well, the field of Indian diplomacy. It continues to sell because apparently a lot of UPSC candidates with an eye on the Foreign Service are following it. So, one of them wrote to me, asking how does Indian Diplomacy resemble the love making of an elephant, referring to my notorious line. He was asked this question by a UPSC interviewer after knowing that he had read my book.
So, how does the Indian Diplomacy resemble the love making of an elephant? Well, he did not know the answer because this is my book. The answer is, like the love making of an elephant, Indian Diplomacy is conducted at a very high level, accompanied by much bellowing, and the results are not known for 2 years. But anyway I promise you that’s the last joke for the evening.
It really is a privilege to be with you all today for this year’s Upendra Vajpeyi Memorial Lecture to celebrate the memory and legacy of the man who showed that he was not only a dutiful citizen in a new born country, but also a champion of the ideals that he and his illustrious contemporaries fought to preserve in another time. And, in whose memory today we really must continue the battle. In the memory of Shri Vajpeyi, we are quick to remember the analytical man of the Press; that, visionary journalism, which is why of course I am sure Mr. Raj Chengappa is here. But today let us also take a moment to remember the battle-hardened warrior of India, forced to give up several years of his life to a prison cell by an unforgiving colonial empire. This would have broken and disillusioned any normal man, but not Upendra Vajpeyi, who inspired by the life and leadership of the Mahatma, began his own journey to protect, preserve and, most importantly, publish the truth with remarkable courage and dignity.
I thank the Media India Centre for Research and Development for very kindly bestowing the honour upon me to deliver this year’s annual lecture, as a lasting testimony to this great man. His was an inspiring career of public service. Of course, what I have said is just a very brief glimpse into his larger list of achievements; it would be practically impossible to completely do justice this brief introduction. But, I do wonder what Shri Vajpeyi, given his experience as a Senior Parliament correspondent, would have thought of today’s brand of politics and power relations and of the system itself which increasingly allows politics to supersede good governance.
Is there a way out of this? And this brings me to the topic of my lecture today.
Now the sweeping electoral victory in 2014 of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which of course enjoys an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, seemed at first glance to usher in a period of parliamentary stability. So advocates of the Constitution changed, like myself, who has been arguing against our system for the last 25 years in print. Many of us feared that the parliamentary system was no longer capable of producing such a result, after all be argued to finally take a breather. Because of the three previous decades before this the political shenanigans in Delhi, notably the repeated paralysis of the parliament by slogan shouting members violating with impunity, every canon of legislative propriety, seemed to confirm once again what some of us have been arguing for years – that the parliamentary system we borrowed from the British in an Indian condition has outlived its utility. Has the time not come to renew the case, long consigned to the backburner, ever since the emergency for a Presidential system in India?
Now with Mr. Modi running the country in quasi-Presidential style already despite heading a parliamentary system, which I have argued, is the worst in both worlds, the question may seem absurd. But since nothing is permanent in politics, least of all the prospects of an indefinite BJP majority, the issue may still be worth examining.
The basic outline of the argument has been clear for some time. Our parliamentary system has created a unique breed of legislature, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only in order to wield executive power, or to influence it. It has produced governments at large to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has distorted all preferences of an electorate that knows which individual it wants but not necessarily which policies. It has pawned parties that are shifting alliances of expedient individual interest rather than the vehicle of coherent sets of ideas. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office. And obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalition.
It is time, in my view, for a change. Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of our major weakness. India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit decisive actions, whereas ours increasingly have permitted or promoted drift in decisions until 2014, but we will talk about that. We must have a system of governments whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power. The parliamentary system has not merely outlived any good it could do. It was from the start unsuited to Indian conditions and it’s primarily responsible for many of our principal political ills. Now to suggest this is political sacrilege in New Delhi, which is why Lakhan very generously accused me of the one thing that no politician is willing to be accused of, which is political courage in taking this topic.
But the fact is that barely any of the politicians have discussed this or are even willing to contemplate the change and the main reason for this is, of course, they know how to work the present system and do not wish to alter the ways they are used to.
But our reasons for choosing the British parliamentary system are themselves embedded in history. Like the American revolutionaries of two centuries ago, Indian nationalists have fought for the rights of Englishmen, which they thought the replication of the Houses of the Parliament would both epitomise and guarantee.
Yet the parliamentary system devised in Britain, a small island nation with the electorate initially of few thousand voters per MP, and even today less than a lakh per constituency, assumes a number of conditions which simply do not exist in India. It requires an existence of clearly defined political parties, each with a coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish it from the next. Whereas, in India, parties are all too often a label of convenience, which a politician adopts and discards as frequently as a Bollywood film star changes costumes. The principal parties, whether national or otherwise, are fuzzily vague about their beliefs. Every party’s ideology is one variant or another of centrist populism derived to a greater or lesser degree from the Nehruvian socialism of the Congress. We have 44 registered political parties recognised by the Election Commission and the staggering 903 registered, but unrecognised ones which range from something called the Adarsh Lok Dal – the real one is already not very Adarsh, so I suppose they need an Adarsh Lok Dal – to the Womanist Party of India… we actually have a party called the Womanist Party of India.
But with the sole exception of the BJP and the Communists, the existence of the serious political parties as entities separate from the big tent of the Congress is a result purely of electoral arithmetic or regional identities or caste identities, not political conviction. And even there, what on earth is the continuing case after the demise of the Soviet Union and the reinvention of China as a capitalist paradise for two separate recognised Communist parties and the dozen unrecognised ones?
The lack of ideological coherence in India is in stark contrast to the UK. With few exceptions, India’s parties all profess their faith in the same set of rhetorical clichés – notably socialism, secularism, a mixed economy and nonalignment terms, they are equally loathe to define. No wonder the Communists, when they served the United Front Government and when they supported the first UPA, had no difficulty signing on to the common minimum programme articulated by their bourgeois. The BJP used to be an exception, but in its attempts to broaden its base of support, it has borrowed so many Congressmen that it sounds and behaves more or less like the other parties, except of course, on their motivation of national identity.
So, our parties are not ideologically coherent. They take few distinguished positions and do not base themselves on political principle as organisational entities. Therefore they are dispensable and are being cheerfully dispensed with or split, reformed, merged, dissolved at the convenience of politicians. The sight of a leading figure from a major party leaving it to join another or to start his own, which would send shock waves through the political system in other parliamentary democracies such as in the West, is commonplace, even banal, in our country. I think every single minister in the BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh has been the minister in the Congress government before that. I mean that’s literally the experience that we have been seeing today and it’s not much different in Manipur. One prominent UP politician, as memory serves, has switched parties nine times in the last couple of decades. But his voters have been voting for him and not the label he was supporting. But then he came a cropper in 2014 and hasn’t recovered since.
In the absence of a real party system, the voter chooses not between parties but individuals. Usually, on the basis of the personal image, or personal qualities like caste, perhaps something or the other that makes them the attractive person. So, since the individual is elected however to be a part of majority that performed the Government party affiliations matters, so voters are told that if they wanted Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister or MGR or MTR as their Chief Minister; and we can upgrade those references by saying Modi as Prime Minister or Jayalalitha or Mamta as Chief Minister, then they must vote for someone else in order to indirectly accomplish that result. So when, I remember in my childhood, Indira Gandhi’s picture was in everybody’s elections posters etc. It didn’t matter what the name of the candidate was, he would really vote for Indira Gandhi; and the same today, very often for BJP candidates, they are really campaigning for Narendra Modi to be Prime Minister and when it comes to Mamta and Jayalalitha and so on, campaigns are very much around them and the candidates almost don’t matter.
So, it’s the perversity that only the British could have devised to vote for a legislature not to legislate but in order to form the executive. So much for political theory, but the result of the profusion of small parties is that for a familiar quarter of a century, before 2014, we have had coalition governments of a couple of dozen parties… say Mr. Vajpeyi’s government had 24 coalition partners, UPA had 23. Some of these, of course, would have handful of members of parliamentary party, even one man parties, are the members of these coalitions.
Our parliament had not, until 2014, seen a single party majority since Rajiv Gandhi lost in 1989. As a result, for the longest time, India’s democracy had been condemned to be run by the lowest common denominator, hardly a recipe for decisive actions. The political process that is following in India and the widespread cynicism about the motives of our politicians can be traced directly to the workings of the parliamentary system. Holding the executive hostage to their agenda of a range of motley partners is nothing but a recipe for government instability and precisely what India, with its critical economic and social challenges, cannot afford. The fact that the principal reason for entering Parliament is to attain governmental office creates four specific problems.
First, it limits executive post to those who are electable rather than to those who are able. The Prime Minister cannot appoint a Cabinet of his choice. He has to have members who are already elected to either house and he has to cater to the wishes of the political leaders of the coalition allied parties. Yes, he can bring some members in through the Rajya Sabha but our upper house too has been largely to preserve full time politicians so that the talent pool has not been significantly widened.
Second, it puts the premium on defection and horse-trading. The Anti-Defection Act of 1985 was necessary because in many states from 1967 onwards, and from 1979 in the Centre, parliamentary floor crossing has become a popular pastime. Remember the famous Aaya Ram Gaya Ram expression. Lakhs of rupees, many ministerial posts changed hands and, of course, after the Anti-Defection Law, that cannot now happen without attracting disqualification, so the bargaining has shifted to the legions of the whole parties rather than individuals. Given the present national mood, however, with the BJP enjoying an absolute majority itself, such anxiety seems remote.
But I shudder to think what will happen after the next elections. Right now, in any case, with the Anti-Defection Act you have the whip system where every MP is told how to vote by his party on every issue, every Bill that comes up. And, if he does not do so according to his party’s wishes he can actually be expelled not from the party but from the parliament. So the problem with this is that you have an undemocratic whip system and the only reason for it is because the parliamentary majority determines the survival of the government. So, if you didn’t have a direct connection with the majority in parliament and being the ruler of the country, then you wouldn’t have a defection problem.
Third, legislation suffers. Most laws in our country are drafted by the executive and practised by the bureaucracy and parliamentary input into their formulation in passages is minimum but very many Bills passing after just a few minutes of real debate. The ruling coalition inevitably issues a whip to its members in order to show the unimpeded passage of the Bill and, of course as I said since, defiance will attract disqualifications and MPs loyally vote as their party directs. The parliamentary system does not permit the existence of a legislature distinct from the executive applying its collective mind freely to the nation’s laws and holding the government. Apologists for the present system say in its defence that it has served to keep the country together and given every Indian a stake in the nation’s political destiny. But that is what democracy has done, not the parliamentary system. Any form of genuine democracy would do that and ensuring popular participation and accountability between elections is vitally necessary. But what happened is our system has not done as well as other democratic systems might, to ensure effective performance. Even the sight of Mr. Modi, with his crushing majority and his Presidential style of rule, running around every six months to State elections to campaign for his party, shows you the truth to what I am saying. How much of his time is he devoting to governing the country that he has been elected to do and how much to keeping the BJP in power and winning power in 28 different States?
The case for a Presidential System, of either the French or the American style, has, in my view, never been clearer. The French version by combining Presidential rule with the parliamentary government headed by Prime Minister is superficially more attractive since it resembles our own system except for reversing the balance of power between the President and the Council of Ministers. This is what the Sri Lankans opted for when they jettisoned the British model and took a Presidential System. But given India’s fragmented party system, the prospects for the parliamentary chaos distracting the elected President are considerable.
An American or Latin American model, with the President serving both as a Head of State and as a Head of the Government, might better evade the problems we have experienced with political factionalism. Either approach would separate the legislative functions from the executive and, most important free the executive from dependence on the legislature for its survival.
A directly elected Chief Executive in New Delhi, we call him President or whatever, instead of being vulnerable to the shifting sands of coalition support politics, would, having stability of tenure free from legislature whim, be able to appoint a Cabinet of talents and, above all be able to devote his or her energies to governance and not to politics or government. The Indian voter would be able to vote directly for the individual that he or she wants to be ruled by and the President would truly be able to claim to speak for a majority of Indians rather than a majority of MPs.
At the end of a fixed period of time, let’s say the same 5 year we currently accord to our Lok Sabha, the public would be able to judge the individual on performance in improving the lives of Indians rather than on political skill that keep the government in office. It is, in my view, a compelling case. Why then do the arguments for the Presidential system get short shrift from our political class?
At the most basic level our parliamentarians in the parliamentary system rest on familiarity. This is the system they know. They are comfortable with it. They know how to make it work for themselves. They have polished the skills required to triumph in it. Most known politicians in India would see that as a disqualification rather than as a recommendation for a decaying status quo. The most serious argument advanced by liberal democrats is that the Presidential system carries with it the risk of dictatorship. They conjure up the image of the imperious President, immune to Parliamentary defeat and impervious to public opinion, ruling the country by fear. Of course, it does not help that during the Emergency, Shrimati Indira Gandhi contemplated abandoning the parliamentary system for a modified form of Gaullism, thereby discrediting the idea of Presidential government in many democratic Indian eyes. But the Emergency is itself the best answer to such fears. It demonstrated that even a parliamentary system can be distorted to permit autocratic rule.
Dictatorship is not the result of a particular type of governmental system. The rise of Mr. Narendra Modi to near absolute power paradoxically reaffirms these fears and provides their refutation. It will be argued that the adoption of the Presidential system would pave the way for a Modi dictatorship in India. But a President Modi could scarcely be more autocratic than the Prime Minister we have seen in his first three years in office. One who has sidelined all the BJP politicians and statesmen who are senior to him relegating the most senior to a mentor group, Marg Darshak Mandal, which has no function or authority whatsoever and has never met. He has appointed junior figures to keep Ministerial portfolios to make it clear that he personally would call the shots in what is supposed to be in the parliamentary system their areas of responsibility. He has dismantled the UPA’s decision-making empowered groups of Ministers and instead disempowered his Ministers deciding his Cabinet’s agenda without consultation and he has dealt directly with the bureaucracy and their Secretaries bypassing their nominal bosses, the Ministers.
In a Parliamentary system, in fact, it’s the Cabinet that is supposed to be collectively accountable to the Parliament and the Ministers who rise to answer questions on the policies that they have extensively formulated. Under Mr. Modi, MPs find themselves in the odd position of interrogating Ministers about decisions they may have nothing to do with and to explain policies formulated by the bureaucracy directly with the Prime Minister. How could a President Modi be any worse than a Prime Minister Modi?
In any case to offset the temptation for the national President to become all powerful, and to give real substance to the decentralization essential for a country of India’s size, an executive Chief Minister or Governor should also be directly elected in each of the States, most of which suffer from precisely the same anomalies and the same maladies that have identified our system.
So, the case for such a system is even stronger in the States than in the Centre. And those who reject the Presidential system on the grounds that it might lead to dictatorship may be assured that the powers of the President would thus be balanced by those of the directly elected Chief Executive in the States. But I go even further. We need a directly elected Chief Executive not only at the Centre and other States but also at local levels. We need directly elected Mayors, directly elected Panchayat heads. Even a Communist autocracy like China empowers its local authorities with genuine decentralised powers. If a businessman wants to set up a factory he will go to the Mayor of a town in China and say this is what I need, this is the widget I want to manufacture, this is how much land I need for my factory, these are the number of workers I need, this is the road, the electricity, the water, the sanitation, the access to the market or port and this Mayor, one person, can grant him all of these if he wants to. Whereas in India you couldn’t talk to the Mayor, you discover he is little more than a glorified chairman of a powerless committee which can’t give him any of these things and nor can anyone in the committee give any of these things. Everything goes through multiple checks and balances and finally an IAS officer and Municipal Commissioner will decide where the money is going to be spent. It’s a really pathetic system we have and to give effect to meaningful self-government, we need these directly elected Mayors, Panchayat Presidents, Zila Presidents with real authority, real financial budgetary control and resources to deliver results in their own geographical areas.
The intellectual defenders of the present system feel that it does remarkably well in reflecting the heterogeneity of the Indian people, the diversity bringing the more along in the journey of the national development which a Presidential system might not. But, even a President will have to work with an elected legislature which, given the logic of electoral arithmetic and the pluralist reality of India, is bound to be home for our country’s heterogeneity. Any President worth his democratic soul would name a Cabinet reflecting the diversity of our nation. As Bill Clinton said in his own country, “My Cabinet must look like America”, so obviously you would want a Cabinet that looks like India.
Some sort of monolithic uniformity that would follow the adoption of a Presidential system is not, in my view, a serious one. Democracy, as I have argued in a number of my books, is vital for India’s survival, a chronic pluralism is a basic element of who we are. Yes, democracy is an end in itself and we are right to be proud of it. But few Indians are proud of the kind of politics that our democracy has inflicted upon us. With the need and challenges of 1/6th of humanity before our leaders, we must have a democracy that delivers progress to our people. Changing to a Presidential system is the best way of ensuring a democracy that works, is the most important thing for India, some might ask. Dr. Ambedkar had argued in the Constituent Assembly that the framers of the Constitution felt that the parliamentary system placed responsibility over stability – his words – while the Presidential did the opposite. He did not refer to accountability and performances as the two choices but the idea is the same.
Is efficiency and performance the most important yardstick for judging our system, when the inefficiencies of our present system have arguably helped keep India united, “muddling through” as the “functioning anarchy” in Galbraith’s famous phrase? To me, yes. After nearly seven decades of freedom, we can take our democracy and our unity largely for granted. It is time to focus on delivering results for our people.
It’s worth revisiting Dr. Ambedkar’s views because of course he has often quoted against reversing his choice of the Parliamentary system, but actually he initially advocated the Presidential one. There was a debate in the Constituent Assembly and he went along finally and explaining to the Constituent Assembly why, I quote him here, he said, “the Presidential system is based on the separation of the executive and the legislature so the President and the Secretaries cannot be the members of Congress.”
The Ministers under the Indian Union, however, are members of Parliament and only members of Parliament can become Ministers. They can sit in the Parliament; take part in debates, vote in its proceedings and so on. Both systems of government of Dr. Ambedkar are, of course, democratic and the choice between the two is not very easy. A democratic executive must satisfy two conditions – it must be a stable executive and it must be a responsible executive. He says you can’t devise a system in which both are equally present; so, he says the American and the Swiss system give more stability, the British system will give you more responsibility and, therefore he says that the parliamentary government under which a government must resign as soon as it loses the confidence of the majority of the Parliament is more responsible. This is his argument and I can’t blame him for laying it up as this is all fairly basic because the fact is that the electorate in the US holds the President responsible. In fact, if you were to look at the American system, the individual doesn’t have the excuse any more that he had coalition Dharma to worry about. He or she, one day there will be a she in America, is accountable for what they have promise to do and will have to explain to the voters why they couldn’t do it. Whereas, of course, in the parliamentary system, we have all the various means that are theoretically available, but, in practice, with the whip system and the Defection Bill, parties are essentially holding their executives accountable. MPs are really given the freedom to challenge the government and certainly the overwhelming crushing majority that today’s government enjoys means that accountability is essentially nonexistent even if a Lok Sabha gives the best possible arguments against something the government wants to do. They just crack the whip, their majority votes for them and that’s that. Even the most reasonable suggestions are often not accepted by the majority. I will give you one example where the government brought the innocuous Bill that we had no objection to about workers’ rights. The fact is that it was a Bill that required workers to be given in writing what their rights were by the employers. The Bill had been passed. When they brought that Bill, I suggested a very simple amendment that we allow the workers, particularly in Northern India a good 20% of the workers are still illiterate, and let them know their rights orally as well as in writing. Giving them the paper full of legal jargon they won’t understand may not necessarily be giving their rights, so I said orally as well as in writing. Fairly reasonable thing and I saw many members in the BJP side at the Treasury benches nodding their heads in agreement. But, when my amendment was moved, of course, the BJP said – the whip, our Bill will pass. Boom! Out it went! Even something as commonsense as that. So this is the way our system works. I mean that there is no real accountability that Ambedkar thought would be on a daily basis through Parliament. It doesn’t really happen.
So, has the Indian parliamentary system functioned as Dr. Ambedkar envisioned? The notion that it provides a daily assessment of responsibility would be laughable given the performance of the last Parliament with all the disruptions and adjournments and this parliament with its brute majority.
But the sad thing is that this need for responsibility is so acute. Some might ask what would happen to issues of performance if the President and legislature were elected from opposite and antagonistic parties. Would that not impede efficiency? Yes, in America you often have gridlock. Barack Obama discovered how difficult it was to get anything done with a hostile Congress. But in India there is no risk of that. That is a risk only of a two-party system in a Presidential System. Our parties whip 36 parties in Parliament. So all our President would need to do is to actually form issue-based coalition to get different Bills through different issues. Yes, he will have his own party there which may or may not have a majority, but on many issues since voting against the President is not going to bring the President down. The President continues for his 5 years of office. He would be able to make a reasonable deal with certain opposition parties to get certain Bills through and may be different coalition for different Bills. It actually would create a more democratic system.
So, this would test the mettle of the leadership of the day; but what’s wrong with that? In any case our fragmented polity, as I say, makes a US style two-party gridlock quite impossible, and with 37, not 36, 37 parties in the Lok Sabha currently, I think one could argue that it doesn’t really matter if the future Indian President does not enjoy majority in Parliament. Will these issue-based coalitions, temporary alliances with the few smaller parties from one policy to the next deploy your persuasive skills to get the legislation through? This would actually mean that the Presidential system would be the opposite of the dictatorial steam roller that the critics say it would be because, in fact, it would have to be a persuasive presidency.
Now what precisely would be the mechanism for popularly electing the President and how would they avoid the distortion that a western style Parliamentary system has bequeathed us. In my view, the virtue of the system of the directly elected chief Executive of all levels would be the straightforward lines of division between the legislative and the executive branches of government. The electoral processes to get there may not initially be all that simple, but when it comes to choosing a President, however, we have to accept that elections in our country would remain a messy affair. It will be a long while before Indian politics conveniently arranges itself into the tiny two-party system of the US.
Given the fragmented nature of our party system, it is the French Electoral Model I would initially turn to. That is, as in France, therefore, we would need two rounds of voting. In the first, every self-proclaimed netaji, with or without strong party backing, would enter the lists, which you can do in France today. So the French Presidential election first round is often 20-25 candidates, it’s quite normal. In order to have a manageable number of candidates, we would have to insist that their nomination papers be signed by, let’s say, at least 10 parliamentarians, or 20 members of a state Assembly, or better still, both. If, by some miracle, one candidate manages to win 50 percent of the vote plus one, then he or she is elected in the first round. But that is a far-fetched possibility, given that even Indira Gandhi, at the height of her popularity, never won more than 47 percent of the national vote for the Congress. More plausibly, no one would win in the first round; the two highest vote-getters would then face each other in round two, a couple of weeks later. The defeated aspirants will throw their support to one or the other survivor; Indian politicians being what they are, there will be some hard bargaining and the exchange of promises and compromises; but in the end, a president will emerge who truly has received the support of a majority of the country’s electorate.
But the second rule would be borrowed from the US system, not the French one, and that is because we are a federal country, we should also have an electoral college, as in the American model where each state carries a certain number of electoral votes. So in the second round, you also have to carry the electoral college and that would contribute to the overall majority of the President so that the Presidential candidate will not neglect Mizoram or Goa or Uttarakhand which, otherwise in a purely numerical system, he could easily do. And frankly, if I can go on a slight distraction, also not reward those North Indians States that fail so hopelessly at population control by rewarding them for their large numbers of people since ultimately their electoral college would matter rather than punishing the smaller States, which have smaller population.
Now does such a system not automatically favour candidates from the more populous States? Is there any chance that someone from Manipur or Lakshadweep will ever win the votes of the majority of the country’s voters? Could a Muslim or a Dalit be elected President? These are fair questions, but the answer surely is that their chances would be no better, and no worse, than they are under our present system. I mean, it’s no accident that we have never seen a Prime Minister from Manipur or Lakshadweep. Seven of India’s first 11 Prime Ministers, after all, came from Uttar Pradesh, which surely has no monopoly on political wisdom; perhaps a similar proportion of our directly-elected presidents will be UPites as well. How does it matter? Most democratic systems tend to favour majorities; it is no accident that every President of the United States, from 1789 to 2008, was a white male Christian, and all bar one a Protestant; or only one Welshman has been Prime Minister of Great Britain. But then Obama came along, proving that majorities can identify themselves with the right representative even of a visible minority.
I dare say that the need to appeal to the rest of the country would oblige a would-be President, even one from UP, to reach across the boundaries of region, language, caste and religion; whereas in our present Parliamentary system, a politician is elected in his constituency precisely on the basis of such parochial appeals. Somebody from, say a casteist party, who has got elected in one constituency, has a casteist candidate, can become Prime Minister in our system when a coalition is formed.
This is to my mind therefore far preferable. A directly elected President will have to be, by definition, far more of a national figure than a Prime Minister who owes his position to a handful of political kingmakers in a coalition card-deal. That is why my preference is to borrow from the US idea of an Electoral College, to ensure that our less populous States are not ignored by candidates: the winner would also be required to carry a majority of States, so that crushing numbers in the cow belt alone would not be enough.
And why should the Indian electorate prove less enlightened than others around the world? Jamaica, which is 97 percent black, has elected a white Prime Minister, Edward Seaga. In Kenya, President Daniel Arap Moi hailed from a tribe that makes up just 11 percent of the population. In Argentina, a voting population overweeningly proud of its European origins twice elected a son of Syrian immigrants, Carlos Saul Menem; the same phenomenon occurred in Peru, where former president Alberto Fujimori’s ethnicity, Japanese, covers less than one percent of the population. The right minority candidate, in other words, can command a majority. To choose the Presidential system is not necessarily to make future Narasimha Raos or Manmohan Singhs impossible. Indeed, the voters of Guyana, a country that is 50 percent Indian and 47 percent black, elected as President a white American Jewish woman who happened to be the widow of the nationalist hero Cheddi Jagan. A story with a certain ring of plausibility even in India…
Now the adoption of a Presidential system will, of course, send our politicians scurrying back to the drawing boards. Politicians of all faiths across India have sought to mobilise voters by appealing to ever narrower identities. By seeking votes in the name of religion, caste and region, they have urged voters to define themselves on these lines. Under our parliamentary system, we are more and more defined by our narrow particulars, and it has become more important to be a Muslim, a Bodo or a Yadav than to be an Indian. Our politics has created a discourse in which the clamour goes up for Assam for the Assamese, Jharkhand for the Jharkhandis, Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians. A Presidential system will oblige candidates to renew the demand of an India for the Indians.
Any politician with aspirations to rule India as President will have to win the support of people beyond his or her home turf; he or she will have to reach out to other groups, other interests, other minorities. And since the directly-elected President will not have coalition partners to blame for his or her inaction, a Presidential term will have to be justified in terms of results, and accountability will be direct and personal. In that may lie the Presidential System’s ultimate vindication.
I rest my case. Thank you very much. And, Jai Hind.
Click here to see the video.