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Why India Needs The Presidential System: Repelling Authoritarianism [Book Excerpt]

11/03/2016 8:06 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Rashtrapati Bhavan . Large imperial building in New Delhi.

The system of government under which man lives is fundamental to his being. Government is behind every evil in society, and every virtue. It shapes a society's character. A good government allows individuals to become honest and virtuous; a bad one makes them wicked and corrupt. A system of government, therefore, isn't simply a matter of man's prosperity or liberty; it is also a matter of his morality.

For a nation to prosper, its political system must foster a national vision, ensure fairness and encourage participation. When a nation has vision, when its citizens' efforts are fairly rewarded and when there are opportunities for participation, the nation rises.

The US system vests the executive power in a single individual not to bestow him with all authority, but to assign him all responsibility.

India's parliamentary system fails to deliver any of these ingredients. A great people are languishing because of a poor choice made in their system of government. This book shows how its powers are severely and irreversibly out of balance. And why a US-type system if applied to India will deliver better governance and a healthier polity.

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The Americans are no better or worse than any other people. They have made their share of mistakes and have faced many of the same ordeals as the rest of the world. This small nation of 13 colonies that went up against the mighty British Empire wasn't born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Contrary to what many believe, it wasn't rich, or homogenous, or literate, or anything special. The only thing unique about the United States of America is its system of government. This system is the secret behind America's success.

Here's an excerpt from Why India Needs the Presidential System published by Harper Collins (India); now available in bookstores and on Amazon India and Flipkart.

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Chapter 12: Repelling Authoritarianism


The general depiction of America's president as the most powerful man on the planet has created an erroneous impression. The US system vests the executive power in a single individual not to bestow him with all authority, but to assign him all responsibility.

The prime directive in framing the US Constitution was to ensure that powers had no chance of finding a focal point; that they remained divided in the hands of many. In more than 200 years, an American president has never been so much as accused of autocratic behaviour. There are reasons, however, why this erroneous impression took hold in India, chief among them a lack of familiarity with the American system.

The notion that the presidential system could lapse into dictatorship took root first during Indira Gandhi's Emergency in the mid-1970s.

The notion that the presidential system could lapse into dictatorship took root first during Indira Gandhi's Emergency in the mid-1970s. It was widely believed that she wanted to adopt the presidential form of government to further her own autocratic reign. A few members of her coterie had suggested a directly elected chief executive, in a paper entitled 'A Fresh Look at Our Constitution'. But other than this one feature, the suggested system was downright un-American. For instance, it noted that "unlike the USA the legislature will not be too independent of the executive."

In any case, Indira Gandhi opted to stick with the parliamentary system because it was most suited to autocracy. The Swaran Singh Committee appointed by her to look into the matter quickly decided that an American-style system was unsuitable. A.R. Antulay, the author of a paper titled "A fresh look at our Constitution - Some suggestions" and a member of the Swaran Singh Committee, admitted as much. In an interview with Granville Austin in 1994, Antulay said: "Indira Gandhi wanted to be a dictator, which is why in October 1976, she wanted a presidential system. But you can't be a dictator in a presidential system."

The fallacy that the presidential system has autocratic tendencies, however, still prevails. Even as he wrote recently that India should consider adopting the presidential system, well-known columnist Kuldip Nayar worried: "No doubt, there is a danger that the President might turn into a dictator." Similarly, A G Noorani, a constitutional expert, argued against the presidential form because "in India, it would pave the way for a legitimized autocracy."

Indira Gandhi opted to stick with the parliamentary system because it was most suited to autocracy.

The presidential system's reputation in India is sullied because its name became associated with an autocrat. But it is important to remember that it was the parliamentary system that allowed Indira Gandhi to become a dictator. The US system has never, in its 225-year history, seen a president even attempt autocratic rule.

Presidential structure makes single ruler impossible

How exactly does the American structure make it impossible for the president to become a dictator? First, there is the federal structure. The state governments are genuinely sovereign. They cannot be controlled, even by the combined forces of Congress and the president. Second, the executive, legislative and judiciary are not just separate in powers but in institutions. Each institution derives its legitimacy directly from the people, not from another branch. Third, each institution is balanced with others. In the legislature, the balance is between the House and the Senate, and then with the president. In the judiciary it is with the executive and legislature, and with the states. The executive is balanced with the Senate with regard to treaties and appointments. Lastly, the people hold direct sway over them all. They elect the legislative and the executive branches separately.

There are so many power centres in the US system that a president, no matter how popular, cannot possibly control an entire government.

There are so many power centres in the US system that a president, no matter how popular, cannot possibly control an entire government. He is not a tyrant in waiting. On the contrary, he is "the guardian of the people ... against legislative tyranny," as Gouverneur Morris said in America's Constitutional Convention.

President is not prime minister

Another error is in seeing the position of the president as analogous to that of the prime minister. The president is not the centre of all governmental powers. His position was devised to balance the legislature. He can pass no laws. He cannot amend the Constitution. He cannot declare war. He cannot borrow money, nor does he have the power to tax the people. All of these powers are given exclusively to Congress. In the US, Congress authorizes the president to do what he does. And it can revoke those authorities. Congress approves his budget. It can refuse to give him money for programmes, or disallow previously approved funding. Even the authorities specifically given to the president, he must share with the Senate. This body of Congress must ratify all treaties that the president makes with other governments. The president cannot appoint judges, unless they are confirmed by the Senate. He cannot even appoint members of his own Cabinet unless the Senate approves.

In the US, Congress authorizes the president to do what he does. And it can revoke those authorities...

This works because in the United States the legislature is truly independent. The president cannot choose who gets elected to the House of Representatives or to the Senate. Then, the president has no control over Congress's leadership; especially so if they happen to be from the opposite party. He must work with whomever the House and the Senate select as their leaders. Also, the president of the United States cannot dissolve the legislature. The legislature, however, can impeach the president.

That is not all. The president has no control over state governments. In America no power--neither the president nor Congress--can dissolve a state government. Each state is independent and decides on its own whether or not to participate in a president's programme. A state government can seek favours from a president, but since in the Senate all states have equal representation, favouritism has no chance.

The president is an integral part of the American structure, but not its master. He is the most visible government official, since he is both head of state and head of government. But that doesn't mean he can conduct the affairs of government by himself.

Winner doesn't take all

Still, some contend that the presidential system allows the winners to take all. They imply that in this system there is either a threat of arbitrary rule by the victors of a presidential election, or a danger of undemocratic behaviour by the vanquished. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Pluralism is built into its very structure. It compels governments to build coalitions on issues rather than on politics.

[T]he Indian system provides far fewer representatives and much less influence to the minority view. Evidence has shown that this really is the winner-takes-all system.

By contrast, the Indian system provides far fewer representatives and much less influence to the minority view. Evidence has shown that this really is the winner-takes-all system. Since the very beginning of the republic, Indian governments have ruled arbitrarily, or not at all. The concentration of powers is so extreme that it brought democracy to a complete halt during the Emergency...

President doesn't have sole control of military

The Constitution of the United States divides control over the military between the two elective branches. The president is the chief commander of America's armed forces, but Congress must approve military actions. The Constitution gives the powers "to declare war", "to raise and support an army", "to maintain a navy", and "to provide for a militia" to the legislature. The president is authorized to be the "commander-in-chief" but only when the armed forces are "called into the actual service of the United States".

To bring this about, the entire defence structure of American government was created through legislation. Congress created the War Department and the Navy Department in the early years of the republic. And when in the aftermath of the Second World War the departments needed to be reorganized, it was Congress that did so after much deliberation. ...

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