New Delhi: Congress MP Shashi Tharoor seems to be courting a fresh controversy by suggesting that India takes a re-look at its parliamentary style of democracy, inherited from the British and which, according to him, is rife with inefficiencies, and instead look at a presidential form of government.
In a recent article for Project Syndicate, Tharoor, a Lok Sabha MP from Kerala’s Thiruvanthapuram parliamentary constituency and a politician who has been in the eye of a storm for controversial political remarks seen as unaligned with those of his Congress party, makes a case for the rethink citing how different phases of elections in India’s 29 states are invariably seen as a “plebiscite” on the national government of the day. And this, he said, puts pressure on the prime minister to “frequently leave aside their role as leader of the country to act as leader of their party”.
“With a more expansive and predictable election cycle, India’s leaders would be able to move beyond the unpleasant business of political contention, and settle down to governance. In that shift in focus lies a presidential system’s ultimate vindication,” he said.
To be sure, this is not the first time that Tharoor has made a case for the presidential form of government—i.e. with the President rather than the prime minister as the chief executive and with a fixed term for the former. One of the previous instances was in 2007 and another in 2011. The first seems to have been in the backdrop of pressure from the then ruling Congress party’s coalition allies while the second was in the context of frequent disruptions of parliament by then opposition led by the now ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This time round, it is in the context of frequent elections to states—the country has just concluded elections to five states—Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Goa, Manipur and Punjab. And more states, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, are slated to go to the polls later this year.
Interestingly, the Congress party had vehemently opposed the idea of a presidential form of government when then deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP called for a debate on the subject in the late 1990s.
“One clear downside of India’s perennial electioneering is that prime ministers must frequently leave aside their role as leader of the country to act as leader of their party,” Tharoor wrote in his Project Syndicate piece.
“If there ever were need for yet another clinching argument for a presidential system in India, it is the spectacle of the head of government abandoning the responsibilities of that office every few months to go on the stump for their party.
The parliamentary system has not merely outlived any good it could do India; it was never well suited to Indian conditions. In fact, it is responsible for many of our principal political ills,” Tharoor wrote. Those in favour of a parliamentary system, Tharoor said, had pointed out that “it has kept India together and given every citizen a stake in the country’s political destiny.”
“But any form of genuine democracy would do that. The question is which form of democracy would also ensure effective performance, without allowing the government to be constantly distracted by petty politics.
Perhaps the answer lies in the US or Latin American model, with a directly elected chief executive—a president, at the national level, and a governor, at the state level—serving a fixed term as both head of state and head of government,” he argued.
A “directly elected chief executive,” Tharoor said, “would not be vulnerable to the shifting sands of legislative support. They could appoint a cabinet of talented officials, confident in the stability of their tenure. Above all, they could devote their energies to governance, rather than just to politics. The relentless election cycle would come to an end.”
A presidential system would “enable leaders to focus on representing the people, instead of on staying in power,” he added.
It is unclear as to how many takers there will be for this argument among the Congress and the BJP besides the multitude of regional parties that India boasts of today. In the late 1990s, when Advani had proposed this idea, the Congress party’s Mani Shankar Aiyar and Pranab Mukherjee had vehemently opposed it.
More recently, Baijayant Panda, MP, belonging to the regional Biju Janata Dal, had opposed Tharoor’s argument in favour of a presidential system of government in 2011.
P. D. Thankappan Achary, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, was of the view that Tharoor’s suggestion was “an extreme” one. “We can think of reforming the system but a complete scrapping is not suitable for a country like India,” he said.
But he also agreed with Tharoor on his point about the amount of time the prime minister spends campaigning—describing it as “a valid argument”.
“The PM takes an oath as a central government minister and binds himself by the oath of being fair to all. Thus he should abstain from taking part in political campaigning and can at best explain government policies to the public. The parliamentary democracy is an inclusive system which gives representation to all sections of the society and its scrapping should be decided by the courts,” Achary said.
Meenal Thakur contributed to this story.