Home >Opinion >The case for directly elected leaders

A businessman, wishing to set up a factory in a town in China, goes to the mayor. The mayor is not just the chief executive of the town—he is authorized to grant the businessman the political clearance he needs, allocate the land, issue the road, water and electricity connections, and approve almost anything else he needs to start production.

In India, the same process involves multiple bodies, each suffering from varying degrees of toothlessness, takes several times as long and involves multiple checks and balances before anything gets decided. The reason? There is no equivalent for the Chinese mayor—his Indian counterpart is the glorified chairman of a powerless committee, with less budgetary control and executive authority than the city’s bureaucrats.

China is no democracy, of course, but India is. This is why, during the last session of Parliament, I introduced a Bill to provide for empowered and directly elected mayors in our country’s urban local bodies—leaders who would govern, not just administer, their cities and towns, and be accountable to the voters for their performance. In a democracy, the key principle here is the direct election. This would give voters a direct connection to their mayor. He or she would be able to run on a personal vision of what his city needs, run the town without worrying about a majority in the council, be invulnerable to the shifting sands of politics or the prejudices of councillors, and be accountable to the citizens of the town after a fixed term in office.

The proposal is yet to be discussed, but it has attracted a wide range of support in op-eds and editorials in our national media. Similarly, when I delivered the SV Desai Memorial Lecture in Ahmedabad earlier this month on the case for a presidential system in India, I was gratified by the reaction of the audience. The principle of electing our leaders directly, rather than letting them be chosen for us by intermediaries—whether party “high commands" or legislative majorities of state legislatures or Parliament—has an undoubted appeal for Indians, especially younger Indians.

In fact, Indian voters are already choosing individuals rather than parties which, in most cases, are shapeless aggregations of political convenience rather than well-organized vehicles for an ideologically coherent cause. Voters in Tamil Nadu voted for J.Jayalalithaa, not for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; the same is true of Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.

The most obvious example, of course, is Narendra Modi himself, whose national appeal as the chief executive officer of Gujarat Inc. transcended the previous ceilings of support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Hindutva-inclined voters. The difference between the 19% the BJP won in 2009 and the 31% it won in 2014 is largely explained by the image of the individual they chose to project as their leader. Our public understand whom they want to be led by.

The Congress party, too, will have to project an alternative leader in Rahul Gandhi, just as it has, for the first time, named a chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. There is nothing wrong in this: to personalize certain qualities, to repose trust in individuals rather than in party platforms, and to admire leadership above political principles, is human nature.

Yet our political system privileges indirect elections for our leaders over direct ones: Voters choose an individual member of Parliament (MP) or member of legislative assembly (MLA), not a chief minister or a prime minister. If you want to see a Jayalalithaa as your chief minister, you may have to vote for an MLA you don’t particularly like in the hope of achieving that end. If you want Narendra Modi as your prime minister but disagree with the communal politics of the local BJP MP, you have no choice but to vote for a man you loathe.

In our system, the individual is elected in order to be part of a majority that will form the government. You may have to vote for an inefficient individual, or an incompetent one, or one you know very little about, in order to achieve the indirect result of ending up with the leader you want. This is a particularly perverse system: You have to vote for a legislature not to legislate but in order to form the executive.

India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit decisive action, whereas ours increasingly promote drift and indecision. We must have a system of government whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power. Twenty-five years of coalition governance at the Centre from 1989 to 2014 showed us the levels of real and potential instability that our parliamentary system can promote. And instability is precisely what India, with its critical economic and social challenges, cannot afford.

The case for directly elected leaders at all levels is, to me, amply clear. Directly elected panchayat chiefs in our villages, directly elected mayors in the towns and cities, directly elected chief ministers or governors in the states, and a directly elected president at the Centre, will enshrine democratically accountable chief executives at all levels of our government.

This would involve a fundamental change in the political system. Democracy has served to keep the country together and given every Indian a stake in the nation’s political destiny. But the form of democracy we have chosen has promoted inefficiency, “policy paralysis", rule by the weakest link of the coalition chain, and a diffusion of responsibility that impedes performance. Direct elections at every level would give us the decisive leadership all Indians crave.

And then maybe businessmen will start taking Indian mayors seriously too.

Shashi Tharoor is a member of Parliament.

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