Is The Presidential System The Only Way Out?

Is The Presidential System The Only Way Out?

by Book Excerpts - Jan 3, 2016 01:30 PM +05:30 IST
Is The Presidential System The Only Way Out?

The parliamentary system of governance is creating an oligarchy and hindering India’s progress. 

There is very little doubt that if India adopted the US system, it would radically improve governance in India. The benefits are countless. However, the point is often raised that there must be other good systems. People often talk about the French or the Swiss or even the German systems of government.

The question really is, why not the American? It is a system proven over the centuries. It is built on solid arguments. And it has helped America become an exceptional performer in almost every field. There isn’t an area of human excellence, from arts to sciences, and from sports to academics, in which the American people are not among the world’s best. Isn’t the system that built the strongest nation on earth worthy of emulation?

Those who resist are driven by either politics or prejudice. People with socialist or communist leanings would never adopt anything American. Similarly, national pride could cause people to resist adopting anything foreign.

Often an argument is given that Americans themselves are not pleased with their system. There is no doubt that there are many Americans who feel that their system of government is dysfunctional or unfair. Former US president Woodrow Wilson’s criticisms of his country’s system are often cited in this regard. Wilson wrote his views in his 1884 book Congressional Government when he was only a twenty-eight-year-old doctoral student. But as soon as he left academia his views changed. By 1908 when he published his second book Constitutional Government he had discarded almost all his earlier criticisms. In this work Wilson examined the American system with “an eye to practice, not the theory”, [p 1] and concluded that it was “a model before all the world”. [p. 172]


In his recent book A More Perfect Constitution, Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and a winner of the Thomas Jefferson Award, considered twenty-three proposals to ‘revitalize’ America’s Constitutions. None proposed changing the founders’ fundamental structure. ‘The heart of their Constitution (individual liberty, the separation of powers, and federalism) is untouched in these pages,’ Sabato wrote.

Another resounding endorsement of the vision of the founders of the United States has just been published. After analysing what’s troubling the world’s democracies lately, the authors of The Economist’s series of articles entitled ‘Getting Democracy Right’, reached the following conclusion: ‘The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state – an idea that dates back to the American revolution.’ The analysis validated two additional American features: its containment of majoritarianism, ‘the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases’; and its emphasis on local governance, ‘local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best’.

As for other systems, none has been tested over as long a period as the American. None other has built a global superpower. The Soviets tested their system for more than seven decades, but failed. The Chinese are rapidly adopting the American economic principles; the democratic ones are sure to follow. The French are already on their fifth republican Constitution. They adopted their current hybrid system in 1958 because, as Beyme reported, ‘De Gaulle was realistic enough to see that in the current system he would have a considerably stronger position than he could have had in the presidential system.’ The German Constitution is only about sixty years old, and the nation is nowhere near as large or diverse as India. The current Swiss Constitution was adopted only recently, in 1999.

Those who are convinced about the value of the US usually have another caveat. ‘Let’s adopt the American system, but with modifications for Indian conditions,’ they say.

As reasonable as that argument is, this questions begs to be answered: what are those so-called Indian conditions. If they are about the nature or the character of the Indian people, it would be best to ignore them. Because as we have seen, the nation’s political system builds character, not the other way around. But there is a more important reason to not let the current state of the Indian national character be the determining factor. There isn’t a single constitutional principle of the US system that is based on the people’s character. Every single principle is based on reason, and the laws of managing powers.

There might be other important Indian conditions that should be considered before making a wholesale change in the nation’s system. They would have to do with how far India can go with federalism or with communal rights. But the principles of the US system in these areas are so cogently argued that any modification would have to be carefully thought through.

Is The Presidential System The Only Way Out?

Most presidential systems fail because a nation copied only a few aspects of the US system. As Fred Riggs wrote, ‘The failures of presidentialism outside the US were due to deep structural problems with the institutional design rather than with ecological pressures caused by the world system, poverty, culture, religion, geographic constraints, demographic forces, etc.’

How to adopt

In fairness to Indian people, such a total overhaul of the nation’s system should only be done by calling another Constituent Assembly. Like the Americans did, each state should select eminent representatives suitable for the task.

The modification of the existing Constitution is faced with two fundamental problems. One, it would have to depend upon the existing Parliament. With the oligarchs in charge, and the poor quality of our current representatives, it is highly doubtful that such an exercise would be fruitful. Two, amending the current Constitution would run up against the doctrine of basic structure. When in his book, The Parliamentary System, Arun Shourie analysed what the adoption of some of the American principles in India’s Constitution would entail, he noted that they would change its basic structure as outlined by some Supreme Court jurists. But as he said, ‘the courts will indeed have to assess whether they violate the basic structure, or they are instead the one way to salvage that structure’. The rigidity or reverence shown towards constitutions is unwise. They are documents made by men just like us, not super humans.

(Excerpted with permission from Why India Needs the Presidential System by Bhanu Dhamija, HarperCollins India, Rs 550)

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