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October 16, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Mani Shankar Aiyar

Stop the review!

If, against present indications, the Bharatiya Janata Party were to do well in the Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram assembly elections, scheduled for November 25, Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani would get the political momentum he is looking for to step up the buzz of the favourite bee in his bonnet: The Constitution Review Commission.

Former President R Venkataraman, once a Congressman, is tipped to head the Commission. One of the most important tasks of the Commission is to examine whether a Presidential form of government should replace the present parliamentary form of democracy.

The case for a switchover to the Presidential system has received an exponential boost in the last decade by the repeated failure of coalition governments to provide stable governance. The V P Singh government (1989-90) lasted 11 months; Chandra Shekhar's (1990-91) seven months; H D Deve Gowda's (1996-97) 10 months; Inder Kumar Gujral's (1997-98) a mere eight months.

The record in the states has been not much better. While coalitions like the Communist Party of India-Marxist's in West Bengal have lasted decades and those like the Left Democratic Front/ United Democratic Front in Kerala have become stable poles around which the polity revolves, such coalitions have lasted only where there is an overwhelmingly dominant partner. Where the lead party is not leading its flock but is being kept going by its allies, instability is written into the arrangement. This proposition was first established 30 years ago when a series of Samyukta Vidhyak Dals (United Legislature Parties), brought into existence by the end of Congress one-party dominance in the assembly elections of 1967, made a parody of democracy with the Aya Ram- Gaya Ram syndrome.

It is clear that parliamentary democracy can provide stable governance only if there are one or two dominant forces, the lesser forces being absorbed by the predominant ones or subordinated into subsidiary alliances.

Given that the disintegration of the Congress dominance has not resulted in the rise of an alternative nation-wide force, most thinking Indians are persuaded that we have entered an era of coalition politics. And the experience of coalition politics has been so unsatisfactory that, instead of examining how coalitions can be made stable, or Congress dominance replicated by some other party, the search is on for an alternative political system.

It is no coincidence that the drive for a presidential system is being spearheaded by the BJP. For the first four decades of its existence, from 1951 to 1989, the BJP was on the fringes of the nation's polity. Ayodhya propelled it centrestage. Between the eighth Lok Sabha (1984-89), where the BJP held all of two seats, and the 10th Lok Sabha (1991-96), the BJP became the leader of the Opposition. But the very act of demolishing the Babri Masjid deprived it of its trump card. It may today be the largest single party in the Lok Sabha but it would need to increase its seats by over half its present strength to come within kissing distance of replacing the Congress dominance over the last 50 years by its own. Sangh Parivar fantasists may dream of that; hard-headed realists like Advani know that to be an impossible dream. Hence their pushing for an alternative, where, under a first-past-the-post system, a BJP Presidential candidate just might get elected.

The argument is, of course, not couched in terms of such realpolitik. It is advanced in terms of the higher interests of the nation, the question being posed: why must Indian democracy be based on the Westminster model of a third-rate power instead of following the example of the only remaining superpower, the United States of America?

Bill Clinton, post-Lewinsky, has provided the answer to just how effectively a presidential democracy can be paralysed. The operative word here is "democracy". Most presidential systems the world over have been disguised. The US has been virtually the only example of a stable, successful presidential democracy. It has been a democracy precisely because, however powerful and stable an executive president might look, the US president's room for manoeuvre is circumscribed exactly as is the British prime minister's. In both systems, it is the majority in congress/ parliament that gives the leader of the government the authority and legitimacy to act. Withdraw that majority and the prime minister ceases to be, while the president is rendered paralysed.

If the US presidential system has worked, it is because almost throughout its 200-year history, the president's party has held a majority in the congress. The president has thus been guided by his own party colleagues and, reciprocally, persuaded and led his own party colleagues. Which is exactly what happens with a prime minister.

The striking exception has been Bill Clinton. He won as a Democrat in 1992. Two years later, in 1994, a Republican majority took over the congress. In November 1995, that Republican congress shut down a Democrat government. (Indeed, it was because of the government shut-down that an intern, Monica Lewinsky, succeeded in getting into the Oval office bearing a pizza. The rest, as they say, is history). Notwithstanding the deleterious consequences of that shutdown, the congress remains Republican. And although, apparently, a majority of Americans, both men and women, do not want their president impeached, proceedings have begun and it will be a surprise if Clinton is not driven out of the White House.

The lesson to be learned by the BJP's proposed Constitution Review Commission is that if an Indian Presidential system is to be democratic, it would have to be based on the advice and consent of an Indian congress. Given India's ground realities, such an Indian congress is likely to be just as fractious as any Indian parliament. The US might be able to survive a government shutdown and impeachment once in a while. But an Indian president will be repeatedly forced by an Indian congress to close down the business of governance and pale perpetually at the prospect of an impeachment. The chances are that, in retaliation, he will use the awesome powers of a president, as almost all presidents other than in the US have done, to overthrow the congress and establish a dictatorship.

A BJP dictatorship is probably the ultimate BJP dream. It is the nightmare the rest of us dread. Which is why the Lok Sabha should deny Atal Bihari Vajpayee the authority to constitute the Venkataraman Commission.

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