Context: The political mischievous incidents that the nation has witnessed, most recently in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and the horse-trading of MLAs to switch allegiances for power has once again pointed fingers towards parliamentary system.

Indian Parliamentary system of government: 

  • Under this system, the executive is responsible to the legislature for its policies and acts.
  • The Constitution of India provides for a parliamentary form of government, both at the Centre and in the States.
    • Articles 74 and 75 deal with the parliamentary system of government at the Union level and Articles 163 and 164 contain provisions with regard to the States.
  • The parliamentary system in India is borrowed from the Government of India Act 1935.

Article 74: There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice. 

Article 75: The Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President and the other Ministers shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. This article provides that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People.

Cracks emerging in India’s parliamentary system:

Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of our major weaknesses.

  • Created a unique breed of legislator: Largely unqualified to legislate and who has sought election only in order to wield executive power. 
  • Governments dependent on a fickle legislative majority: Who are therefore obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. 
  • Distorted the voting preferences of an electorate: That knows which individuals it wants to vote for but not necessarily which parties.
  • Spawned parties that are shifting alliances: For selfish individual interests, not vehicles of coherent sets of ideas. 
  • Forced governments to concentrate less on governing: Focus on catering to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions is more rather than governance.

Reasons for emerging weaknesses:

  • A foreign system:  The parliamentary system devised in Britain is based on traditions which simply do not exist in India.
    • These involve clearly defined political parties, each with a coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish it from the next.
    • Whereas in India a party is often a label of convenience which a politician adopts and discards frequently.
  • Voters' dilemma: In the absence of a real party system, the voter chooses not between parties but between individuals, usually on the basis of their caste, their public image or other personal qualities. 
    • But the party affiliation matters, as the individual is elected in order to be part of a majority that will form the government.
  • Principal reason for entering Parliament is to attain governmental office: This creates four specific problems. 
  1. Preference to those who are electable rather than to those who are able for the executive post. 
    1. The prime minister cannot appoint a cabinet of his choice, in order to cater to the wishes of the political leaders of several parties.
  2. Increased defections and horse-trading: The anti-defection Act of 1985 has failed to cure the problem, since the bargaining has shifted to getting enough MLAs to resign to topple a government.
  3. Poor legislation: Most laws are drafted by the executive (in practice by the bureaucracy) and parliamentary input into their formulation and passage is minimal, with many bills being passed after barely a few minutes of debate. 
    1. No right to dissent: MPs blindly vote as their party directs, since defiance of a whip ( issued by the ruling party to ensure unimpeded passage of a bill) itself attracts disqualification. 
    2. This has resulted in weakening of accountability of the government to the people, through their elected representatives.
  4. Frequent disruptions by opposition: Parties which fail to form the government,  sees Parliament or Assembly not as a solemn deliberative body, but as a theatre for the demonstration of their power to disrupt.

Need for a strengthened parliamentary system:

  • To ensure effective performance of legislature and executive: India faces many challenges requiring political arrangements that permit decisive action. 
  • Priority to governance over power: India must have a system of democracy whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power.
  • To avoid instability: Holding the executive hostage to the agendas of a motley bunch of legislators is nothing but a recipe for governmental instability. With its critical economic and social challenges, instability is what precisely India cannot afford.

The case for a presidential system:

  • A directly elected chief executive: In New Delhi and in each state, instead of being vulnerable to the shifting sands of coalition support politics, would have
    • Stability of tenure free from legislative whim,
    • Be able to appoint a cabinet of talents, 
    • Be able to devote his or her energies to governance, and not just to government. 
  • The Indian voter will be able to vote directly: For the individual he or she wants to be ruled by, and the president will truly be able to claim to speak for a majority of Indians rather than a majority of MPs. 
  • Help in judging the performance: At the end of a fixed period of time, the public would be able to judge the individual on performance in improving the lives of Indians, rather than on political skill at keeping a government in office.
  • Taking a queue from cities and towns: The same logic would apply to the directly elected heads of Indian towns and cities and village panchayats. Today, the governance at local levels have more glorified committee chairmen, with little power and minimal resources. 
    • To give effect to meaningful local self-government, there is the need for directly elected local officials, each with real authority and financial resources to deliver results in their own areas.

Challenge posed by a presidential system:

  • Risk of dictatorship: As a commanding president, immune to parliamentary defeat and unaffected by public opinion, will rule the country arbitrarily. 
  • No Ready Alternative Government: In case the ruling party loses its majority under the parliamentary system, the Head of the State can invite the opposition party to form the government. 
    • This means an alternative government can be formed without fresh elections. This feature is not available in the presidential system.
  • Legislative—Executive Conflicts: As the executive is not part of the legislature, the presidential system increases the probability of conflicts between the executive and legislature and may lead to delays in passing of bills.  

However, a switchover to the presidential system is not possible under present constitutional scheme of India because of the ‘basic structure’ doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court in 1973. The parliamentary system is part of the basic structure which can’t be changed but an introspection for reforming the system is the need of the hour.