Debates have taken place in the past on bringing about a systemic change in the Indian political system. On one such occasion, in January 1991, the now Leader of the Opposition and then BJP President, LK Advani, spoke of switching to a presidential form of government. The debate didn’t kick off then because the Gulf war (Operation Desert Storm) started the very next day and US intervention in the Kuwait-Iraq stand-off dominated the headlines. This was also when CNN, for the first time, covered the war live.
A segment of our political class seems interested in restarting this debate, given that coalition governments have been propping up prime ministers who may not necessarily have the mandate of the people but hold office on the basis of the numerical strength of their political parties.
The authors of our Constitution had based our system of government on the Westminster model. This system worked well for a while, but led to instability with the start of the coalition era. Since on an average, coalition governments have completed just three of their five-year terms, the country has also held six parliamentary polls in just 16 years, beginning 1989. Only PV Narasimha Rao completed five years in office (he did not have an unwieldy coalition), and Atal Bihari Vajpayee served for four-and-half years after his victory in 1999. The fathers of our Constitution had probably never imagined that elections would have to be held in such quick succession in a country where each parliamentary poll costs a fortune.
The most alarming aspect of coalition politics is that the Prime Minister’s Office has started losing its elevated status. Ministers, often belonging to allied parties, have started taking decisions or making announcements without taking the PM or the Cabinet into confidence. This negates the very concept of collective responsibility, which forms the basis of the Westminster model.
The errant ministers also get away since reprimanding them openly could affect the health of the coalition government. This was as much true during Vajpayee’s time as it is now. And the least said about what happened during IK Gujral and HD Deve Gowda’s time in office, the better. Chandrashekhar was able to assert himself, even though he did not have the numbers, because of his strong personality. But his tenure was short-lived once he started rubbing the Congress the wrong way. VP Singh, who entered office on the strength of support from the Left and the BJP, could not continue once the BJP unleashed the Ram mandir mantra and withdrew support after he played the Mandal card to counter Devi Lal, whom he had sacked.
Coalitions have never allowed governments to have a distinct character of their own or for prime ministers to leave an indelible mark on the nation’s politics as at least four of India’s PMs — Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi — have done. Many may argue that Vajpayee was another such PM, but it is debatable whether he had the same kind of hold over his government as the other four.
In the coalition era, which began after 1977 at the national level, no PM, barring Vajpayee, had the mandate for holding the coveted office. In 1999, Vajpayee was the only one projected as a prime ministerial candidate before the polls, and he got the mandate to govern this country. It is another thing that people voted against his government and its ‘India Shining’ and ‘feel-good factor’ slogans in 2004 and gave the Congress — because of Sonia Gandhi’s singular efforts — a majority of seven over the BJP and a chance to form the government with their allies. The first two coalition PMs — Morarji Desai and Charan Singh — also did not have the mandate to rule, as the 1977 verdict was against the Emergency and not for them.
Still, one must not forget that coalitions have acute limitations. The checks and balances inherited partly from the US and partly from the French based on Montesque’s theory of separation of powers has not worked well. The executive, since Rao’s time, has been indifferent to ground realities. The legislature is losing its teeth as more time is spent on scoring brownie points. A proactive judiciary has often tried to usurp the role of the executive.
The best solution now, with presidential elections due in the latter half of 2007, is to debate on changing the system. Since coalition politics is here to stay, at least if the President is elected by the people and not by MPs and MLAs, he/she will have the mandate to rule. Two or more persons who contest for presidentship will have to win on the basis of popular vote. In the process, the victor and the main loser will also become national leaders, whose acceptability will be very wide. They will not be regional representatives, as the case has sometimes been in the past. The president could be the head of the government as well as the State.
The MPs could retain their importance by getting elected as per the prevalent practice and could be given powers to discuss and legislate on important matters as also keep a check on the president. A council of ministers could be put together from among them to assist the president. The accountability of elected representatives, too, would then increase. As it is, the president’s is a titular office and coalitions tend to make the prime minister ineffective. Through a meaningful dialogue in the year of the presidential polls, a remedial measure has to be initiated by the people as a whole and elected representatives in particular. A strong and decisive leadership is paramount for the development of the country. Between us.