In April 2020, Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor waded into the debate, arguing that a Presidential system would prevent the “one-man show” that the Indian system has evolved into. The proponents of this line of thought also cite the United States’ (relative) political stability as one of the key reasons to support their argument. The proposal challenges the Indian Constitution’s “Basic structure doctrine” decided by the Supreme Court in the Kesavananda Bharathi case. However, this requires further examination: a Presidential form of government might fix some of India’s political gridlock, but it may also open Pandora’s Box, releasing a whole wake of issues in its place. This includes a politically biased Supreme Court and horse-trading of MPs on a scale unheard in Indian politics.
The demand for a Presidential form of government in India is not entirely new. Decades before, Dr. B R Ambedkar —the first Law Minister and the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution — had put forth the selfsame notion. However, as is the case with other contributions of the late Ambedkar, his more “controversial” views tend to have been forgotten (or omitted). In 1953, in an interview with the BBC, Ambedkar lamented his role in creating a parliamentary system of democracy in India, noting that “we have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy”. Instead, Ambedkar proposed a “United States of India”: a federation of Indian States modelled on the United States of America for which he drew up a mock Constitution in 1947.
But Ambedkar’s dreams were never fulfilled – with the Constituent Assembly choosing to adopt a parliamentary system based on the Westminster Parliament of Great Britain, Ambedkar considered this as an outrage, commenting that if “the British system was copied it would result in permanently vesting executive power in a communal majority.” But he failed to convince the then future Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other high-ranking leaders of the Congress party, who held considerable sway over the Constituent Assembly.
While there has been considerable debate about the pros and cons of each system, there is a deeper need to examine whether a United States of India (as Ambedkar envisioned) would have resulted in a stabler, more democratic India than the Union of India which the constitution has created. This hypothetical question of replacing the Indian parliamentary system with the system of the US also poses interesting political questions: namely whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi could win elections centred around his individual talents, abilities and policies, and, whether the BJP could still dominate over India’s political landscape if President Modi (as his new title would be) performed independent of the Lok Sabha. Would his personality cult fade, as Tharoor claims, or would it grow tenfold, enveloping the country and transforming our new Presidential government into a dictatorship?
Both the United States of America and India share a significantly powerful Legislature – the body which makes the laws of the land. The two are also organised similarly, with a larger Lower House (The Lok Sabha and the House of Representatives respectively) and a smaller Upper House of States (The Rajya Sabha and the US Senate, respectively). The similarities, however, end there. The key distinguishing feature of the Indian Parliamentary system (originally borrowed from the British Westminster system) is the fact that the leader of the country —The Prime Minister—is chosen from within the Legislature. Typically, the Prime Minister is the leader of the single largest party within the lower house of Parliament. For example, Narendra Modi is the leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, and as a result, the Prime Minister of the Country. In the US, the President is not chosen from within the ranks of Congress. Instead, they are elected directly by the people of the United States of America.
This means that if the system was to be replicated in India, Prime Minister Modi would have to win a majority of votes individually. He would not represent a single constituency (He currently represents Varanasi in the Lok Sabha) and would be elected as a separate office from that of a Member of Parliament. Furthermore, in the United States, the President’s cabinet does not need to be from within Congress: if applied to India, this could mean that President Modi (if elected) could simply choose anybody from the country to be on his cabinet of Ministers. All that would be required is that the Upper House – The Rajya Sabha – approves the President’s cabinet choices by a simple majority vote.
The fact that the President is not a member of the Legislature brings with it benefits such as a clear separation of powers but also has its problems. In India, the Prime Minister can be removed from office if he/she loses the majority in the Lok Sabha. This is not the case with the United States, where the President isn’t tied to his party’s strength in the Houses of Congress. Instead, the impeachment process is long and, in the US’ 244-year-old history, no president has been removed from office via impeachment. This feature was central to Ambedkar’s reasoning in proposing the United States of India. Ambedkar believed that Indian Politics would eventually result in a fractured Lok Sabha, with several parties (all incapable of a majority) squabbling amongst each other, depriving the Country of strong leadership. By adopting a presidential system, the President cannot be removed by a simple majority vote in the Lower House of Parliament and would instead require massive bipartisan support in both the Houses of Parliament. This meant that irrespective of the composition of the Legislature, the President would be relatively safe from losing his position.
The composition of the Rajya Sabha, too, would be overhauled in this new system. The United States Senate is equally represented by two senators for every state, directly elected. This is different from India’s Rajya Sabha, where the members are indirectly elected via the State Legislative assemblies. Furthermore, the Indian President is also allowed to nominate a certain number of members to the Rajya Sabha, which has resulted in allegations that the President is misusing his powers by being a biased political body. If the Rajya Sabha was to follow in the footsteps of the United States, the size of the Rajya Sabha would be reduced greatly, from the existing 250 to 56 (Two Members for every State, excluding Union Territories). This would be a radical transformation for the Rajya Sabha, which has been considered an ailing body within the institutions of Raisina Hill. By scaling down the size and changing how the members are elected, greater accountability will be placed on members of the Rajya Sabha, which, in turn, could lead to greater debate and discourse.
When the Indian National Congress was spearheading the independence struggle and its party committee had tremendous influence over the country, Ambedkar remarked that a presidential system with a strong executive would ensure that the country would not be led by an individual party’s committee. Involvement of the party leaders in the running of the country would not take place, and the President would have to be accountable for his actions. Historically, this theory has evidence to support it. The United States Presidents have long disobeyed their respective parties, as can be noted by recent US President Donald Trump and the clashes he had with the Republican Party leadership. Contrary to this, the party leaders are given enormous powers in India, the Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s alleged “control” over the 2004-2014 UPA-led Governments being strongly criticised as a subversion of elected democracy.
The key difference between India’s current Parliamentary system and the US’s Presidential system comes down to how these leaders are elected. In India, the leader of the single largest party (capable of a majority) in the Lok Sabha is chosen as the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is elected like any other member of the Lok Sabha, and represents his constituency in the Assembly. There is no pan-Indian vote on the Prime Minister, unlike in the United States, where the President is elected by an “Electoral College” which comprises all the states of the country. The States are each awarded with a certain number of “seats” to the Electoral College, with a “winner-takes-all” metric., This means that the candidate who wins the most votes wins all the seats of that State. The formula for the seat-sharing is the size of the representation of that State to both houses of Congress. This means that the entire State (and all its votes) votes for one candidate and there is no splitting of votes. If Candidate A wins 49% of the votes and Candidate B wins 51%, all the seats of the State go to Candidate B.
If India was to adopt such a system, it would place a great emphasis on the individual characters of the Presidential Candidates, rather than their parties. Considering India’s current political trends with personality cults and character assassinations, this would perhaps not be as well suited as originally thought out. Another thorn comes from the fact that since bigger states will get more “seats” in the Electoral College, Candidates would hardly bother campaigning in the smaller, less-populated states of the South and the North East. Instead, electorates in the Hindi heartlands would get to almost decisively decide the next president, while smaller states will have little to no say in the matter. This would encourage more “Northern” Prime Ministers, deepening the North-South divide in the country.
A solution to these problems while still allowing India to maintain a Presidential System would be to choose the President via a simple majority poll. This would allow for citizens to vote for their candidate with equal “power” as their counterparts in other parts of the country, while also ensuring that candidates would have to focus on places beyond the Hindi heartlands. This would also allow voters to “split” their votes, choosing a candidate from a separate Party for the role of President than that of their vote to the Lok Sabha.
Perhaps the most “undemocratic” characteristic of the Presidential system would be its Judiciary, a body having enormous powers to strike down legislation deemed unconstitutional. As its judges would be chosen by the President, it would mean that there would be a natural hierarchy to the court system (as there exists today) but rather that picks to the Supreme Court would happen at the President’s sole discretion. The picks would then have to be vetted by the Upper House, which could reject the President’s choice and call for another person to be chosen. The process would then repeat itself until the candidate can win a majority vote in the house.
This process has been criticised for being extremely political, and considering that the Supreme Court would have the power to ruin the agenda of the President if deemed fit, is almost definitely a clash of interests. In 2020, then President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) came under flak for the nominee’s extremely conservative views. In a scenario where the judges of India’s top court could be party-loyalists can ruin any semblance of the Rule of Law in India. Furthermore, corruption and bribery would also affect the choices of the President, and this, in turn, would ruin any independence of the Supreme Court.
The Evolving Indian Democracy
When Ambedkar originally proposed the United States of India, he feared that the country would become a squabbling mess of small parties bickering for power. In such a situation, Ambedkar found it impossible for a strong India to emerge. However, this has not been the case, for better or for worse, and Indian democracy over the last 70 years has remained largely intact, especially when compared to its regional neighbours.
As for opposition MP Tharoor’s criticisms of the Parliamentary system and the power it currently places in the Executive, it is unlikely that the presidential system would solve this problem, however, it could make the situation worse. Without a provision to remove the President easily and the power concerning the Supreme Court and other key institutions, the fear of losing a no-confidence vote and being forced into a snap-election is a near impossibility.
Although India’s democracy is still far from perfect. Over seventy years of political infighting, lack of a strong political will, corruption and nepotism have all made one lesson very apparent: that India’s democracy must constantly be evolving. The Constitution was intended to be changed and reformed and made more representative of the diverse people of this land. Radical times require radical changes, and we are living in radical, unprecedented times.