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May 13, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Enough of Westminster

About the only question that anybody is asking the Opposition these days is: why did you pull down a government when you had no alternative to put in its place? The Opposition's answer is as follows: we did not pull the government down. It fell because one of its allies (the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) withdrew support. Why blame us?

Of course, nobody is satisfied with this response and a counter-question always follows: J Jayalalitha may have had her problems with Atal Bihari Vajpayee but why did you people vote for a no confidence motion and plunge the country into uncertainty? At this, the Opposition - particularly if you are talking to a Congressman -- gets very defensive and says things like: we are the Opposition. It is our job to oppose. How can you expect us to vote in favour of the government? And so on.

Sadly for the Congress, the Left, the Samajwadi Party and the other Opposition groupings, nobody in the educated middle class accepts this reasoning and most arguments on the subject quickly degenerate into unpleasant squabbles.

It is not my case that Vajpayee deserved to be pulled down. Certainly, I find it hard to accept that any government in the world's largest democracy should be held to ransom by the likes of Subramanian Swamy and Jayalalitha. But equally, I have a certain sympathy for the Opposition. The Congress is right when it says that it cannot possibly be expected to vote to save the Bharatiya Janata Party. The role of an Opposition in our adversarial political structure is to oppose the government, not to bail it out. If the ruling coalition cracks, then this is the government's problem, not the Opposition's.

My concern is with the long term. It now seems clear that we are into an era of coalition governments. No party seriously expects to get a majority at the next election. Whoever forms the ministry will do so by aligning with several small groupings. The result is certain to be a coalition. And all coalitions and minority governments in India tend not to complete their full terms. (The exception is P V Narasimha Rao's 1991 to 1996 government. But then, don't forget that it only stabilised once Rao bought a majority to defeat a no confidence motion.)

The chances are that the next Lok Sabha will not be very different from this one. Any government that emerges will be at the mercy of its coalition partners. If it is not Jayalalitha who is unhappy, it will be M Karunanidhi. If it is not Mulayam Singh Yadav, it will be Laloo Prasad Yadav. Any of these people will be able to dent the government's majority by withdrawing support and moving a no confidence motion. Given the structure of our democracy, such a motion will, by definition, lead to disastrous consequences.

Either the government will survive -- as Rao did halfway through his term -- by buying over members of parliament, which is not desirable, or the government will fall - as it did three weeks ago - because the Opposition is dutybound to vote against the regime regardless of whether it agrees with the party that has withdrawn support.

Regardless of which consequence we have to deal with, the message is clear: we are into an era of instability and dishonesty.

There are people who believe that coalitions are a good thing; others who are delighted by hung parliaments. I am not among them.

I do not accept the superficially seductive regional left line that India is in itself a coalition and that therefore, only a coalition can effectively govern the country. Nor do I buy the position that only regional parties can adequately represent regional interests in New Delhi. The truth is that no coalition has ever effectively governed the country for much longer than a year. And rare is the regional party that has demonstrated much concern for the national interest.

I have no problem with regional parties deciding who should be chief minister. My problems begin when regional parties come to New Delhi and look around for the least objectionable candidate to be prime minister. That is how you end up with H D Deve Gowdas and Inder Gujrals. That is how you end up with governments that please nobody.

The current phase of coalition politics is attributable, in the main, to a single phenomenon: the collapse of national parties and in particular, the failure of the Congress. Despite the efforts of the last 13 months, it does not seem likely that the Congress will recover its mid-eighties glory. The chances are that it won't get much more than 200 seats (if it does get that many) and can only hope to govern on the basis of a coalition. Equally, the BJP has not yet made the jump to becoming a truly national party. Its presence in the south and east is largely due to the efforts of its allies.

If, like me, you believe that regionalism at the Centre, the governance of the lowest common denominator, political instability and blackmail by coalition partners are all detrimental to the interests of the Indian people, then you will have to accept that we face a serious long term problem.

If there are no real national parties, if there are hung parliaments and if we are going to go from coalition to election every 14 months or so, then there is very little hope for Indian politics.

The only way out is to consider alternatives to the existing structure. Because, if the system has begun to malfunction then perhaps it is time to change the system.

There are two kinds of change that we need to debate. Do we need to throw out the entire system of government and replace it with something better? If so, then should we consider a presidential form of government? Or, do we merely need to reform the system to make it function better? In that case, there is a variety of institutional remedies available.

My own view -- a minority view, I concede -- is that Westminster democracy is probably well suited to a small country like Britain but that it makes no sense for India. Moreover, I do not believe that the marriage of a federal system with a Westminster parliament has worked.

My preference would be for a presidential system along the lines of the American model with the same structure replicated in the states, that is, a directly elected executive governor rather than a chief minister chosen from the assembly. I am less enthusiastic about the more complicated French system which involves a president and a prime minister though most Indian advocates of a presidential system prefer the French model.

Those who object to the presidential system do so on grounds that seem to me to be extremely misconceived. They say that a president could become a dictator when in fact the opposite is true. The American system allows for so many checks and balances that it is hard for a president to wield excessive power. They say that a nut case or a manic could become President and then he would be in a position to wreak havoc on India. In fact, a nut case is extremely unlikely to win a direct election among the entire population of India. He is much more likely to become prime minister in the present system where any joker with the support of 15 members of parliament regards himself as all powerful.

A second kind of change would keep Westminster democracy but would guard against the instability that is the hallmark of coalition politics. In his address to the nation last week, the prime minister quoted the example of Germany where the motion of no confidence cannot be moved in isolation. The alternative must also be presented before the motion can be voted on. Given the shenanigans of the last month, most people would probably concede that there is some merit in introducing that kind of safeguard here.

There are many other suggestions. From time to time there is a demand for a fixed term of Parliament on the grounds that MPs would be more responsible if they knew they had to settle their differences and couldn't force an election on the people every 14 months or so. My own inclination is to reject this suggestion -- MPs never want an election, it is always forced on them, so the problem is not that they are irresponsible or too keen to go back to the country.

But you can disagree with me on this issue -- just as you can disagree with me on the presidential form of government. At this stage, there is no need to make up our minds or to decide exactly what kind of change needs to be implemented. What is more important is that we recognise that this kind of instability cannot be allowed to go on. Given the present state of national politics, however, it will go on unless we make systemic changes.

My worry is that nobody is talking about changing the system. We are all talking about politics, personalities and elections. My fear is that as we get more caught up in the campaign, we will lose sight of the bigger problem. We will get obsessed with the election results and not concern ourselves with reforming the structure.

And then, once the results are in and a new coalition formed, history will repeat itself. Again and again.

Vir Sanghvi

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