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Why India needs a leader like Narendra Modi

January 06, 2012 21:45 IST

'Let us start the debate in 2012 in favour of a directly elected executive with a civil society-based Electoral College as a check for a directly elected strong leader in the mould of a Narendra Modi which serves the national interest far more than an indirectly selected, weak but acceptable prime minister,' argues Shashi Shekhar.

It may be odd to draft an 'apolitical agenda' for politics in 2012, but the manner in which politics conducted itself during 2011 gives us good reason to do so. During 2011 there was more agenda setting outside the government and political parties than from the inside.

The nebulous entity called 'civil society' asserted itself in a manner never seen before to break new ground in what has come to be described as the 'pre-legislative' consultation process.

If the UPA stood guilty of the original crime of having institutionalised this process through the 'National Advisory Council', the BJP and the rest of the Opposition stand guilty of having hopped on the 'civil society' bandwagon on the Lokpal issue.

'Civil society' activism is viewed by many as a potent vehicle for mobilising and polarising public opinion on policy debates that have in the past bypassed much of popular consciousness.

In reality, however, civil society is a micro-minority with a loud megaphone. Its nuisance value has assumed a proportion where it can no longer be ignored by government and political opposition alike. Its limitations are such that its agenda cannot really get ahead of the political realities of the day as has been evident from the Lokpal debate.

As we enter 2012 we are faced with a curious choice between a shallow political culture where political parties barely invest in enlightened policy making or citizen engagement and a disconnected civil society that barely understands how to navigate around political realities.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi made a very perceptive observation in his New Year blog post on the governance deficit and policy paralysis during 2011. Reflecting the same concern some on the other side of the political divide like former minister and the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram Shashi Tharoor made a forceful argument calling for a directly elected executive.

On the political margins of this debate you have civil society activist Arvind Kejriwal calling for direct elections of a different kind where referenda on specific issues set the legislative agenda between the five year election cycle.

Between the fears over a strong and directly elected executive and the chaos and anarchy of direct democracy a common ground must be found that helps us overcome the governance deficit and the policy paralysis to help further an agenda for what Narendra Modi describes as the economic opportunity created by the crisis over Western capitalism.

Hence this 'apolitical agenda' for politics in 2012 hoping that debate begins in the earnest on remaking our democracy where navigating political realities no longer becomes an excuse for not delivering on governance or for persisting with paralysis on key reforms.

A Constitutional remaking of the executive to be elected directly with new Constitutional space for 'civil society' through an electoral college could be key elements of such an agenda.

There are many formulations already in the public domain for how the executive may be directly elected. Shashi Tharoor in his essay in Tehelka showed a preference for the French model over the American model. This columnist in another proposal has called for adding a single non-voting seat to every legislature with the entire state or country being the constituency that this non-voting seat represents.

No matter which method is employed towards getting us a directly elected prime minister or President as the case may be, it must take us in a direction away from fragmented legislatures and minority parties determining the government's fate.

Fears over a directly elected executive are largely overblown. More than fearing a directly elected strong prime minister or President who may be recalled we must fear a weak prime minister who is susceptible to influence and control by proxy.

It is not just a weak Manmohan Singh vulnerable to proxy influence from 10 Janpath we must fear. In fact we must fear anyone deemed 'acceptable' for such acceptability comes with a price tag of vulnerability to blackmail by regional parties or remote control.

Only two BJP leaders in office have a track record of standing up to Nagpur -- one from Delhi, the other from Gandhinagar and L K Advani is neither of them.

Greater federalism could be one way to counter balance the fears of over a strong, central executive. However an effective check against excessive concentration of executive power in the states and the Centre could be an Electoral College where civil society finds transparent representation and a Constitutional role with accountability.

The Electoral College can be the vehicle by which the directly elected executive may be recalled should it transgress Constitutional boundaries mid-term. The Electoral College can also be the vehicle by which legislation of public interest can be introduced as an ordinance pending legislative approval.

The composition of the Electoral College and the mechanism by which its civil society members are selected or elected can be a matter of debate. Rather than have an unaccountable NAC or a maximalist Team Anna exercise disproportionate influence in an opaque, raucous manner it may be in our own enlightened self interest to harness civil society energy as a force of good through the Electoral College.

There is a real danger we may lose another decade to hung Parliaments, figurehead prime ministers and emotional blackmail by fasts unto death.

Let us start the debate in 2012 in favour of a directly elected executive with a civil society-based Electoral College as a check for a directly elected strong leader in the mould of a Narendra Modi with civil society as a check which serves the national interest far more than an indirectly selected, weak but acceptable prime minister vulnerable to pressure from regional parties and outside groups that may have propped him or her up.

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at http://blog.offstumped.in

Shashi Shekhar