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February 20, 1998


The Rediff Election Special/Shalabh Kumar

We have combined the executive, legislative and watchdog functions into one body, and that is at the root of our current problems

My thoughts on the form of government were triggered by a recent column in Rediff On The NeT. The columnist, Dilip Thakore, makes two valid observations. One, that the experience of the last 24 months and the spectre of another hung Parliament makes the Presidential form of government an attractive proposition. Two, the system in which a 'cosy club' of legislators elects the executive is fundamentally unsound and can be subverted.

The Presidential form of government, as practiced in the United States or with a little difference in France, is an alternative to the British and Indian Parliamentary style of governance. However, in focusing on the method of electing a chief executive, Mr Thakore and many of the proponents of the Presidential system miss the wood for the trees. Governance is not just about electing a chief executive, directly as in the US model or through the Parliamentary model as it exists in India. We need to question the very structure of our governance because it has failed to deliver good governance.

Any governance structure has to ensure four broad functions.

The Executive function: This is the most visible arm of the government, entrusted with the running of the nation. In the US, the president is the only directly elected official of the executive arm. He appoints the rest of the body, selecting from, in theory, the entire pool of talent in the country but, in reality, from a close circle of political associates. In India, the executive arm is the council of ministers, who are not specifically elected for that purpose but as people's representatives to Parliament. Their selection into the executive is determined by the political party they belong to and parliamentary arithmetic.
The Legislative function: Every government needs to have a law-making body. This arm of the government ensures the laws which govern the nation, often but not always embodied in a written constitution like in India, are kept contemporary and relevant.
The Judiciary function: The judiciary ensures that the citizens of the country, the government bodies and the business entities live by the laws enacted in the constitution, and the legislature from time to time. The judiciary is an implementation arm, entrusted with the enforcement of the laws of the country, not their creation.
The Watchdog function: This is performed best by the assembly of the people's representatives, which makes sure that all sectional interests are made known to the executive, legislative and judiciary. It is also the body which carries the onus of making the other arms accountable to the people, albeit in an indirect way. The watchdog function is often, like in the US, armed with a last resort weapon -- impeachment of the chief executive, for example -- which prevents the concentration of governance power in the hands of an individual or a group while ensuring 'proper behavior' by the people in power.

The problem we face in India is systemic and not situational. We have combined the executive, legislative and watchdog functions into one body, Parliament, and that is at the root of most of our current problems.

When a parliamentary election takes place, the voter is required to elect a person who would not only serve as the best representative of the constituency and its interests, but also be suitable for the executive function as well as have the ability to legislate laws for the governance of the country. This is where the first systemic failure takes place. No candidate is likely to be a superhuman of this kind. It is also impossible for the voter to evaluate each and every candidate on so many parameters. Quite naturally, voters simplify the evaluation procedure. As a result, candidates get elected either on their ability to represent the constituency's interests or their ability to govern. The ability to legislate is only sometimes a consideration. Parliament is, hence, a mix of people elected for different reasons and for different roles.

The second level of failure happens while forming the executive arm. In the current system, every MP is potentially a minister, irrespective of his/her ability to govern. While some are legitimately elected for the specific purpose of governance, most are elected to guard the interests of the people they represent. In the current social structure of the country, most popularly elected representatives will continue to be guardians of some sectional interest. The executive drawn from a body of these representatives is more likely than not to be poor in its executive ability.

In addition, since these representatives have to remain committed to the sectional interests that got them to Parliament, the greater good is often compromised. As long as the executive is drawn from such a body of people's representatives, elected essentially to protect the interests of the people that they represent, we are doomed to have governments which are at best, ineffective and at worst, regressive and dangerous.

The third failure, often overlooked, is in the law-making function. The Constitution was written some 50 years ago. It needs to be kept contemporary and relevant on an ongoing basis. Most changes in a written constitution will be modifications but there will be times that significant changes might be needed. Amazingly, it is the same body of people's representatives who are also entrusted with this responsibility. As a result, what we have achieved is the elevation of the Constitution to a 'holy' status, not to be questioned, not to be criticised and definitely not to be tampered with. The wisdom of the men and women of the Constituent Assembly formed 50 years ago is supposed to lead us into the new millennium.

The separation of the executive from the other functions is the first systemic correction that we must undertake. We must have an executive which is elected only for that purpose. It will ensure that people with governing abilities do not have to commit themselves to sectional interests to get elected as MPs. The Presidential form of government, as practiced in the US, is a model which clearly separates the executive from other functions. The US elects a chief executive and gives him some freedom to select his own team. It is a system tailored to the social system of the US where the individual reigns supreme. I am not sure whether such as system will work in India. Our experience with individual power has not been good. As a people, we are easily given to idolisation. The kind of absolute power Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and, to a lesser extent, Rajiv Gandhi enjoyed makes the prospects of an executive centered around an individual scary.

Redefining the role of the Lok Sabha is the second systemic correction required. We definitely need a forum for people's representatives. I consider this the backbone of a democratic system. The people's representatives should, however, be responsible only for the interests of the people they represent and the Lok Sabha should be the forum where sectional interests can be heard and debated.

Strengthening the legislative function would be the last systemic correction. The Executive and the People's Assembly cannot enact constitutional changes, they do not have the wherewithal to do so. It is a job meant for specialists and should be entrusted to specialists. So, here's my solution.

Separate, multi-party elections for the Executive. Every party, before the election, will nominate a council of ministers. The electorate is then asked to elect one party as the party of governance. A forced choice simplifies the decision-making for the electorate. By forcing every party to pre-select a council of ministers, one prevents the post-election wrangling for posts. It is also a fair basis for making a decision. After all, a Congress government today could mean one headed by Sitaram Kesri and comprising his cronies, and it could also mean one headed by Sonia Gandhi and comprising her 'kitchen' cabinet. The electorate does have a right to know that if it votes for the Congress what kind of executive body the country will get.

The Lok Sabha should be retained in its current form. The elections of its members should, however, be held in a staggered format enabling a regular inflow of fresh blood as well as continuity in the forum. It would perform the most important function of the democratic state, that of a watchdog. All other arms of the government will remain answerable to this people's assembly. The Lok Sabha will retain the right to ask questions, to seek information and to investigate. However, it will have no direct executive or legislative functions. The Rajya Sabha does not perform any role in the model that I envisage. I am not sure whether it does anything useful even now.

Legislation should be entrusted to a separate, specialist body. This should be a small body drawing its members from all the other arms of the government. Members drawn from the judiciary will provide the specialist, legal expertise required for law-making. Members drawn from the people's assembly will (hopefully!) provide a feel of ground realities, and members nominated by the executive will provide a counterpoint and balance to other two groups.

There are many advantages of breaking up the functions of governance into its component elements and entrusting separate bodies with them. The 'horses for courses' principle provides for greater effectiveness in all walks of life. And we could do with a dose of effective governance, don't you think? Such a system also inherently carries a strong internal check and balance mechanism, preventing the concentration and misuse of power by any one arm of government.

It is also an insurance policy. Failure of one arm does not necessarily paralyse the entire government. Consider the worst case scenario with our current system and you will share my fears. Suppose, we have a Parliament where no single pre-electoral front has more than 150 seats. Such a scenario is a distinct possibility, not in this election but sometime in the future. If that happens, good or stable governance is the last thing we will get. The country will, then, pay the price for having a system which fails to recognise that in a society as diverse as ours, convergence of electoral opinion is an aberration, not the norm.


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