Thoughts on economics and liberty

India needs political reforms, not a presidential system

Sanjeev Sabhlok

(Sent to Times of India in early 2008. Not Published. Hence published on internet – now published on my blog for completeness)

A question is raised periodically in India about whether a presidential system will work better for us than our current Westminster model. This is a legitimate question given that we have some of the most corrupt politicians in the world.

I propose to make a few comments regarding this debate recently revived by Mr. Shashi Tharoor. My comments are based on the experience of working with ministers within two Westminster democracies, the Indian and the Australian. I propose to show that the performance of India’s current system can be significantly improved, and therefore a presidential system should be ruled out, at least for now.

Our quality of governance is determined by the kind of representatives we elect. The mere form of democratic representation, whether Westminster or presidential, whether proportional or first-past-the-post, doesn’t seem to matter so long as good people are able to get elected. By ‘good’ I mean people who are honest, ie. do not use corrupt money in their election campaigns or lodge false accounts of election expenses, are and competent, ie. knowledgeable on policy matters.

Two democratic frameworks which look alike on the surface can lead to dramatically different outcomes based on whether they can attract good people to politics or not. A comparison of the performance of the Indian and Australian systems is a case in point. While the Australian system elects brilliant and honest representatives, the Indian system largely elects incompetent and corrupt representatives. I say this from direct observation of ministers during my working relationships with them in these two countries.

Indeed, I would suggest that the Indian system actively prevents honest candidates from contesting elections. For example, a candidate in India loses the money spent on an election campaign since there is no reimbursement on the basis of votes polled. India also pays its representatives a salary that is too low to attract talented and knowledgeable people to politics. Therefore, the numbers don’t add up, and it is primarily the morally challenged, imprudent, and incompetent Indians who participate in politics.

Our real problem, therefore, is that our Westminster system produces extremely low quality representatives, even though its Australian counterpart is able to produce outstanding results. Why is this so? I attribute this to three design features in the Australian and American systems that are not found in India. First, these countries do not have election expense limits. This allows for complete transparency in fund raising and expenditure; there is no incentive to lodge false statements of electoral expenses. Second, their governments partially reimburse election campaign expenses. The Australian system pays for each valid vote cast. Third, successful representatives are paid salaries comparable to what senior managers in the private sector get.

These design features enable thousands of good people to join politics in Australia and the USA. Citizens of these countries are spoiled for choice. By adopting similar practices, India will also be able to attract thousands of currently disenfranchised good people to politics. That will mark the dawn of a completely new era for India, an era of honesty and competence in public life that we have never experienced in sixty years.

Discussions on the presidential system should therefore be put on hold and the focus shifted to reforms of the current system. The reforms needed include the three reforms suggested above, as well as others I have outlined in a forthcoming book. These reforms should be easy to implement, at least compared with moving to a completely new system of representation.

Of course, one reason why these reforms won’t be implemented is that many current politicians will lose their seats if they allow good people to enter politics. That does not mean the presidential system will do any better. The same resistance to let good people enter politics will mean that when a presidential system is introduced, our most corrupt politician will become President.

The author, a former IAS officer, now works in an Australian state government.

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3 thoughts on “India needs political reforms, not a presidential system
  1. Chandra

    Sanjeev sir,I agree with you, the reasons are also seems to be plausible but one thing that stuck my mind is the governments partially reimburse election campaign expenses. Frankly this will give more incentives to parties to spend more money during the election campaign and expect more reimbursements the political parties partially will not bother about winning also, some time because the returns are guaranteed.We must not forget to think that the money is going to come from our tax payments. Chandra

  2. Sanjeev

    Thanks Chandrai) No ‘sir’ please. Just Sanjeev. Thanks.ii) In Breaking Free of Nehru, I have suggested the details of this. It involves a modest (say Rs.10 or 20) reimbursement to the relevant candidate based on the number of votes polled. Indeed, this section of the book is freely available online: don’t think it will incentivise parties to spend more money. After all, there is a limit on what they can get back.It will, though, incentivise them to get more voters out to vote, which is a good thing.RegardsSanjeev

  3. Vishal Singh

    Sanjeev – I happen to stumble your blog as usual by the power of linked nature of blogs. Your blog was referred in one of the blogs of Adma Smith.I like your style – the direct nature of your writing. I have subscribed to your blog and will keep commenting as I read in more details your blogs.Vishal