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Further thoughts on Prajapati Trivedi’s recommendations

In my previous blog post on Trivedi's article regarding constitutional changes in India I noted that "Trivedi proposes changes to the Westminster system itself, moving it further towards a presidential system". I gather that Trivedi, in an Times of India article, disagrees with Tharoor's advocacy of the Presidential system.

Thus, in his TOI article, Trivedi has stated:

I agree with Shashi Tharoor that the Indian political system has corroded beyond redemption and it's time for a change (Dec 16 and 23, 2007). I disagree, however, with his argument to switch to the presidential form of democracy.

To start with, people often succumb rather too easily to "the grass is always greener on the other side" syndrome.

While the Americans, just like Indians, value the idea of democracy, they are not entirely happy with the working of their presidential system. According to a recent survey, members of the US Congress as a group were rated to be less popular than O J Simpson during his murder trial. Books like Democracy on Trial by Jean Eltshtain of Harvard, and Democracy and its Critics by Robert Dahl of Yale, provide a long list of grouses Americans have against the presidential form of government.

A number of democracies with a presidential form of government are contemplating switching over to a parliamentary system.

The executive-legislative deadlock leading to paralysis of the government is the first major problem that has plagued presidential systems all over the world. This is the inevitable result of the coexistence of the two independent organs that a presidential government creates.

When disagreement between them occurs, there is no institutional method of resolving it – unlike the instrument of legislative vote of confidence that keeps the legislature and executive in tune with each other in parliamentary systems.

This is good. I agree with Trivedi on this.

But Trivedi's article under consideration ["Re-Inventing Democratic Constitutions: An Application of New Public Management (NPM) Framework” (published in Journal of Governance & Public Policy, Volume 1, Issue 2, July-December 2011)] does seem to go against the thrust of his own earlier postion, by shifting Westminster into a direction that can only be described as Presidential.

Note that in the Westminster system, the Cabinet is accountable to Parliament. In comparison, in Trivedi's model, the Prime Minister is held to account. I quote from his constitutional reform article which explains how India's Prime Minister will be elected:

Elections will take place for members of parliament on party lines as is done currently.  After election, there will be a vote for the Prime Minister using secret ballot. Each party would be able to put forward a candidate as well as individuals will also be able to stake a claim. If a candidate for PM gets the majority of the vote in the first round, he or she will be elected PM. If not, there will be a run off between the top two candidates.

Once the PM is elected, he or she will have a secure tenure for five years (with the possibility of being renewed twice). The elected Prime Minister will have to implement the mandate on which he was elected as a Member of Parliament. The elected PM would only lose his / her job if his / her performance falls below the constitutionally specified level.

This proposal radically shifts the incentives and accountability of the Westminster system. Its emphasis on Prime Minister as the key executive moves it strongly towards the Presidential form. A fixed tenure for Prime Minister further confirms a strong "Presidential" flavour.

In the Westminster system, the Prime Minister is one of the many ministers (Cabinet). The Cabinet is the executive, the government. The Cabinet must, at all times, ensure it has the confidence of the parliament. The Westminster system has no tenure for anyone. Parliamentary parties can change Prime Ministers, as appropriate, so long as they maintain the confidence of parliament. In this manner, accountability Westminster system is immediate and urgent, and flexibility and agility almost unlimited. 

On the other hand, Trivedi's proposal would give enormous powers to an unelected Performance Commission which can effecively sack the Prime Minister. Thus:

The Prime Minister of India will need to attain a minimum level of performance to continue as head of the government. If the Prime Minister fails to achieve, say, at least a 3 on a 5-point performance scale in two consecutive years, he will have to leave office. A new Prime Minister will be chosen from the existing assembly without any fresh elections.

When a PM leaves the office because of poor performance in meeting the commitments with regard to the Minimum National Agenda, the parliament would not be dissolved. There is no need to fire the shareholder representatives because of the poor performance of the executive. Rather, the existing legislature will elect a new Prime Minister.

I am unable to agree to an unelected body exercising greater power than the parliament or even the citizens themselves. The existing unelected pillar of a republic: the judiciary, doesn't have such powers. It can only adjudicate on constitutional compliance. It can't remove an elected Prime Minister.

If citizens are unhappy with a government, they can remove it in many ways.

a) The parliament can pass a vote of no confidence, prompting a fresh election.

b) The parliament assembles at the President's pleasure and he can dissolve parliament. This power has been used to dissolve state assemblies in the past. While not been used against a sitting national government, the Indian President is authorised to exercise such power, if push comes to shove. As head of the nation and its armed force, the President in India's Westminster system is all powerful (being constrained only by parliamentary custom and practice).

c) Citizens can vote out a sitting government at elections.

While I agree with the intentions underpinning Trivedi's suggestions (to ensure greater accountability), I'm unable to support changes to the dynamics of the Westminster system. The Westminster system (along with the First Past The Post election mechanism) is a responsive and effective system to provide representative democracy. That it has not worked well in India is not due to any inherent shortcomings in the Westminster model but due to the way Indian socialists (starting with Nehru) have totally distorted its functioning (as explained in BFN).

Once these distortions are set right, India's Westminster system can (and will) perform as well as it has in the UK for more than 500 years. A very similar system works quite well in Australia, as well. Where it works well, parliamentarians are well paid. In addition, state funding of elections (as with Australia) enhances the quality of candidates.

Of course, we should improve the Westminster system where possible, without changing its basic design.

For instance, as already indicated, I'm happy for greater public reporting on election commitments by the Election Commission, and for compensation of MPs to be aligned with the overarching goals of greater prosperity and good governance.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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4 thoughts on “Further thoughts on Prajapati Trivedi’s recommendations
  1. KS

    I skimmed through Prajapati’s paper (thanks to PDF provided) and I find some of his suggestions too personality-oriented, for example he claims that it is good to depend on a person who is known to work without ulterior motives. This to me, is a weakening of the democratic institution (collective singular intentionally used!). Does this not amount to admitting defeat, that one cannot have a system that includes checks and balances and open communication (transparency) which should obviate the need for such “mahatma”s (or equivalently benevolent dictators) on whom we are supposed to lavish our blind trust ?

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    I agree. Trivedi’s analysis is not entirely compatible with liberty. We must not seek to second guess others’ motives. Just focus on systems and good process.


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