Overhauling political institutions

The Aam Aurat finds it difficult to understand what the “policracy” does, though all agree that it is important for their welfare. Most believe that their local representatives (municipal corporators, MLA and MPs) have access vast amounts of disretionary public funds and access to “people who matter” who could get them a government job, get their children into school, get the police off their backs, restore the water and electricity supply, clean the drains or reduce the price of cereals, sugar and vegetables. Politicians collaborate to give the impression that they can all this and more. If they were to actually tell the truth, that none of this is their job and they are supposed to just legislate for the future, no one woud even offer them a glass of water let alone genefluct outside their homes.

The blame lies in our curious political architecture which is copied from the UK; a complex system based on tradition and organic growth which does not even have a Constitution. Ideal for catering to a small island of less than 30 million people. Extrapolated to a poor, illiterate, continent sized, heterogenous country like India, it is no surprise it fails.

The American system of electing a President to head the executive and a Senate/House of Representatives to legislate is far cleaner and simpler to understand. The UK system rests on the fundamental assumption that the PM shall be the leader of the dominant party in parliament. The reason is that unity of command is essential at that level. Imagine a situation where the PM has to press the Nuclear button. By habit and training, the PM needs to have the confidence to take that decision. If she first needs to get the clearance of the party boss, it may be curtains for all of us. In India the recent separation of formal and informal political power, with the first vesting in the PM/CM but the latter vesting in the party boss, violates this precondition for UK style democracy.

Second, it is bad enough that parties now go to the polls without declaring who their PM/CM candidate is. On top of that, there is hardly an ideological difference across parties to choose from (except the left parties) with parties increasingly relying on caste arithmetic rather than election manifestos to get votes.

Third, the rise of regional parties has fragmented the national vote resulting in the coalition “dharma”. By its very character a coalition is subject to greater tension again because there is a fragmentation of command and control. Coalition partners don’t sink or swim together. They can coalesce into a different grouping if the present one does not suit them.  Whilst this flexibility is clearly good for democratization of the government, since it makes it more responsive to sectional interests, it is terrible for governance standards. It extends the time required for taking decisions. It exposes the government to continuous bargaining and presents it with zero sum situations where the future of the government may depend on turning a blind eye to fraud and corruption by a partner, just to keep the government going.

In contrast the Presidential system has none of these limitations. The person who is elected President clearly has the mandate of a majority of the electorate. The “inclusivness of representation” requirements can be made more stringent by requiring the winning candidate to have in addition to an aggregate majority, a minimum proprtion of votes (say 30%) in each State (or in each MP constitutency at a lower level of 15%), with subsequent run offs till a candidate reaches the required threshhold.

The Presidential system assures a stable executive and a stable legislature for five years. The government needs to go to Parliament only for sanctioning the annual budget, new legislation and endorsement of international agreements. Other than these, the executive becomes free to implement its program without the daily threat of the government falling because of a lack of majority in Parliament. This would also allow the judiciary to carry on with its main task of implementing the rule of law, rather than becoming the default executive it has become today. When the aam aurat votes for the President she will know that it is this person who she needs to look to for a better life. She is likely to be be more careful in her choice since there would be a direct link between her vote and her welfare. Today she votews for party symbols ( a hand, a chair, a cycle) with no way of knowing what the symbol stands for.

More imprtantly, the President would be able to choose her political executive team from the best professionals in the field and not be  restricted to those who were able to find their way into Parliament, as is required today, though the choice would need the endorsement of Parliament. Imagine getting Metro Shreedharan as the Railway Minister; L&T Naik as the Industries Minister; Bindeshwari Pathak as the water and sanitation Minister or Narayan Muthy as the IT minister. Professionals from all fields would have an opportunity for public service, without getting imbroiled in the underworld of electoral politics.

The five point measure of good governance is (1) legitimacy (2) professionalism (3) responsiveness and (4) powers matching  responsibilities.

Governments under the UK model in India fail this test. (1) They are not legitimate since they come into power with a bare 25% of the vote share. (2) Since the pool from which the political executive is drawn is restricted to those who get elected to Parliament, professionalism is at a discount. (3) These governments are responsive only to their own vote bank, not to the nation. (4) Lastly due to the trend of separation of formal and informal power, with the balance shifting to political parties from the executive head, such government are not sufficiently empowered.

Legitimacy derives from the voter knowing the person she votes for and what the person is expected to do for her. Professionalism needs to be recharged by touching base periodically with the real world away from the ivory tower of public policy. It requires the ability to walk away from political power and do other things. Responsiveness is a function of incentives. If i owe my job to the party and not to the electorate, then i will serve the party, not the nation. As for responsibility with power even a junior bureaucrat will tell u that this is the key reason why the State is indecisive and directionless.

66 years on India has evolved into a confident country bound together, not by the impersonal constraints of Sardar Patels “steel frame” but by the recognition that there is “value” in sticking togther from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. “Paise vasuul” is our common aspiration. Hinglish is our linguafranca, though we may still think in our own regional language. The differences seem smaller and the similarities much larger. We are held togther not by force, but by choice. The demons of 1947 (religion, caste and economic rigidities) are regressing. Literacy is on the rise, as is economic empowerement. Can we please get an institutional overhaul of the political architecture which could realise this potential?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s