Opinion and Editorial

Is Modi eyeing a shift to presidential form of government?

A Sreenivasa Reddy/Dubai
Filed on December 4, 2020


It may be recalled here the Indian political system is mainly run by two sets of governments — the federal or central and provincial or state governments.

‘One nation, one election’ has of late become the rallying cry of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his partymen for the ostensible purpose of saving money, resources and time on holding multiple elections at multiple times.

Why is India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, suddenly enamoured of this idea? On the face of it, it looks very innocuous and well-intentioned.

It may be recalled here the Indian political system is mainly run by two sets of governments — the federal or central and provincial or state governments. The two executives are formed out of two legislatures — parliament and state assemblies — whose members are duly elected every five years. But the elections to these legislatures are held whenever their term ends. The life of a state assembly does not always coincide with that of parliament.

Elections to various state legislatures and parliament are held at different points of time. Moreover, the life of a legislature depends on the stable majority of the ruling party or coalition. If a partner in a ruling coalition pulls out and if there is no viable way of forming an alternative government, it could result in a midterm election. So multiple elections at multiple points of time are endemic to the present system. But the prime minister wants to hold all of them at a single time on the ground that it can save money, time and other resources.

But why this clamour for a single election now? Is there any hidden agenda behind it? The present ruling party, its ideology and its charismatic, strong leader have a very centrist, uniformist vision of India where the single religion, culture and language hold sway. Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan form the credo of their vision. To realise this dream, the ideologues of the party have been pushing several ideas — ‘one nation, one election’ being one of them which, they believe, will promote national unity. One election across the nation will help rally people around a single leader and a single set of issues is what they seem to believe.

The present prime minister sees himself as a strong leader who would like to project India’s influence on world stage. But his authority at home is hobbled by multiple power centres such as parliament, state governments etc. So there is a lookout for institutional arrangements that will enhance his authority. The current debate on single national election is the first step which will ultimately lead to a discussion on the suitability of the presidential form of government. The US style system gives more room to an executive president to reshape the nation according to his ideology.

Fascination for a stronger president-led government is not new. The late prime minister Indira Gandhi at the peak of her power toyed with this idea. The then Congress leader Vasanth Sathe triggered the debate by praising the virtues of the presidential form of government in a research paper in 1984. At that time critics saw the lady prime minister’s hand behind Sathe’s campaign and accused her of having designs to concentrate all powers in herself.

The new debate on ‘one nation, one election’ will highlight its impossibility in the present system which is inherently prone to untimely dissolutions of legislatures, and frequent elections. The inevitable corollary of this is exploring other forms of government where there are elections at regular intervals no matter what happens to parliamentary majorities. A directly-elected president will be presented as a solution to the problem.

Why do strong leaders consider the present system uncomfortable? It is because their existence and authority are dependent on a majority in parliament. Even a small party in the ruling coalition can dictate terms and undo policies. Strong leaders prefer a presidential system because their authority is unencumbered by parliamentary caprice. The present Indian leader too, like his predecessor Indira Gandhi, eyes more power so that he can serve the cause of his Hindu nationalist party better.

What could be Modi’s game plan? Will he go down the road of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kim Jong-un? It is unlikely. He will hold aloft the banner of his party as long as he can, and will pass on the baton when the time comes. He may not perpetuate himself as a life-long leader. Indira Gandhi got a bitter taste of this strategy after she imposed emergency in 1975. India has since traversed a long distance on the democratic path. No one, however powerful, can reverse it.

Modi as a leader may not be much interested in personal glory but eyes a legacy where the primacy of Hindus is institutionalised in the political system. This is unlike the previous prime minister of his party, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who shared the liberal instincts of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Hindutva project sees strong central authority as essential to further its goals. A presidential system with one man at the helm embodies that vision. The ideologues believe a strong centre can hold fissiparous forces at bay and help maintain the unity of the country.

The present system, despite its instability at times, is more representative of people. It can accommodate the aspirations of small groups such as religious and linguistic minorities and can curb the emergence of dictatorial leaders. Any attempt to tinker with this system in favour of a strong central authority is detrimental to the democratic future of the country. They are better advised to refrain from such move.

— sreenivasa@khaleejtimes.com

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