Book: J. R. D. Tata Keynote

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The Presidential System

The Indian Merchants' Chamber, Bombay, Annual General Meeting, February 20, 1968.

 

hile I have always advocated, and still do, that businessmen should not mix business with politics, this does not mean that in their capacity of educated and responsible citizens, they should not take interest in political matters and form rational views on them. In fact, in our tightly planned, regulated and controlled economy, no intelligent analysis of economic issues is possible without taking into account the dominating influences of politics.

In the last fifteen years and more, our Five Year Plans have been formulated by the Government and passed by Parliament, our economic activity controlled by a spate of legislation and executive decisions. All economic power has been centered in Ministers and members of Central and State Legislatures and in the bureaucracy. Today also, more than ever before, every problem is considered and every decision made on the basis of political consideration.

Unless the political system in force functions effectively, unless there is political stability and the rule of law prevails, all efforts to improve the economic climate must be frustrated. On the basis of this criterion and in the light of the recent outrageous events in Bengal and our other Legislative Assemblies, the proliferation of parties and groups within parties, the scramble for power or for the retention of power, the disintegration of law and order in many parts of the country, the increasing weakness of the Central Government, is there not justification for the view I hold that the political system of government we have adopted is in the process of failing?

On that assumption, the thesis I put before you today is that the British parliamentary system of government, which we have enshrined in our Constitution is unsuited to the conditions in our country, to the temperament of our people and to our historical background. Take a look at the broad geographical sweep south of Europe, from the Atlantic in the West to the Pacific in the East, from Morocco up to Japan and you will find no country except India, Ceylon and Malaysia where this system successfully prevails. It is worth noting also that only in countries of considerably greater political maturity and with a much smaller population than ours, has the system worked, or is still working, usually in a modified form.

It may be argued that other countries like France, for instance, have in the past been politically unstable for decades and yet survived and progressed, that the present political instability in our country is a passing phase – the growing pains of an infant democracy – that India will survive intact as it has survived thousands of years of even more severe political instability. I fear this is dangerous wishful thinking, which ignores the tremendous changes – political, economic and technological – that are taking place here and in the rest of the world, quite apart from the tremendous impact of our population explosion.

 

A Political Anachronism

 

I venture to suggest that India is one of the twentieth century's major political anachronisms. The parliamentary system, which was evolved over a thousand years of trial and error for the government of a small, occidental island, and is predicted on the existence and smooth working of a sophisticated two-party system through a single Parliament is sought to be adapted to administering an Asian subcontinent through the machinery of what is developing into a multi-multi-party system clashing in Parliament and in a number of State Legislatures.

The British system has been worked by generations of trained professional and highly skilled politicians and administrators. In contrast, most of India's politicians are untrained and inexpert in the complex management of a modern society, while the main responsibility for administering the country is borne by an overworked cadre of senior civil servants whose number is grossly inadequate to cater effectively to the needs of over half a billion people.

In addition, the machine has been burdened with the most ambitious economic planning and development programme ever attempted outside Soviet Russia and with immensely difficult problems of defence, external affairs and finance. Up to the early 1960s, the strain on the machine was hidden by the dominating personality of a great leader, while a benevolent one-party autocracy maintained a facade of political stability and democracy in action. With Nehru gone, the façade has begun to crack and the machine is showing increasing signs of breaking down.

The process is being accelerated by the disillusionment of the Indian people, who after twenty years of planning and controls and the expenditure of enormous amounts of money, find themselves little better off than when they started on their great adventure. The search for new leadership and new political ideas is further fragmenting a multiciplicity of parties, most of which seem to be so bankrupt in ideas that they continue to use slogans and cliches of nineteenth century socialism. Frustration and loss of faith are rapidly eroding our nationhood and encouraging a tendency for India to withdraw again into mutually antagonistic regional divisions.

To come back to our thesis that the parliamentary form of government we have adopted is in the process of failing, the next question is whether this is due to inherent defects in the system itself or to the failings of the politicians charged with operating it? I think it is due to both.

 

The Human Material

 

If the majority of the professional politicians of India, elected to the Central and State Legislatures, were as mature, as civic minded, as well-informed and as responsible as their counterparts in more politically advanced countries, we would at least have a measure of political stability, a better informed and intellectually higher level of debate and a greater respect for law and order. We would still suffer, however, from what I suggest is the major failure of the system under our conditions, namely, the constitutional requirement that Cabinets at the Centre and in the States can be formed only from Members of Parliament and the respective Legislatures and are made directly responsible to them in their day to day conduct of the country's or the States' affairs.

The problems to be tackled by the Executive and the Legislative branches of the Government are nowhere in the world as numerous, varied and complex as in India. The great majority of them are certainly not political problems. Is it not obvious, therefore, that they should be tackled mainly by experts, technicians, scientists, economists, industrial managers and other professionally trained men and women? Can we blame our politicians, untrained and uninformed in any of the specialised disciplines involved in the management of a vast country such as ours, if they fail to understand, let alone to solve, the problems they face and to adapt themselves to the rapidly changing conditions of today? If, except for a few outstandingly able and dedicated men and women to whom we must extend our profound respect and gratitude, they have in this new game of parliamentary politics been mainly concerned with maintaining their own political position and status? Can we blame them for succumbing to the lust for power and for the many privileges attached to political power?

Between now and the next General Elections in 1972, so overwhelming may be the disillusion of our voters that they may turn their faces totally away from the procedures and practices of parliamentary democracy. Even if this does not happen, is it not likely that the trend which emerged in the last elections (1967) may be even more pronounced in 1972? If so, we may be faced, both at the Centre and in most of the States, with a dangerously fluid situation in which a host of parties will constantly manoeuvre for power in a series of ever changing coalitions, defections and floor-crossings, where the authority of the government and parliament will be so debased that the nation may sink into anarchy, be captured and ruled by a dictatorship, or cease to exist as a united India.

Can we afford such a risk and what will be the fate of our hundreds of millions of hungry, and by then angry people, if we do and the gamble fails?

What then is the alternative? Might it not be a Presidential System of Federal Government in which a Chief Executive at the Centre and elected Executive Governors in the States are elected for a term of years, during which they are irremovable and free to govern through Cabinets of experts appointed by them and who may, but need not, include professional politicians?

There can be many variations of such a system, many ways of electing a President and Governors, but its main characteristics, however, are stability on the one hand and expert management of affairs on the other. The executives of such a government will not, as in the British system, be directly responsible to Parliament in their day to day management of a country's affairs and constantly vulnerable to political skulduggery, but would be subject to constant and vigilant scrutiny by Parliament, which, of course, must remain the only body entrusted with law making.

 

Courage Required

 

I am well aware that this alternative was considered by the Constituent Assembly before our Constitution was enacted and that the British system was preferred to it, but since then, we have had a full twenty years of experience in its working and the conditions visualised in 1947 are certainly not those which we find in existence today We have, in these twenty years, already amended the Constitution almost as many times, and four of the amendments have been major ones. Need we be afraid of a further amendment intended to provide the country with a more stable and more expert government than we have today?

What, in practice, should we do? I suggest that the first step should be the appointment by Parliament of a high powered commission to undertake a comprehensive study of the problem and to recommend such revision of our Constitution as would ensure the attainment of the desired objective. The commission should consist of outstanding experts in the fields of politics, law, education, science and other professions.

This will, I know, require an act of great courage but on it will depend the future of one-seventh of the human race as well as of the whole experiment of welding our people together permanently into a single united nation.

Meanwhile, we cannot even afford to wait till courage comes. We have to find the intermediate ways and means of restoring a degree of stability to our politics and more than a degree of safety to our citizens. Whatever be the politics of the parties or coalitions of parties in individual States, communication links must be kept going and at least selected strategic industries must be kept free from intimidation and sabotage.

Although such action obviously lies in the realm of the government, we businessmen, particularly those of us whose activities spread beyond a single State, can do much by our example and by word and action, to help to break through the parochial barriers of creed and language which we see being put up throughout the country.

In addition to the many tasks and duties of a purely economic trading and managerial nature to which we must dedicate ourselves in the coming years, let us also play our part in maintaining the integrity of our country and the survival of our democratic way of life.

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