India’s descent to a presidential State and the birth of ‘parliamentary dictatorship’

Tracing the genesis of the ‘parliamentary democracy’ form of government by the Constituent Assembly, ANURAG TIWARY explains how this has been transformed into an effective ‘parliamentary dictatorship’ in present-day India.


RECENTLY, the Kerala High Court expressed its dismay that a petitioner sought the removal of the Prime Minister’s photograph from the COVID vaccination certificate and termed it as a “dangerous proposition”.

The high court’s observation shows how personality cults have been assumed as inevitable in contemporary times. The Supreme Court too, while hearing a review petition a few years back, had to amend its own order taking note of personality cult in politics. There seems to be a judicial ex post facto rationalisation of the disproportionate use of personality cult in our polity today.

Also read: Examining the unprecedented burst in exultant government advertisements from a democratic lens
In this piece, I argue that this is in sheer contravention to the foundational principles of our Constitution and its framers and is quite certainly a dangerous trend to set.

A Parliamentary System

When the framers of our Constitution were debating in the Constituent Assembly, at some point they had to choose between two forms of government – Parliamentary or Presidential. They chose the former.
However, a mere ‘parliamentary system of government’, as history had suggested, would do no good. A parliamentary system of government had historically shown aristocratic tendencies, wherein the government, headed by a small elite group of politicians, was responsible only to the majority in the parliament and not the parliament as a whole.
Even Dr B.R. Ambedkar pointed out this anomaly in 1945, during his Presidential Address before the All India Scheduled Castes Federation, when he said that “majority rule was the fundamental basis of parliamentary governments and that it was untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice”.
Also read: Democracy, Distance, Difference, and Disrespect

A Parliamentary democracy

A ‘parliamentary democracy’ is a step ahead of a ‘parliamentary government’. It is not just responsible to the majority in the parliament, but also has the moral obligation to be representative, open and transparent, accessible, accountable and effective. It is based on the presumption that the State will show due regard for both the ‘Parliament’ as well as ‘Democracy’, and that both stand mutually inclusive to each other.
Within a parliamentary democracy, the State pushes for deliberative democracy, promotes independent institutions to ensure checks and balances, is socially and politically inclusive and creates necessary spaces for larger national and civic engagement. All of this is carried out through the Parliament and its members, who hold much more than just a symbolic position.
Interestingly, the Indian Constituent Assembly, in principle, chose ‘parliamentary democracy’ over a mere parliamentary form of government. Broadly speaking, there were atleast two reasons behind this decision. First was historical and contextual and, the second was domestic.

Historical reason

A mere parliamentary form of government would have proved to be farcical. However, mere democratization also would have not helped. This was because until now, there were enough evidences to suggest that democratization had ruined the parliamentary system when counter-regime forces had gained power.
In established regimes like Belgium and France, the parliamentary system came to the brink of a collapse post the rise of right-wing extremism in these countries. It was only after 1945, post the second World War, when the world had seen the disastrous effects of dictatorship and authoritarian regimes that a sudden wave of parliamentary democracy ensued, and governments felt the urgent need to synchronize “parliamentary government” and “democracy” into a peaceful co-existence. India wasn’t an exception to this trend.
Moreover, India’s choice of parliamentary democracy and the form in which it exists today was also contextual. Most members of the Indian National Congress, post-independence and even much before it, considered parliamentary democracy of the English Westminster-style as the best fit for India.

Domestic reason   

The second was a purely domestic reason. The existence of a multi-party system in an extremely diverse, pluralistic and heterogenous country like India made the framers pitch for a more inclusive form of government, with diverse representation and better coordination with the legislature. This, they thought, could only be ensured in a parliamentary democracy wherein the executive would be elected by and be a part of the legislature, would remain accountable to it for the entire duration of its office and, as a result, as Dr. Ambedkar had said, “would be a responsible executive”.
Dr. Ambedkar had justified this choice by pointing out that the legislature/parliament was “in need of direct guidance and initiative from an executive sitting inside the parliament”. This inter-dependence and the inevitable need for collaboration would ensure diverse representation in the government, more accountability and better coordination.
The Constituent Assembly members also did not want any form of governmental power to be concentrated in a single person or a group of persons (except in matters of Centre-State relations, where they preferred a more powerful Centre), as would most certainly be the case in a presidential form of government or a mere parliamentary system. This became an obvious consideration given the Indian experience during the reign of the highly centralised British Raj.

A slow decline?

For the most part of our post-independence history, India was a parliamentary democracy and a proud one at that. It had its own share of setbacks on several occasions, but it still managed to emerge as an embodiment of the truest form of parliamentary democracy, unparalleled in world politics and modern history. However, that tradition, seems to be on a constant decline now.
This decline is in two parts. First is through the birth of larger than life politicians (more than ever before) and second, through the declining reverence for State institutions.
Also read: The Decline of the Parliamentary Process in India

Larger than life politicians

It is not my argument that India has never witnessed the birth of mass leaders or that there have never been political stalwarts who have won elections based on their popular acceptance and credibility. My argument is about the scale and size at which personalities, rather than issues, have come to dominate our political discourse, something that is completely unprecedented in India’s political history.
Leaders like Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, L.B. Shastri, Morarji Desai, and A.B. Vajpayee were extremely popular leaders in their own right. However, their statute wasn’t the only reason why they won elections. They also won elections because of mass movements, ideological loyalties and the credibility of the political party they were associated with. This meant that they were dependent on their political parties to some extent, as much as their parties were dependent on them. This prevented them from exercising unbridled power and acting autocratically.
If and when they did try to do so (and even succeeded, on some occasions), they were met with widespread criticism and even subsequent loss of electoral power (most notably, when the Indian National Congress lost the Lok Sabha elections after the Emergency years).
However, the opposite is happening today. The ‘Modi’, ‘Mamata’, ‘Kejriwal’ and ‘Yogi’ effect, and an increasing emulation of the same by others, proves that political parties today are increasingly dependent on personalities for their electoral gains, without the vice-versa being true anymore.
The ‘mediatization of politics’ has increased the capacity of politicians to bypass party loyalties and appeal directly to the voters through different forms of media. This has certainly created a new breed of populist politicians who use shrewd and innovative methods to reach out to voters.
This has naturally impacted the idea of ‘parliamentary democracy’ and the way one reads electoral behavior in India.

Elections today are won and lost based on the projection of a single individual as an epitome of everything good that there ever was and will be. Leaders at the constituency level are mostly sidelined and, quite often than not, do not matter. Elected representatives today, as opposed to those in the past, have become irrelevant as they are dependent on a central figure, usually a single personality for their political survival. They are elected to office and subsequently demit office at the pleasure of a single individual. They also do not wield enough power to either raise questions or register their dissent in public or in parliament. This has therefore reduced elections to a mere formality.

Also read: Straying from Constitutional values: India’s democracy is at a crossroads

Declining reverence for State institutions

The role of the Parliament, as an institution, itself is compromised. On one hand, where it is supposed to further discourse on issues of national importance and subsequently legislate on them, it has increasingly become a place where legislations are bulldozed without prior consultations or any kind of legislative scrutiny and, at times, are implemented even through the Ordinance route. The role of deliberative forums such as parliamentary committees and mechanisms such as Question Hour and the provision of Private Members’ Bill are slowly diminishing.
The Prime Minister is virtually no more accountable to the Parliament. He rarely participates in debates (if and when they take place). He instead believes in speaking directly to the people outside the parliament, in election rallies and official functions, in a form of unilateral communication, rather than a dialogue. This ensures that he continues winning elections after elections, using populism and rhetoric, with zero accountability.
Also read: No discussion, few disclosures: how Centre puts democracy at risk 

Parliamentary dictatorship

The declining stature and importance of the Parliament as well as its members in India’s democratic ecosystem is an obvious result of the centralization of political discourse where identities matter more than issues. When citizens, through their mandates, reinforce this tradition, it incentivizes leaders and political parties to continue doing so.
However, this gives birth to a new kind of State – one that run as a parliamentary dictatorship. Think about it. The Parliament, at least on paper, continues to legislate, pass laws and hold sessions, and yet, as we have seen, it doesn’t.
When you lift its political veil, you realise it is increasingly under the control of one man who helped his party secure a brute majority in the Parliament. He controls this majority today. This majority legitimizes his diktats in the form of legislation and policy decisions. Sensitive, critical and bullheaded decisions like the Goods and Services Tax, Demonetization, the effective abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, criminalization of triple talaq, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and the disputed farm laws are only some of cases in point.
So, while parliamentary democracy is expected to reflect the “will of the people” through their elected representatives, it is today reflecting the “will of the Prime Minister” through the same representatives.
It is unambiguously evident that our polity today is highly presidentialised, but through a ‘working parliament’. It should be obvious by now, that this is a crisis for parliamentary democracy and an embarrassment for the ones who thought, 75 years ago, that this system will work well for us.
(Anurag Tiwary is an ‘Impact Fellow’ at Global Governance Initiative (GGI) and a final-year undergraduate law student at the Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam. The views expressed are personal.)