Economic Times, April 19, 2012

By Pradeep S Mehta

India’s Westminster-type government is struggling with coalition woes

At a recent meeting in Kolkata, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee threw up his hands for not being able to present a bold Budget because of coalition politics. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, a coalition partner, has been a thorn in the side of the UPA.

She enjoys a veto on nearly everything that the government wishes to do. If such are the compulsions of coalition politics, should we not think of other models of a government? A system that will build firewalls against irrational, partisan and pork-barrel politics resulting in instability and policy paralysis.

India has accepted the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, which is now proving to be an unworkable method of running a government smoothly. We do not have a two-party polity in our country unlike in the US and UK (except its recent coalition government). As time flies by, we will have more regional and small parties dictating policies at the Centre as well.

What can we do to evolve a more stable democratic system in our country? One model is the German system, where parliament gets a fixed tenure of four years constitutionally, whether or not one party has a majority.

Disparate parties have to come together to form and run a government on an agreed common agenda. Currently, the government is a coalition among Christian Democrats and Free Democrats. During 2005-09, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Greens were partners in the government as a Grand Coalition, because they belonged to different corners of the triangle. The government lasted its full term.

Other than the stable parliamentary system, the German electoral system too is unique. Half the seats in the parliament are directly elected. The other half is indirectly elected on the basis of votes garnered by parties contesting elections.

For such nominated seats, parties usually select competent people but not losers. For any party to get indirect seats in parliament, it needs at least 5% of the total votes cast in a national election. This prevents smaller parties from coming into parliament.

To try and import such a system in India is a Herculean task, because a constitutional amendment will never pass muster with many small parties in the parliament.

Assuming that we think of a grand coalition between the Congress and BJP, the two largest parties who agree on many economic issues, is also a difficult task because of huge ideological differences. In Germany, political parties do not have such wide ideological or even policy differences, and are more mature.

As an aside, the proposal to reserve seats for women has not passed muster because of opposition by smaller parties. Yet, even in Pakistan, a proportional representation system exists to ensure that women and minorities get into the lower houses of legislature through nomination.

Parties select women representatives in state assemblies and national parliament on the basis of seats won, around 25% of all representatives.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar is one such nominated member of the lower house. We should also be able to do this, especially when women’s reservation has been wrought into local government through Constitutional amendments.

In our own local government, village sarpanches are directly elected by the whole electorate since the panchayati raj system was introduced in 1950s. Since 1996, mayors are also being directly elected by cities. States have done it gradually.

Why can’t we elect the national president and state governors directly? In November 2011, after 14 individuals wrote an anguished letter to the Prime Minister on malgovernance, this newspaper ran a debate on an agenda for renewal. One commentator suggested that we should start a dialogue to move toward a presidential system, as a way forward.

Such a system will have multiple benefits. The head of the national or state government can appoint people as ministers, who will not need to dip into the till for fighting elections. Such a system will help governance hugely. A similar thing happens even in India whenever there is presidential rule in the states and the governor appoints competent people as advisers with ministerial responsibilities, though usually for a short term.

The system will also promote national integration, critical for India that now faces demands for more federalism. The elected person will have to think and act for all the people and not just their own constituencies or states.

Indeed, the person will have to heed her own party, but that will not influence the decisions so acutely. Elections to states and the parliament will continue to provide the checks on the CEOs. It will also help legislatures to last the full term.

With stability assured, politicians will not be under constant pressure to raise funds for the next elections. Elected politicians will have a greater say in policy and Budget-making through legislative committees and also give them the opportunity to collect rents or favours by their interventions in the legislative committees. That happens in both US and UK. If such an opportunity is not seen, then our politicians will oppose any change.

Now is the opportune time tokick off a debate for changing over from a Westminster model to a presidential system. Electing a national sarpanch to get rid of the cantankerous and retrogressive coalition political system. Our children will never forgive us if we do not start the process now, knowing that it will still take a few years to bring about the change.

The author is secretary general of CUTS International

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