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Should India change its parliamentary system?

Since India adopted a parliamentary form of government in 1950, the possibility of its replacement by the obvious alternative, the presidential system, has occasionally been considered. The debate on the merits and demerits of the presidential versus the parliamentary form of government has acquired a new significance with its recent endorsement by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

When India's present constitution was drafted in the late 1940s, a parliamentary system seemed to be the logical choice. The Indian leaders were familiar with how the British parliamentary system worked. The Government of India Act of 1935, which became the basis of the present constitution, had established a parliamentary form of government in India, especially in the provinces.

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Doubts regarding the efficacy of the parliamentary system were first expressed by India's opposition parties. With popular votes barely over 45 percent, the Congress Party won almost 75 percent of the seats in the Parliament in each of the first three elections (1952, 1957, and 1962).

The disproportionate number of parliamentary seats won by the Congress was the result of the electoral system that India had adopted. Instead of demanding a change in the electoral system so that the smaller parties would have representation in the Parliament, the opposition, principally the now-defunct Swatantra Party, focused on an even more difficult task of changing the entire political system. Swatantra favored the adoption of the American-style presidential system. Swatantra's viewpoint, however, had little support in the country.

The first serious discussion of replacing the parliamentary system by the presidential form of government in India took place during the emergency regime (1975- 77) of Mrs. Gandhi. The demand for the change came not from the opponents but the supporters of the emergency regime. Mrs. Gandhi's supporters argued that the unrest and divisiveness in the country that had preceded the declaration of a national emergency in June 1975 indicated the failure of the parliamentary system. It was suggested that, in order to prevent the recurrence of similar situations, India should adopt a stronger presidential government along Gaullist lines.

Although Mrs. Gandhi had perhaps encouraged the demand for a de Gaulle-style presidential government, she decided not to risk calling a constitutional convention and starting a debate that might challenge her emergency rule. Instead, she strengthened her position through a series of constitutional amendments and ordinances that had the appearance of approval by the duly constituted institutions.

Mrs. Gandhi's open endorsement of the current debate in India makes it more serious than the earlier debates on this question. Critics of Mrs. Gandhi claim that she wants to keep her power unchallenged and that the debate on the form of government would serve that objective by diverting media's attention, albeit temporarily, from the country's economic woes which are likely to decrease her popularity and power.

Whether or not the current debate serves Mrs. Gandhi's objective, India will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to change its form of government from the parliamentary to the presidential, American or French style. Even if India is able to adopt a presidential system, Indian political conditions would make it unworkable.

India's political traditions and historical experiences are very different from those of the United States or France. Despite the factions and internal conflicts, the Indian parties are remarkably cohesive when voting on bills in the legislature. They would find it hard to accept the independence that the American legislators enjoy from party discipline. The indirect election of the president by an electoral college, which is being questioned in the US, will not work in India without the American traditions, including the possibility of the winner of the popular votes losing in the election.

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The French system will not be any more suitable to India than the American system. Although it is difficult to separate the emergence of the Fifth Republic in France from the personality of de Gaulle, it was essentially a device to end the chronic political instability of the Fourth Republic. India has not experienced the type of political instability that the Fourth Republic in France did.

India's parliamentary form of government has worked rather well and, except for the 21-month long emergency period, India has maintained a resilient democracy. Instead of debating the form of government, the Indian leaders should concentrate on controlling the country's population and resolving its economic as well as social problems.

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