PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM IN INDIA
As India was preparing to become an independent democratic republic forsaking all relations with colonialism, there began, almost simultaneously the search for a model of polity upon which our institutional structures were to be based and political processes made to function. The search was made difficult by the complex nature of our social reality reflecting different classes, caste groups, ethnic and religious minorities—all having diverse interests and aspirations. Almost all thinkers and activists of the time were keen on evolving a polity that suited the interests and aspirations of all sections of the Indian society. Jaya Prakash Narayan, for example, while articulating a plea for reconstruction of the Indian polity emphasised the need for a rational and scientific model that suited Indian conditions and realities. In other words, he argued for a syncretic model that would give due consideration to the practices of the ancient Indian polity that, unlike the pure western model, was organised in tune with the social nature of man and the scientific organisation of the society. He argued for a social and political life that would assure the preservation of human values. Disapproving big state structures, Mahatma Gandhi favoured the establishment of decentralised structures whose social and political rules are informed by ethics. He felt that what we consider the Mother of Parliaments is morally impotent to do any good to the English society at large. The parliament, according to Gandhi, remains under the control of ministers who constantly change. Furthermore, for Gandhi, the development of the party system and the assessment of issues by party members guided by a mob-psychology rhetorically called party discipline have led to the ruin of the parliament. However, this derision of English Parliament does not indicate Gandhi’s apathy towards the institution of Parliament per se. He wanted the people to choose a parliament with fullest power over finance, armed forces, courts and educational institutions. In short, he aspired for parliamentary swaraj in accordance with the wishes and needs of the people of India.
However, the compulsions of economic development, coupled with the need to ensure political integration of varied elements and interests under a corporate collectivity of “The People” our leaders set upon an agenda of building a big modern state with elaborate structures, institutions and political processes. In their search for a democratic government that would remain accountable to the wishes of the people and duly represent their diverse aspirations, the builders of our modern state chose to look to various countries and their political experiments. The choice of a federal parliamentary system was the result of a colonial legacy and experience. The legislative experience since the colonial rule began in the early eighteenth century, with modifications in the method and nature of representation in subsequent years, had a profound influence in articulating the normative structure of our post-independent system of governance.
In independent India, a parliamentary form of government was adopted as the institutional device through which the democratic spirit was sought to be realised. The institutional set up is headed by the President who is the head of the state and the executive, functioned through the Prime Minister, who is the head of the government, and the judiciary, by the Supreme Court, while the Parliament is entrusted with the exercise of legislative powers. These institutions function within the framework of parliamentary government based on the union of the legislative and the executive wings of the government. The executive, the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister, comes from the legislature and is collectively responsible to it. In other worlds, it is through the members of parliament that the people of India exercise control over the executive.
The main principles of this form of democracy was the presence of a popular check upon the government through periodic elections based on adult franchise; granting of liberties to its citizens; and the presence of an independent judiciary to safeguard those liberties. The government is not irremovable and is periodically open for anybody who gets the support of the people and enters it as an individual or as a member of some party. The method of election is affected through persuasion, conversion, and change of mind, change of opinion performed through secret ballot. Moreover, the underlying assumption of our parliamentary democracy is the faith on liberal democratic and individualistic principles.
The process of making this elaborate parliamentary structure functional depends upon the political parties, which constitute the crucial elements in any parliamentary form of government. However, the presence of political parties of all hues and ideologies in the polity, sometimes with antagonistic and diverse conceptions of socio-economic order, renders the functioning of our parliamentary processes difficult. Thus, questions about the feasibility of parliamentary democracy in a country with no stable conventions or rules to regulate the relationship between the various offices created by the constitution and the inability to function as a welfare state under conditions of economic depravity are being increasingly raised. These questions are being buttressed with proposals for alternative forms of government like the presidential system replacing the cabinet form of government. However, we must remember that in choosing the ‘Westminster model’ with some modifications, the framers of the constitution were motivated by the need for a responsible government to that of a stable government to be found in the Presidential system of government. Though ideally any democratic executive must satisfy the conditions of stability and responsibility, in practical circumstances a balancing of both has been difficult.
A non-parliamentary government is not dictated by its dependence on a parliamentary majority for continuing in office. By assuring a fixed tenure, a non-parliamentary system tends to value stability rather than responsibility. The government’s dependence on parliamentary majority makes it incumbent upon the parliamentary government to be responsible in its functions. In our parliamentary democracy, the parliament plays a vital deliberative role as a forum for national debate thereby constituting a popular check upon governmental authority and functions. The individual members of parliament and the opposition during question hour, amendment processes and general debates, have amply demonstrated the deliberative importance of the parliament. Furthermore, the restraint upon government activities and policies is maintained through the introduction of no-confidence motions, cut motions, adjournment motions and calling attentions. Thus, a popular authority of the parliament in our political system is reinforced both through the continuous and periodic assessment of governmental responsibility. It is continuously assessed by the members of the parliament and periodically by the people during general elections. This is unlike the feature in presidential systems where this assessment is only periodic and is limited by the tenure of the executive, making the legislature literally ineffective during normal times. Thus, any assessment of the effectiveness of our parliamentary system must take cognizance of the wishes of the framers to value responsibility over stability.
The parliamentary structure has also been replicated at the level of the states that respects their autonomy and the federal spirit that legitimises the unity of the Union. Consequently, at the level of the states we have elaborate structures that pursue the parliamentary spirit in choosing their leaders and administering government activities. By The adoption of parliamentary system to the requirements of large federal states means that the legislative powers of the parliament are limited. Since the federal and the state governments have separate law-making authority that is derived from the constitution, the Indian situation is characterised by constitutional supremacy rather than parliamentary supremacy. The supremacy of the constitution is further reinforced by constitutional provision Of guaranteeing fundamental rights and empowering the judiciary with the power to act as a custodian of these rights.
In short, in our parliamentary democracy, the legitimacy to rule is vested in the parliament, which it derives from the willing consent of the ‘people’ who make up the electorate. It is the collective personality of the parliament that imposes a code upon the conduct of both, individuals and political parties; the parliament is the protector of individual liberty and the foundation of Indian laws. An important feature of our parliamentary system, like other parliamentary democracies, is that it clearly demarcates the position and powers of the head of the state and the head of the government, thereby, in a sense establishing dual executives. The head ofthe government is appointed from the party or a coalition of parties that enjoys majority in parliamentary seats. This Council of Ministers, headed by the Prime Minister is collectively responsible to the Parliament. This principle of collective responsibility puts the idea of accountability in the government and restricts governments from taking decisions that it cannot justify before the Parliament. This not only indicates that the hallmark of parliamentary system is a government that is collective but also implies that executive powers are collegiate in nature helping the maintenance of pluralism of opinions that forms the bulwark against authoritarianism. Moreover, unlike the Westminster model, the head of the state in India is elected and exercises his powers within the express provisions of the constitution. He is also not merely a titular head. The constitution empowers the parliament to impeach the President for the violation of the constitution. This implies that the President is empowered to discharge certain functions on his own for which he is liable.
The President is also an integral part of the Parliament and is vested with powers by the constitution that helps to check parliamentary impropriety in case of the inability of political parties to secure parliamentary majority or its loss at any given time. The importance of presidential authority was exhibited on numerous instances of crisis that was confronted by the Parliament. For example in 1979, the President rejected the request of Morarji Desai to form a government after having resigned as Prime Minister. It was in 1979 that the President insisted that Charan Singh, the successor to Desai seek confidence of the Parliament. The failure of Charan Singh to gain that confidence subsequently resulted in elections. Though these acts of the President were mired in controversies, it is asserted by eminent jurists and writers that the President acted in a manner consistent with parliamentary conventions. Similarly in 1987, the President used his constitutional authority to return the Indian Post Office (amendment) bill to the Parliament. Thus, the President of India is a potential political counterweight to the Prime Minister, the Council of Ministers and the elected leadership.
In the Indian parliamentary system, as in other parliamentary systems, the government governs in and through the Parliament thereby fusing the legislative and executive branches. The Indian constitution in Article 75(5) emphasises this peculiar fusion by maintaining that if a minister is not a member of any house within a period of six months he shall cease to be a minister. In other words, only a member of the Parliament, which is the legislative body, can become a minister of the government or a member of the executive. The Council of Ministers is, therefore, said to be the hyphen that links the legislative branch of the state to the executive branch.
In a parliamentary system, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Prime Ministerial form’ or ‘Cabinet form’ of government, the Cabinet comprising of a few leading ministers headed by the Prime Minister makes all important policy decisions. The members of the Cabinet are allowed to play important political roles in rendering policy directives but under the overall supervision and authority of the Prime Minister. However, since the time of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Prime Minister’s Office or the PMO has emerged as an important alternative source to the power of the Cabinet. The authority of the PMO was subsequently re-enforced under Mrs. Indira Gandhi and its role enlarged in actual decision-making. This authority of the Cabinet or the PMO has to some extent encroached upon parliamentary prerogatives and its legislative process most notably through the frequent passage of legislation by Ordinance issued in the name of the President.
Today the PMO is a significant centre of authority in the political structure, which not only emphasises it authority in actual decision-making but also in monitoring and co-ordinating policy implementation by the other ministries of the government. However, governance is not merely dictated by the institutional structure that is established but is dialectic of the interaction of the institutions and the political culture with each having an impact on the other. Immediately after independence, the presence of a single dominant political party with very little opposition had undercut the principle of political pluralism that formed the basis of any parliamentary structure.
In a situation where the government had majority control in the Parliament, the legislature was reduced to little more than a ‘talking shop’. Parliamentary processes were clouded by the charisma of Jawaharlal Nehru who according to Ashish Nandy had himself become the opposition criticising his ministers for lapses or extolling them to implement policies for development. Though, during this period the authority of the Prime Minister attained supremacy and position of primacy in the Indian political system, the essence of parliamentary democracy and needs of a federation functioned well with state and central politics remaining largely autonomous. During this period, according to political scientist Paul Brass, a strong central government coexisted with strong states in a mutually bargaining situation. Furthermore, during this phase, the firm grip of civilian control over the military was strongly asserted and a political executive responsible to the Parliament provided clear and effective policy guidance.
After the death of Nehru and the power struggles within the Congress, a party enjoying pre-eminent dominance in Indian politics, there was erosion in the values associated with parliamentary democracy and the federal spirit was undermined. The Congress party’s efforts to retain that dominant position led to centralising tendencies within the party and even to the imposition of what may be termed as ‘elective dictatorship’ under the government of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. However, during this period as well the importance and need of the parliament was demonstrably justified. The crisis and power struggle in the Congress party resulted in a vertical split of the party in 1969 over the Congress nominee for the Presidency of India and the election of Mrs Gandhi’s candidate, V.V.Giri, as President. Mrs. Gandhi was expelled from the Congress party, but this expulsion did not affect her position as the Prime Minister since she retained her support in and among the members of the parliament. Thus, a leadership crisis in the party having majority in the parliament did not affect the functioning of the government effectively reflecting the importance of the parliamentary processes. This importance of the parliamentary process was again demonstrated in 1979, when a section of the Janata Party members in the parliament expressed dissatisfaction with Morarji Desai, resulting in his resignation.
However, parliamentary legitimacy and sanctity suffered tremendous challenges during the regime of Mrs Gandhi. In 1973-74, for example, food shortages, rising prices coupled with the highly personalised and authoritarian style of functioning by Mrs Gandhi resulted in major political demonstrations in many parts of the country. This was precipitated by a court verdict holding Mrs Gandhi’s 1971 election as invalid. Mrs Gandhi responded in a manner that undermined parliamentary democracy. The fundamental principles of parliamentary democracy like freedom of expression, enjoyment of civil liberties, a free press and opposition were gagged through the imposition of emergency under Article 352. Furthermore, the argument of parliamentary supremacy was used to justify the undermining of parliamentary norms and procedures. This was done through the passing of new electoral laws superseding the laws under which the Allahabad High Court declared Mrs. Gandhi’s election as invalid. This act of the Parliament had the effect of undermining the process of judicial review that was meant to act as a bulwark against parliamentary authoritarianism. This excessive executive power and undermining of judicial independence continued during this period with the choice of Chief Justices and Judges committed to the ruling political party without respect for established norms and procedures. In fact, the electoral reversals suffered by the Congress party led by Mrs. Gandhi in the 1977 general elections reflected the firm and deep roots of parliamentary democracy in India.
The ‘people’ of India have reflected enough maturity in exercising their franchise periodically by reversing their mandate and trust vested in a particular party. For example, Rajiv Gandhi, who led the Congress party to a massive victory, securing nearly 80 per cent of the seats in the Parliament in 1985, suffered a humiliating defeat in 1989. The Indian parliamentary system saw its breakdown for a brief interregnum in 1975, restored in 1977, survived the fall of the Janata government in 1979 and the return to power of Mrs. Gandhi. The unprecedented majority won by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 was followed by the defeat of the Congress and the installation of the V.P.Singh government in 1989 and later that of Chandrasekhar in 1990. The 1991 general elections saw the return of the Congress government under P.V.Narasimha Rao, which survived its term through methods that are now being examined by the judiciary. The consequent bribery trial has thrown up challenges for our parliamentary processes with questions as to whether acts within the parliament are subject to judicial interpretation or not. The fractured verdict of the 1996 general elections led initially to the installation of a 13 days government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the 13 months government of Devegowda and the installation of I.K.Gujral government in 1997. The general elections in 1998 again resulted in a fractured verdict, leading to the formation of the Vajpayee government that lost its majority soon, after a coalition member withdrew support. In the event where no other political party was able to stake claim for the formation of the government, parliament was dissolved and general elections were notified. The 1999 general elections reflected the polarised psyche of the electorate and the inability of any party to secure absolute majority in the parliament. This led to the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of thirteen different parties under the leadership of Vajpayee and its claim to form the government.
However, though all these instances lead to instability in governmental functioning, it did not have any negative effect upon the transition of political power. The instability in government functioning did not lead to instability or assertion of radical political claims for the usurpation of parliamentary authority by the other organs of the government or the imposition of any form authoritarianism. This shows that the parliamentary spirit has been deeply embedded in the political consciousness of all the actors in our polity thereby enhancing the necessity and importance of our parliamentary democracy.
The Indian parliamentary structure thus matured through these trials and tribulations, from being an institution dominated by a single party to the emergence of a fractured polity with highly polarised political opinions and mandate. Though, we as a parliamentary polity underwent numerous crises with unstable and frequently changing governments, the authority and legitimacy of our parliamentary structures have only matured in the process. Though demands for restructuring the political structure have gained momentum due to these unstable moments, it has been met with immense opposition. This opposition is justified on the basis of claims that any change in the political set up might augment the process of authoritarianism, which will not only harm the effective functioning of political pluralism but will affect the basis of our tolerance respecting diverse religions, ethnic, tribal or other affiliations.