Arun shourie: Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Is the political class ready for reform? In his new book, The Parliamentary System: What we have made of it, what we can make of it, Arun Shourie makes a strong case for empowering the executive. Restructuring the system so that the president is elected by the electorate and is empowered to select his/her own ministers, he argues, will improve governance. Exclusive extracts from the book:
Today in India, two races are afoot. The first is the race between a creative society, a society that shows much energy and is surging upwards on the one hand, and on the other, the scaffolding of the state which is being hollowed by termites. The second is the race between those who are making the new India — primarily, the entrepreneurs and middle class professionals — and the political class that is stoking the old India — for instance, by pumping in the poison of caste — to keep itself in business.
If things are just left to proceed at will, the outcome may go either way: a dynamic economy and those forging it may be so hobbled by the worsening of governance that they may put enough pressure on the political class to mend its ways, to improve governance or let governance deteriorate to such an extent that Bihar and UP are generalised, and economic growth is once again pulled down.
Why is it that, to take the obvious contrast, in industry new leaders are emerging by the year, leaders who are doing better and more innovative things; but in public life second-raters are giving way to third-raters, politicians are giving way to politicians dependent on criminals, and the latter to criminals-who-have-become-politicians?
Why is it that while our entrepreneurs are venturing into newer and newer fields, that while they are registering conquests in more and more distant countries, that while they are thinking and planning farther into the future and transforming their operations today so that they may outdo the world in the distant future, why is it that while in one sphere we see these features, in the other sphere, our politicians are stoking ever narrower sections, why is their horizon becoming shorter and shorter?
This brief book is about features in the structure of the ‘parliamentary system’ — actually, that should be ‘in the structure of what we have made of the parliamentary system’ — which hurtle us into the kind of politics that we see today, which steer power into the hands of the sorts of politicians we see today. And about the structure that we may adopt as an alternative.
One structure will induce conduct of one kind; another structure will make some other type of conduct more profitable. Our tax system of the 1950s and 1960s, with its extortionate taxes, ensured neither higher revenues nor equality. It fanned the black economy. As the rates have been lowered, compliance has improved. Similarly, under the licence-quota raj, knowing the technology or the markets was not a fraction as important as knowing the minister for commerce and industries, and the civil servants in the DGTD and the Office of the Controller of Imports and Exports — yes, exports too; even to export something you had made and earn the foreign exchange the country so desperately needed, you needed permission which only these worthies could give. That structure induced one kind of effort, it brought one kind of entrepreneur to the top — the one whose core competence lay in his ability to manipulate the state apparatus. As that structure has been dismantled, we see an entirely different kind of conduct among our entrepreneurs, we see an entirely new type of entrepreneur rise to the top.
Pluck, as an example, a proposal that figures later in the book. We lament the fact that today elections are greatly influenced by the money that a candidate can deploy, by the castes that he can work up. We dread the advantage that dons now have over ordinary candidates because they have a network of criminals that they can mobilise. Suppose we dispensed with elections altogether, and instead selected legislators by lottery. That ‘X’ can throw out more money; that he is from one caste rather than another; that he has a whole posse of criminals to do his work — none of these ‘strengths’ would improve his chances. The influence of money/caste/criminality would be erased.
So, structures do affect the outcome. They do affect conduct. And therefore, the fact that there is no structure that cannot be perverted should not deter us from exploring alternatives.
The conclusions that this brief review urges are:
• The key problem today is that the parliamentary system and the electoral system from which it springs are fragmenting the electorate on the one hand and, on the other, are not yielding persons who have the competence, integrity and dedication to govern a billion people;
• Our legislatures, thus, are the root of the problems we face in governance today;
• Accordingly, we should find ways to reduce the role and influence of legislatures;
• Correspondingly, we should devise ways which improve the chances of getting a better type to man the executive;
• Thereafter, we should tilt the balance away from legislatures towards the executive;
• We should seek to secure accountability through institutions other than legislatures;
• In particular, we should strengthen the powers and role of the judiciary
The two basic elements we need are: an effective — that is, a strong and competent — executive, especially at the Centre, and a continuing sense of belonging among the population at large, a feeling that the system of governance is responsive. For achieving these twin objectives, we should, on the one hand, weaken the link between the executive and the legislature, and on the other, strengthen the local government.
To ensure the first of these objectives, two features in the Constitution should be recast to provide:
• The head of the executive, the president, is directly elected
• He is free to select as his ministers persons from within or outside the legislature
The term of the president should be five years. A person should be able to be president for a maximum of two terms.
The president must be elected by more than 50 per cent of the electorate. As many candidates as are qualified for the presidency and want to contest may do so. In case one of them gets the votes of more than 50 per cent of the electorate, she or he becomes president. If no one does, the election is held again, as in France, within a fortnight, and only the two who have scored the highest number of votes are allowed to stand in the second round. (Were it not for the fact that many of our voters may find it difficult to indicate preferences, one way to ‘economise’ is to have not a second round but to make provision for it, so to say, in the first round itself. Instead of the second ballot, voters can be asked to indicate a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on, preference against the name of each candidate. If in the 1st round of counting a candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes, she is declared elected. If not, the candidate polling the lowest number of 1st preferences is eliminated; the second preferences of the voters who voted for him are then assigned to the other candidates — till one of them gets more than 50 per cent.
It should not be possible to remove the president except by impeachment, and that on specified grounds. In other words there should be no equivalent of the current ‘vote of confidence’.
The president may select anyone from outside or within the legislature to be his minister. Any member of a legislature who has been chosen to be a minister must resign his seat. She or he may attend sessions of the legislature, and participate in the debates. But he or she shall not vote on any measure on which the legislature is voting.
‘But how can we let outsiders participate in the proceedings of the House? An outsider cannot even enter the lobby.’ Such a reaction is yet another example of what the management experts call IRI — the Instant Rejection Instinct, a reaction by which we exempt ourselves from thinking or doing anything. Ministers are today appointed from both Houses. Ministers who happen to be members of one House participate as fully in the proceedings of the other House as ministers who happen to be members of the latter. They answer questions, they participate in debates but they do not vote in the House, of which they are not members. The most vivid example of today is the prime minister. He is a member of the Rajya Sabha. In that sense, he is an ‘outsider’ to the Lok Sabha. Does he not participate fully in the proceedings of the Lok Sabha? But does he vote there?
‘The Parliamentary System: What we have made of it, what we can make of it’ By Arun Shourie
ASA/Rupa & Co, Rs 495