Should you vote for your PM or your MP?

Many people are arguing that because India is a parliamentary democracy, voters should be voting to elect members of the Lok Sabha, and that it is an error to vote on the basis of whom they want to see as Prime Minister. Such fidelity to the original tenets of parliamentary democracy is touching in a country that has amended its constitution over a hundred times in seventy years and is currently run according to the whims of its judges. This argument also reminds me of one of the two dumbest features of the United States Constitution. 

I am referring to the Electoral College. The US Constitution, as it was originally written (actually, even in its current form) does not provide for direct election of the president by its citizens.  The president was supposed to be elected by an electoral college. Each state would be able to send a certain number of members to the EC, the number being equal to the sum of the numbers of the representative and senators from that state. The method of choosing the electors was left to each individual state. The electors could be chosen by the state legislature, and I believe this was the method adopted by most states during the first few decades of the republic’s history. The electoral college was expected to gather, debate and then vote for their choice of candidate for the president. 

The existence of the electoral college is the reason why the vote of the citizen of a smaller state carries a larger weight than that of a larger state. Every state gets 2 senators regardless of its size and it gets to send at least one representative even if its population may be smaller than the average congressional district, which means that a state that has a population 1/20th of that of a state that sends 20 representatives gets to send 3 electors as against the 22 that the larger state can send. 

But this is not the reason why I believe that the electoral college a dumb idea. To understand why it was unworkable, take a look at how it evolved to its current form. It changed in 3 ways, 2 of which should have been entirely predictable to a political scientist

  1. States began to bind the electors – i.e. they started making laws saying that the electors should vote for particular candidates of their choice.
  2. They started to mandate that all  electors from their state vote for a particular candidate
  3. One by one, all states devolved the “choice” of  electors to the voters of the state. 

The first 2 of these should have been completely predictable. Firstly, why spend time and energy on electing a bunch of people whose only job is to confer among themselves and then elect another person, when you could spend that time and energy in deciding on the person you ultimately want to see elected? Perhaps the founders of the United States believed that discussion and debate among the electors would lead to decisions of better quality, but electing a president is not like writing a constitution, making laws or negotiating some kind of agreement. If you have to do any of those things, by all means delegate the task to your representatives, because there is much scope for discussion debate, give and take, and compromises – all good reasons why it was a bad idea to hold a referendum on Brexit. There is very little scope for compromise on the question of who should be the President – you can’t mix the head of one person and the heart of another and construct a compromise president. Perhaps you can bargain over who should be the vice president, over cabinet positions and over what policies the president should follow, but given that cabinet members can be dismissed at will and policies can be changed at will,  and given that the Electoral College disbands itself after the election, there would be very little scope for the Electoral College to hold the president to any compromises he agrees to. It should have been completely predictable that the election of electors would become an election of the elected. 

The second outcome was also predictable, given the first. In theory, states could have adopted systems where the ticket was split – perhaps in proportion to the votes in the state legislature. In fact, in the early decades of the republic, many states did so. But a state that chooses to split its ticket is much less valuable to a presidential candidate than a state that gives all its votes to one candidate. Once a few states started adopting the general ticket model, everyone else was compelled to follow suit. 

The devolution of the vote to the ordinary citizens wasn’t a predictable consequence of the design of the Electoral College, but seems to have followed from the cultural DNA of the United States. At least in the 19th and till the early 20th century,  that nation seems to have had a strong bias for direct elections.

 I recount the story of the Electoral College of the United States for a couple of reasons. The first is that questions about what constitutes the essence, the basic structure of a republic, is difficult to pin down. You still hear many Americans defend the Electoral College, but when they do, they do not refer to its actual design. Instead, they argue, in rather vague terms, that the College is the reason why the United States is a republic rather than a democracy. It is not quite clear what they mean by that. These days, the design of the EC affects democracy in the US in two ways – first by overweighting the smaller states and second by giving all votes from one state to one candidate or the other depending on who got the majority in that state. There may be some justification for the first. I am not sure why the second is a good thing, but can think of many reasons why it is bad. It must surely contribute to the polarization of politics on geographic lines.  It is rare for anyone to argue that the electors should vote like actual thinking people rather than dummies. Recently, the Americans elected a mentally unstable person as their president, and there were some murmurs that this was exactly the kind of situation for which the Electoral College was designed – that the electors should vote as responsible people and not as bound agents, and override the choice the Americans seem to have made. It should be immediately obvious why that would have been a terrible idea. No matter what the constitution says, the legitimacy of democracy depends on everyone following the rules that everyone agrees are the rules. The voters did not vote for the electors. They voted for the man or woman they wanted as president. A set of essentially random people overriding this choice would destroy the legitimacy of the republic, no matter what the original design of the Electoral College was. 

The second reason is that the experience of the Electoral College has some relevance to our parliamentary system.  Our chief executive is elected by the Lok Sabha. You could say that it essentially functions as a permanent electoral college.  Now, many of you will protest my characterization of the Lok Sabha as a permanent electoral college, and will argue that our Sansad is a legislature, though I am sure you will agree that the lower house also functions as an electoral college. A textbook answer to the question: “What are the functions of our Sansad?” would be: 

  1. Makes laws
  2. Exercises oversight over the executive
  3. Members of Parliament act as a bridge between their constituents and the government
  4. Elects the Prime Minster (Lok Sabha only)

But how is it in practice? Our parliament doesn’t actually make laws in the sense that the Congress of the United States does. That body actually has primary responsibility for making laws. Senators or representatives draft legislation, the Senate and the House form committees to consider them, amendments are proposed, there are negotiations among the legislators, and this back and forth determines the final shape of the law. The executive has a significant say in this process – but it has to exercise its say mostly informally – through its influence over the legislators and by the power of the President to appeal to his popularity. The formal power the President has is the threat of the veto, but the veto power is, by definition, not an agenda setting power.  I think that it is fair to say that no other legislative body in the world, and in particular no legislative body among parliamentary democracies, exercises that kind of power. In most other countries, the government sets the agenda and writes the acts of legislation, the legislature debates them, amends them as needed and passes them into law, or not. In India, a bill not drafted by the government being turned into law is so unlikely that I believe it has happened only once in its history. The parliament has next to no input to drafting or amending legislation, and while members of parliament have a vote, that vote is entirely on party lines. Members of the ruling party support all bills introduced by the government, and members of the opposition oppose it if their party decides to oppose or support if it does. 

The oversight function fares better, if only slightly. Members of parliament do have some freedom to question ministers of their party, especially when it happens behind closed doors in parliamentary committees. 

The only thing that really differentiates our members of the Lok Sabha from electors of an electoral college is the third function – which is to stay in contact with the people, listen to their grievances and communicate these to the government. In fact, India has introduced a weird innovation in the form of the MP Local Area Development Scheme that allocates funds to members of parliament to carry out what are essentially municipal schemes. Many people who believe that we should vote for MPs rather than the PM also believe that the function of a member of parliament is to carry out local development work in the constituency.  Going by the original constitutional design, the latter is just as out of scope of an MP’s remit as is the former.  The only reason MPs are tasked with these things is that our municipal governance is non-existent. 

It is quite clear that the most important task of the legislatures in India is to elect the chief executive, overshadowing their ostensible purpose, which is to legislate. For a voter whose concern is to see certain laws passed and policies executed, the rational thing to do is not to pretend that you are electing legislators, but to model the problem as electing a prime minister, and the members of parliament as members of an electoral college. The alternative model is that of the MP as a feudal patron with the power to dispense government largess and who acts as a conduit for your grievances. The model of an MP as a legislator doesn’t really make sense. For one thing, MPs do not legislate in practice. Secondly, even if by chance one constituency decides to elect an MP who believes that his main task is to legislate, it is pointless unless he is able to coordinate this with a couple of hundred other MPs. 

If you think through this, it should not be surprising – indeed, it should have been completely predictable, as predictable as the evolution of the electoral college was. Some people will argue that the law-making powers of our legislatures began to atrophy due to the anti-defection amendment. I agree that the amendment is a bad idea and did contribute to the worsening of the independence of our legislatures, but the root cause lies with our system of government. If you were designing a system, and you went: “We will have elected legislatures. Their main function is to make laws for the executive to implement. And oh, they will also elect a committee that will actually run the government.” a perceptive political scientist should have been able to point out that this system would inevitably lead to the latter function overshadowing the former, especially in an era where the development of mass communication makes presidential politics possible. The parliamentary system did not come about because someone thoughtfully designed it. In countries where the parliamentary system originally evolved, the monarch held executive power, the legislature slowly wrested law-making powers from him, and eventually evolved to take on executive power as well. There was a path dependency to this. Because the traditions of the legislature had time to evolve before there was a prime minister to exercise executive functions, the legislature in places like Britain does have some independence. India’s Sansad never got time to evolve that kind of independence. It came bundled with a popular prime minister. It is therefore inevitable that it grew to be a kind of glorified electoral college.  If you need that to change, give the voters separate votes – one for a chief executive and one for their representative. If you insist on giving only one vote, don’t be surprised if they decide to use it to choose their chief executive. 

Presidential and Parliamentary Systems

Rishi wants to know how I can claim that the Presidential System underdelivers change, and Ritwik angrily objects to my claim that in the Parliamentary System, the Prime Minister can handpick legislators. Both of them have missed an important qualifier: popular.

Change is rare in any mature democracy. This is as it should be. Obviously, I prefer change in the direction of less government and limited powers and others may prefer otherwise, but whatever the direction of your preferred change, I think that we should be wary of a system where a Chief Executive can, on the basis of just one election, bring about fundamental and drastic change in the structure of the polity.

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American Incentives

It is too early  for me to claim vindication for this post.  Given the high expectations that President Obama came to power with, and the enormity of the task before him, it was inevitable that his first 100 days would disappoint. But I want to make a point about he American political system that many people do not appreciate. The point is that:

The American political system tends to overpromise, but underdeliver change.

Why? Because of the preponderance of  direct elections. Presidential candidates have to win many direct elections before they come to power.  To win direct elections, you have to establish yourself as your own man even if you are in the same party as the incumbent.  In other democracies, handpicked successors tend to gain the organizational backing of the ruling party. In the US, because of the unique organization of parties, there is very little to gain. Even if the incumbent was hugely popular, 8 years of him would have wearied the voters, and his successor needs to be wary of promising 4 more years of the same.  George W Bush was, to put it mildly, not very popular in November 2008, which is why you had both candidates promising change, but similar dynamics would have applied even in 1988, when George Bush was running to succeed Reagan.

So why would it be difficult to deliver change? Because of direct elections again. Both the President and Congressmen are directly elected. Neither is beholden to  the other branch. In a Parliamentary system, a popular Prime Minister would be able to handpick his legislators – in fact, he would have to, because otherwise there would be a chance that he would get dislodged despite his popularity. In the US presidential system, there is

a) structurally no way for  a President to pick his legislators

b) no need for a President to do the same and

c) a risk if he attempted it, because the unpopularity of some legislators may drag him down.

For these reasons, a President, even if he is elected on a mandate for change, will find it difficult to push his legislative agenda through.

None of these explains Obama’s failure so far. That is another story.