Parliamentary Democracy suffers from the Karna Syndrome

I agree with Shruti Rajagopalan’s argument that the 52nd amendment, more popularly known as the anti-defection law was a bad idea. The amendment turns legislatures into glorified electoral colleges. I do not agree though that this is the source of the problem. Jay Panda, a national vice president of the BJP has written multiple articles where he argues for reforms in parliamentary rules that will reduce the agenda-setting power of the Speaker (and by proxy, the government). For example, take this piece written in 2014, this one from 2015 or the one from 2016. The underlying theme in all of Panda’s articles is that our Parliament continues to be hobbled by the rules the British government set for the Central Legislative Assembly, and reforming those rules would go a long way to make our legislature more effective and help it hold the government accountable.

These reforms are worth trying, and I don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, but I am sceptical that these go deep enough. The problem is inherent in parliamentary democracy, which suffers from the Karna Syndrome, the inability to perform its job when it is most needed.

The parliamentary system violates the principle of separation of powers between the legislature and the executive. Because the legislators elect the chief executive and the executive is essentially a standing committee of the legislature, it skews incentives all around.

  • A popular prime minister or chief minister has an incentive to choose pliant legislators who will never waver in their support for him.
  • Voters have only one vote. They are supposed to use this vote to choose their legislator, but they may like to express their choice for the prime minister. I have argued that it is rational for them to do the latter in a situation where everyone else is doing the same.
  • For ruling party legislators, career progression involves becoming a minister. Why would they jeopardise their chances by performing their oversight function too vigorously?

For this reason, I believe that mixing the law-making and oversight functions of the legislature with the electoral college function was a bad idea. It was inevitable that the latter would overshadow the former. When the executive is weak, it leads to unstable governments. When it is strong, it leads to rubber-stamp legislatures. Parliament is able to perform its oversight function when the executive is weak, but like Karna, is unable to do so when it is most needed.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is a Bad Idea

A bill to reserve 33% of seats in legislatures for women would be a bad idea at any time; it is a terrible idea when a popular leader like Modi, with tendencies towards authoritarianism, is Prime Minister.

A characteristic of the Parliamentary System is that it tends to weaken the power of parliaments over time. This is particularly true when the nation is led by a strong and charismatic leader who can run a presidential-style campaign. In the General Election, voters want to elect this leader as Prime Minister, but his name is not on the ballot. Instead, they have to vote for the leader’s candidates in their constituencies. This means that the candidates owe their careers to this charismatic leader, and they don’t have to be very capable leaders themselves.

What I have outlined above may be called the Lamp Post Theory of Parliamentary Democracies, after the popular saying that Nehru was so popular that even a lamp post standing for the Congress had a good chance of election to the Lok Sabha.

Now, India is such a large, heterogeneous and unpredictable country that lamp post phenomena have not lasted for long. Yes Nehru was very popular, but towards the end of his career he was faced with strong grassroots state leaders who were electing chief ministers he was not fully comfortable with. Indira Gandhi managed to gain dominance over her party and the country. This, she managed by stamping out local leadership from the INC. Eventually, she too lost popularity, and her party is paying the price for not cultivating strong local leadership.

After the recent General Election, much analysis has been wasted on whether there was a Modi wave. I believe that the answer is obvious. Modi was very popular, probably the most popular leader India has seen in the past three decades. But he could not have won the elections without skillful alliance-building. He was able to negotiate alliances with other parties like the TDP from a position of strength. His popularity attracted other popular local leaders, both within and outside the BJP, and they worked with him rather than at cross purposes.

So yes, although Modi is a strong leader and has been handed what is a decisive mandate by the standards of the past 30 years, he has not acquired the kind of dominance Gandhi did. The BJP still has a mind of its own, the RSS is a very autonomous body and local leaders are still important to win elections.

If I were Modi, how would I move to acquire that kind of dominance? Modi has already moved to gain control over the BJP. He has forced some leaders into retirement, he has denied tickets to potential thorns on his side. But he has had to make compromises. He couldn’t sideline Sushma Swaraj, for example.

That is where a Women’s Reservation Act will come in handy. The Act will reserve 33% of seats in all legislatures for women, and these seats will change every election.

If you are a popular local male leader, there is a 50% chance that your seat will get reserved for women in the next election. You are at the mercy of your party’s leadership to provide you with a seat elsewhere, a constituency where you may not be as popular. Right now, your popularity provides insurance against that happening. If the party leadership denies you a ticket, they risk losing that seat, either because you can stand as an independent and win, or because the opposing party can put up a strong candidate. But now, because the seat is reserved for women, the party leadership can be assured that all candidates will be newbies. As a result, the importance of the local leaders will reduce and the charisma of a strong leader will be what wins elections.

What about women leaders? Their lot will be worse, for two reasons. First, they will be shunted from constituency to constituency and will not be given time to build a local base. They will be perpetual newbies. This means that they will be even more dependent on the national leadership to win elections. Second, because they will end up always fighting other newbies, they will be unable to build up a profile – for example the fight Smriti Irani put up against Rahul Gandhi, which raised her profile significantly, will be a thing of the past.

All MPs will be at the mercy of the party leadership. And when the party leadership is controlled by a popular and charismatic leader like Modi, you can imagine the consequences.

For these reasons, the Women’s Reservation Bill is a bad idea. The Anti-Defection Act, passed 30 years ago, grievously injured parliamentary democracy in the country. This will kill it off completely. We will end up with presidential democracy without a legislature to check the powers of the chief executive. I am in favour of the presidential system, but this is not the way to achieve it.

Missing the Point

Gaurav responds to a couple of my posts on democracy. He misses the point in both.

He claims that my argument that democracy provides stability for the rulers is incorrect, and cites the examples of Bhutto and Allende. Both were democratically elected and both were deposed and killed. These are puzzling counterexamples. It should have been clear from my posts that I do not classify a country as democratic just because it manages to elect its leaders in free elections once in a while. There is a great deal of truth in the statement that for a country to be  considered democratic, the test is not its first election, but the second.  To hold one election is easy. To hold the second one requires a significant amount of “infrastructure” in terms of cultural acceptance of orderly transition of power, a free press, a neutral military, etc. The coups that deposed Bhutto and Allende tell us that their countries were not democratic – by definition.

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Why is Democracy a Good Thing?

Nilakantan Rajaraman asks. Well,  because it provides stability…

…for the ruling class. Dictators can get deposed and they can get executed, especially by other dictators.  Bad rulers like Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav or Y S R Reddy can at worst expect to lose the next election and continue to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Likewise, if you are running a major political party and you aren’t a strong and charismatic leader like Indira Gandhi, allowing intra-party democracy at the local level is a good bet to protect you from the convulsions of periodic splits and rebellions. 

It is debatable whether a dysfunctional democracy like India is good for its citizens, but I rather think that India’s democracy has been better for the Nehru-Gandhi family than Pakistan’s system has been for the Bhutto family.

The Road to Democracy

I have pointed out earlier that adopting democracy is like nuclear disarmament – there are serious costs to being the first one to do it. This does not mean that it is impossible. One possible approach is to have dictatorship at the central level, but democracy at the local level. This is best done when the central leadership is neither too strong nor too weak. If it is too strong, the central leadership has no incentive to allow democracy. As it gets weaker, allowing local democracy is a good way to contain discontent and preventing rebellion. But the central leadership should not be too weak. It should be strong enough to make a credible commitment that it can enforce the rules.  BJP might be in that situation:

Bihar BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi held on to his job as Deputy Chief Minister after an unprecedented secret ballot, allowed by the party leadership, showed he enjoyed support of majority party MLAs and MLCs in the state. (Indian Express)

The other example I can think of is.. China, but I am not very sure of it.

Of course, allowing local democracy is the first step; the ultimate goal is to have democracy at the central level too. But I am not sure if there is a next step that is not dangerous.

Difficult Democracy

Karthik extends my point about intra-party democracy to point out that the same problem applies to countries too. He is right. On the same note the Dilbert blog talks of the problems you face if you  have ended up as  the dictator of a major country. You do not have a career path and you cannot retire. Yes, it is hard to sympathize with dictators, but think of someone like poor Kim Jong Il, who has had dictatorship thrust on him. There is really no easy way out, especially if you are also incompetent.

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Intra-Party Democracy And Nuclear Disarmament

There are structural reasons why we do not have intra-party democracy in India, but I think that cultural reasons are important too.  Internal democracy is like nuclear disarmament – you can’t do it unilaterally.

In India, the cultural norm is that if you openly speak out against the leader of the party, you are not just disagreeing, but signalling a revolt. Reporters will breathlessly ask the critic if he is preparing to quit the party. News channels will quote sources close to the “two camps” which will talk of how the morale of the party  rank and file has been affected by the events. If you try to claim that there really aren’t any plans to split the party and the disagreements were just that – disagreements, the papers will speculate that the two camps are on the way to a patch up.

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In Defence of Gandhigiri

Nitin Pai quotes Dr. Ambedkar  to rebut Raj Thackeray’s argument that there is nothing wrong with breaking the law while running political movements.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with Nitin, and also with Dr. Ambedkar.  Indira Gandhi tried to use the same argument against Jayaprakash Narayan during the emergency. She claimed that because India had adopted a legitimate and democratic constitution, there was no longer space or need for civil disobedience, the satyagraha or any of the various instruments that got us our independence. Narayan disagreed, and which is more, he had Gandhiji on his side. Gandhiji himself had stated that satyagraha was a weapon against oppressive governments everywhere, not just against foreign ones.

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Socialism’s About Turn

Aadisht points to the latest version of the old bad idea: Nationalising rivers.  This is the time to pimp my old solution to the Kaveri dispute which still has a better chance of working than everything else that is being tried now.

In this post, however, I want to ask supporters of this idea: Why do you think nationalising rivers will work? This is old style socialism of course, which advocates central planning, and it does not work of course.

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