Opinion Columnists 11 Nov 2020 Sunanda K. Datta-Ray ...
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Why presidential system might not suit India well

Published Nov 11, 2020, 11:46 am IST
Updated Nov 11, 2020, 11:46 am IST
Many world leaders secretly aspire to the methods and priorities that made Trump such a sinister authoritarian figure of formidable power
President Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to supporters as he departs after playing golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (AP)
 President Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to supporters as he departs after playing golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Va., Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (AP)

Donald Trump’s eccentricities and extravagances do not in themselves constitute a convincing argument against any system of presidential governance. But a system that allowed its chief executive to ride roughshod over public concerns, substitute populist slogans for well-considered policy decisions and undermine established institutions while encouraging slander and libel against political adversaries can only be catastrophic for democracy.

To heal the wounds of the last four years and, as he puts it, erase the divide between “red” states and “blue” states to uphold only the “United States” must be President-elect Joe Biden’s first task. His huge majority, particularly in the popular vote, is obviously an enormous asset. So is his running mate, Kamala Devi Harris, now the vice-president-elect, whose gender and ethnicity make her of historic importance.

 

But the additional support that President Trump attracted this time, proving the opinion polls wrong, confirms that he is by no means a spent force politically. Millions of Americans worship at the altar of brute force that he is thought to represent; and many world leaders secretly aspire to the methods and priorities that made the US President such a sinister authoritarian figure of formidable power.

It may be revealing that Prime Ministers Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson and Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia were probably Mr Trump’s best friends among international politicians. Mr Johnson was even called his “visible and emotional clone”. But it’s not only the end product that excites comment. The unique US electoral college system ensures that whichever candidate gets the most votes in a few key swing states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, ends up winning the White House. Mr Trump himself lost the popular vote by nearly three million ballots to Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, and yet ended up reaching the presidency.

 

Underlying these and other peculiarities is the fact that the American system -- like the French -- is really a form of disguised absolute monarchy. France’s Bourbon heir, the Comte de Chambord, would have been crowned King in the 1870s if only he had not insisted on replacing the tricolour, adopted during the French Revolution of 1789, with the white Bourbon lily or fleur-de-lys. He even rejected a compromise whereby the fleur-de-lys would be the King’s personal standard while the tricolour remained the national flag. The already finalised monarchical constitution had to be hastily adapted to republican requirements.

 

American monarchism centres on a profound misunderstanding of the role of England’s King George III. Believing they had defeated the all-powerful British sovereign in the War of Independence, the Americans sought to model their presidency on the Crown. What Congress didn’t realise that in demanding that “His Highness the Lord Protector and President of the United States of America” should be styled “His Elective Majesty” and be surrounded by the “Splendor and Majisty” (sic) of Europe’s royal courts was that George III had no formal constitutional power. His informal influence, although considerable, resulted from a mix of patronage, persuasion and manipulation.

 

That sounds rather like the operational style of the Trump administration which often seemed to blur the dividing lines between politics and private business, with the President’s threatening rhetoric on China contrasting with reports of his little-known undeclared bank account there. The erratic dismissal of one presidential adviser after another, the alienation of weaker neighbours like Canada and Mexico, the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic and inability to handle the impact of technology on jobs or the challenge of climate change have helped to diminish the United States on the world stage. So has indifference to the treatment of African Americans and the bullying tactics of neo-fascist gangs across the country.

 

Mr Trump probably still hopes that the US Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority -- the result of presidential appointments such as that of Amy Coney Barrett as a judge just days before the election -- will ultimately overturn the voters’ mandate and reward him with the second tenure of which he, claiming to be the recipient of more than 71 million votes, feels he has been unjustly robbed.

It took five weeks in 2004 for George W. Bush to establish his right to the presidency. If the system were replicated in India -- and every presidential election in the US revives the old debate against the parliamentary system -- it might take anything up to 50 years. In fact, such disputes would swamp the electoral process in unending litigation. Many Americans felt in 2004 that the system had treated vice-president Al Gore, who also got a majority of the popular vote and had the better moral claim, shabbily. If legal and constitutional channels were closed, that feeling would explode in India in bloodshed -- that is if the ranks of Indian politicians could produce an Al Gore ready to sacrifice ambition to propriety.

 

The American system has much to commend it. It respects federalism. It sanctions greater accountability. It separates the executive from the legislative process. It provides for direct elections. A series of checks and balances ensures operational fairness. But it evolved out of the American experience; it reflects the American Dream. It does not have to pamper castes, put down communities, and devise sophisticated means of promoting majority interests without provoking allegations of partisanship.

Jawaharlal Nehru was as much an elective monarch as any French or American President, but he respected the institutions he had helped to create. Indira Gandhi continues to be severely castigated for bending institutions to her will but must be given the credit for shying away from contemplated constitutional changes when reminded of the Supreme Court’s views on the basic features of India’s democracy. India and the world are watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

 

Ultimately, it is not the Constitution that is at fault but the men and women who operate it. It is the singer, not the song.

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