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Definition, Merits, Demerits, Features - Parliamentary form of government | 11th Political Science : Chapter 6 : Forms of Government

Chapter: 11th Political Science : Chapter 6 : Forms of Government

Parliamentary form of government

Modern democratic governments are classified into parliamentary and presidential on the basis of nature of relations between the executive and the legislative organs of the government.

Parliamentary form of government

Modern democratic governments are classified into parliamentary and presidential on the basis of nature of relations between the executive and the legislative organs of the government.

The parliamentary system of government is the one in which the executive is responsible to the legislature for its policies and acts. The presidential system of government, on the other hand, is one in which the executive is not responsible to the legislature for its policies and acts, and is constitutionally independent of the legislature in respect of its term of office.

The parliamentary government is also known as cabinet government irresponsible government or Westminster model of government and is prevalent in Britain, Japan, Canada, India among others.

Ivor Jennings called the parliamentary system as ‘cabinet system’ because the cabinet is the nucleus of power in a parliamentary system. The parliamentary government is also known as ‘responsible government’ as the cabinet (the real executive) is accountable to the Parliament and stays in office so long as it enjoys the latter’s confidence.


It is described as ‘Westminster mod-el of government’ after the location of the British Parliament, where the parliamenta-ry system originated. In the past, the Brit-ish constitutional and political experts de-scribed the Prime Minister as ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) in relation to the cabinet. In the recent period, the Prime Minister’s power, influence and position have increased significantly vis-a-vis the cabinet. He has come to play a ‘dominant’ role in the British politico-administrative system.


Features of parliamentary form of government


Nominal and Real Executives: The President is the nominal executive (de jure executive or titular executive) while the Prime Minister is the real executive (de facto executive). Thus, the President is head of the State, while the Prime Minister is head of the government.


Majority Party Rule: The political party which secures majority seats in the LokSabha forms the government. The leader of that party is appointed as the Prime Minister by the President; other ministers are appointed by the President on the advice of the prime minister. However, when no single party gets the majority, a coalition of parties may be invited by the President to form the government.


Collective Responsibility: This is the bedrock principle of parliamentary government. The ministers are collectively responsible to the Parliament.


Double Membership: The ministers are members of both the legislature and the executive.


Leadership of the Prime Minister: The Prime Minister plays the leadership role in this system of government. He is the leader of council of ministers, leader of the Parliament and leader of the party in power. In these capacities, he plays a significant and highly crucial role in the functioning of the government.



Merits of the parliamentary form of government


Harmony  between  Legislature and Executive: The greatest advantage of the parliamentary system is that it ensures harmonious relationship and cooperation between the egislative and executive organs of the government. The executive is a part of the legislature and both are inter dependent at work. As a result, there is less scope for disputes and conflicts between the two organs.


Responsible Government: In the parliamentary system establishes a responsible government. The ministers are responsible to the Parliament for all their acts of omission and commission. The Parliament exercises control over the ministers through various devices like question hour, discussions, adjournment motion, no confidence motion, etc.


Prevents Despotism: under this system, the executive authority is vested in a group of individuals (council of ministers) and not in a single person. This dispersal of authority checks the dictatorial tendencies of the executive. Moreover, the executive is responsible to the Parliament and can be removed by a no-confidence motion.


Wide Representation: In a parliamentary system, it is possible to provide representation to all sections and regions in the government. The prime minister while selecting his minister scan take this factor into consideration.


Demerits of the parliamentary form of government


Unstable Government: The parliamentary system does not provide a stable government. There is no guarantee that a government can survive its tenure. The ministers depend on the majority legislators for their continuity and survival in office.

ii.       no-confidence motion or political defection or evils of multiparty coalition can make the government unstable.


No Continuity of Policies: The parliamentary system is not conductive for the formulation and implementation of long-term policies. This is due to the uncertainty of the tenure of the government. A change in the ruling party is usually followed by changes in the policies of the government.


Dictatorship of the Cabinet: When the ruling party enjoys absolute majority in the Parliament, the cabinet becomes autocratic and exercises nearly unlimited powers.


Harold J Laski says that the parliamentary system gives the executive an opportunity for tyranny.


Ramsay Muir, the former British Prime Minister, also complained of the ‘dictatorship of the cabinet’.


Against Separation of Powers: In the parliamentary system, the legislature and the executive are together and inseparable. The cabinet acts as the leader of legislature as well as the executive. Hence, the whole system of government goes against the letter and spirit of the theory of separation of powers.


Raju Ramachandran , senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India

This debate is academic. A switchover to the presidential system is not possible under our present constitutional scheme because of the ‘basic structure’ doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court in 1973 which has been accepted by the political class without reservation, except for an abortive attempt during the Emergency by Indira Gandhi’s government to have it overturned. The Constituent Assembly had made an informed choice after considering both the British model and the American model and after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had drawn up a balance sheet of their merits and demerits. To alter the informed choice made by the Constituent Assembly would violate the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution. I must clarify that I have been a critic of the ‘basic structure’ doctrine.


Abuse of power worries


A presidential system centralises power in one individual unlike the parliamentary system, where the Prime Minister is the first among equals. The surrender to the authority of one individual, as in the presidential system, is dangerous for democracy. The over-centralisation of power in one individual is something we have to guard against. Those who argue in favour of a presidential system often state that the safeguards and checks are in place: that a powerful President can be stalled by a powerful legislature. But if the legislature is dominated by the same party to which the President belongs, a charismatic President or a “strong President” may prevent any move from the legislature. On the other hand, if the legislature is dominated by a party opposed to the President’s party and decides to checkmate him, it could lead to a stalemate in governance because both the President and the legislature would have democratic legitimacy.

A diverse country like India cannot function without consensus-building. This “winner takes it all” approach, which is a necessary consequence of the presidential system, is likely to lead to a situation where the views of an individual can ride roughshod over the interests of different segments.


What about the States?


The other argument, that it is easier to bring talent to governance in a presidential system, is specious. You can get ‘outside’ talent in a parliamentary system too. Right from C.D. Deshmukh, T.A. Pai, Manmohan Singh, M.G.K. Menon and Raja Ramanna talent has been coming into the parliamentary system with the added safeguard of democratic accountability, because the ‘outsiders’ have to get elected after assuming office. On the other hand, bringing ‘outside’ talent in a presidential system without people being democratically elected would deter people from giving independent advice to the chief executive because they owe their appointment to him/her.


Those who speak in favour of a presidential system have only the Centre in mind. They have not thought of the logical consequence, which is that we will have to move simultaneously to a “gubernatorial” form in the States. A switch at the Centre will also require a change in the States. Are we ready for that?

Changing to a presidential system is the best way of ensuring a democracy that works

Our parliamentary system is a perversity only the British could have devised: to vote for a legislature in order to form the executive. It has created a unique breed of legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only in order to wield executive power. There is no genuine separation of powers: the legislature cannot truly hold the executive accountable since the government wields the majority in the House. The parliamentary system does not permit the existence of a legislature distinct from the executive, applying its collective mind freely to the nation’s laws.


For 25 years till 2014, our system has also produced coalition governments which have been obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office, and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions, since withdrawal of support can bring governments down. The parliamentary system has distorted the voting preferences of an electorate that knows which individuals it wants but not necessarily which parties or policies.


Failures in the system


India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit decisive action, whereas ours increasingly promote drift and indecision. We must have a system of government whose leaders can focus on governance rather than on staying in power.

A system of directly elected chief executives at all levels – panchayat chiefs, town mayors, Chief Ministers (or Governors) and a national President – elected for a fixed term of office, invulnerable to the whims of the legislature, and with clearly defined authority in their respective domains – would permit India to deal more efficiently with its critical economic and social challenges.


Cabinet posts would not be limited to those who are electable rather than those who are able. At the end of a fixed period of time — say the same five years we currently accord to our Lok Sabha


— the public would be able to judge the individual on performance in improving the lives of Indians, rather than on political skill at keeping a government in office.


The fear that an elected President could become a Caesar is ill-founded since the President’s power would be balanced by directly elected chief executives in the States. In any case, the Emergency demonstrated that even a parliamentary system can be distorted to permit autocratic rule. Dictatorship is not the result of a particular type of governmental system.


Direct accountability


Indeed, the President would have to work with Parliament to get his budget through or to pass specific Bills. India’s fragmented polity, with dozens of political parties in the fray, makes a U.S.-style two-party gridlock in Parliament impossible. An Indian presidency, instead of facing a monolithic opposition, would have the opportunity to build issue-based coalitions on different issues, mobilising different temporary alliances of different smaller parties from one policy to the next – the opposite of the dictatorial steamroller some fear a presidential system could produce.


Any politician with aspirations to rule India as President will have to win the support of people beyond his or her home turf; he or she will have to reach out to different groups, interests, and minorities. And since the directly elected President will not have coalition partners to blame for his or her inaction, a presidential term will have to be justified in terms of results, and accountability will be direct and personal.


Democracy, as I have long argued, is vital for India’s survival: we are right to be proud of it. But few Indians are proud of the kind of politics our democracy has inflicted upon us. With the needs and challenges of one-sixth of humanity before our leaders, we must have a democracy that delivers progress to our people. Changing to a presidential system is the best way of ensuring a democracy that works. It is time for a change.


Upendra Baxi, legal scholar and the former vice-chancellor of Delhi University


I think the debate has a life cycle of its own. It has been brought up and discussed whenever there has been a super-majority government. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi to the present, the presidential system has been debated extensively around two aspects: is it desirable, and second, is it feasible?


To tackle the second aspect first, unless the Supreme Court changes its mind, any such amendment would violate the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution as was decided with, and since, the Kesavnanda Bharthi case. There is no way to get around this unless the Supreme Court now takes a wholly different view.


Different models


On the desirability aspect, which presidential system are we talking about when we pit the American presidential system against the Westminster model? In the American system, the President appoints his officers; they have limited tenure and their offices are confirmed by the Senate (Upper House). Then, we have the Latin American model, where some Constitutions give Presidents a term often amounting to a life tenure like in Cuba. There are plenty of models to choose from and there are arguments against each. So, which system is being argued for when the votaries of change seek a shift to the presidential system?


Our Rajya Sabha cannot be compared to the U.S. Senate where each state has its own Constitution and has the power to change it. The relationship between the states and the federal government is extraordinary; as is the status of their courts and the manner of appointment of judges. I do not think people have thought about it. Merely stating that a change to the presidential system is needed does not mean much. The Indian debate currently is not focussed on the kind of presidential system envisaged. What is the term we are seeking for the President? Should he/ she be re-elected? If so, for how many terms? Then, who decides the change? Parliament? All this requires a massive amendment to the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has spelt its view on the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution.


Giving an opinion is one thing. A judgment is a more carefully considered conclusion. Those who support the presidential system should do their homework when they argue against the parliamentary system. There is also the matter of separation of powers. In the U.S., the President, who is also the Supreme Commander, has the power to veto the Congress. Does India need this? The manner of removing the U.S. President through impeachment is a very complex process. There is also the possibility of aggregating more powers to the President.


One could argue that the parliamentary system too runs a similar risk. I do not think it has been thought over. It is not on the table yet.


Reform the process


On the other hand, there are ideas going around about reforming the electoral processes to make democracy more robust. From limiting expenditure of political parties and deciding the ceiling on the expenditure, to holding simultaneous elections, declaring the results for a combination of booths instead of constituencies — I think it is advisable to debate this and ensure that the gaping loopholes in the electoral processes are speedily plugged.

The present parliamentary system has been tried and tested for nearly 70 years. Rather than change the system, why not reform thoroughly and cleanse the electoral processes?


Why the framers of the Indian Constitution adopted for the Parliamentary Form of Government?

iii.        Familiarity with the System

iv.        Preference to More Responsibility

v.           Need to Avoid Legislative—Executive Conflicts

vi.        Nature of Indian Society, India is one of the most heterogeneous States and most complex plural societies in the world. Hence, the Constitution-makers adopted the parliamentary system as it offers greater scope for giving representation to various section, interests and regions in the government. This promotes a national spirit among the people and builds audited India.


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