Donald Trump Saga Shows Why India Needs the Presidential System
Once Trump became the Chief Executive, the office began to hold him accountable and punish incompetence.
The dramatic rise and fall of Donald Trump offers a fascinating insight into the American presidential form of government. That system allowed a non-politician to rise to the highest office, but once he became the Chief Executive, it began to check his overreach, hold him accountable, and punish any incompetence or misbehaviour. None of these abilities exist in India’s parliamentary government.
Trump was a political novice who won the 2016 presidential election by defeating 10 governors, five senators and a renowned opponent in Hillary Clinton. He won because many Americans liked his message of anti-elitism, more jobs, fair trade and a strong economy.
He took an aggressive stance against terrorism and illegal immigration. Trump turned into a demagogue, but many people still liked his America First approach after decades of foreign wars and multi-nationalism.
He won the election fair and square under the country’s Electoral College system, by paying more attention to swing states than the raw number of ballots cast.
Trump was not the only non-career politician to become America’s President. Of the last 10 Presidents, half had other careers before entering politics. George Bush Jr flew warplanes in the National Guard, went to Harvard Business School, worked in the oil industry, and owned a baseball team.
His father George HW Bush, the 41st President, served in the Navy during World War II, and then built a successful oil company. Ronald Reagan was a popular radio commentator and successful Hollywood actor.
Jimmy Carter served in the Navy and then ran his family’s farm. And Gerald Ford was a Navy lieutenant commander before being elected to the House of Representatives.
In India, a non-career politician has zero chance of becoming the prime minister. Our Constitution requires him or her to be a Member of Parliament and a leader of the majority party.
Since parliamentary candidates are not chosen in open primaries, they must serve their party leaders well to obtain an MP’s ticket. So, only party loyalists and sycophants rise to leadership positions. This deprives our country of a vast pool of talented people who could bring real-life experience to the role of Chief Executive.
Scope of Executive and Legislative Powers: India vs US
As president, Trump failed to grasp that country’s serious restrictions on Executive overreach. His ban on Muslim immigration was stopped by legal challenges, until he removed religion as its basis. His separation of children from their undocumented immigrant parents is still being litigated in the courts. And his attempts to build a wall on the Mexican border were curtailed because Congress, the US legislature, refused to provide the funds. His signature program, the repeal of Obamacare, is still being denied by the Senate.
Among the only unilateral actions Trump was able to achieve were his withdrawals from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord. He was able to accomplish those because they were seen as overreaches by his predecessor. Barack Obama had entered into those pacts without majority Senate approval, a Constitutional requirement for all binding international treaties.
Our prime minister faces no such restrictions. He can enter treaties with foreign countries without needing Parliament’s approval. He can issue Ordinances at will, subject only to a limited judicial review. He can draw funds freely, without parliamentary approval, for individual programs. And he or she can enact or change any law to suit his government’s agenda, because our system grants the PM both Executive and Legislative powers. All this gives our prime minister unfettered power that can easily be abused.
Accountability of Leaders: India vs US
The US system not only stopped Trump from taking many arbitrary actions, it demanded answers on a daily basis. He faced more than 30 different investigations supervised by the courts or Congress.
The Special Counsel investigation into alleged collusion with Russia conducted by his own Department of Justice produced 199 criminal charges, 37 indictments or guilty pleas and five prison sentences.
Such taking to account of an Indian prime minister could never happen. He is guaranteed a majority in Parliament, so any legislative scrutiny is meaningless. He is not obliged to attend Parliament or even answer questions.
The questions MPs raise can be answered by one of his deputy ministers, with no further independent scrutiny. And India’s Parliament is not authorised to launch an investigation of a prime minister.
All this boils down to the sad fact that in our system, a government is never held responsible. It cannot be stopped from taking arbitrary actions, and it cannot be taken to task by an independent legislature.
As for censure, Trump has been severely penalised by the populace as well as by their Legislature. In the 2018 midterm elections, his party lost control of the House of Representatives and the result was a slew of investigations.
In 2019, the House impeached him for Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Justice. And today, the American people have voted him out of office. They disapproved of his rude behaviour, inept management of the coronavirus response, exploitation of racial divisions, alienation of international allies, and going too far with Executive power.
Our parliamentary system offers no midterm elections, nor a procedure for a Prime Minister’s impeachment. He or she can retain office no matter how rogue their behaviour, as long as the majority is retained in Parliament.
In 230-years of US history, not a single President has succeeded in becoming an autocrat. But in just 70 years of ours, we can point to at least two prime ministers who became, tragically, authoritarian.
The US system has proven to deliver a better and safer democracy for its people time and time again. We should drop our prejudices against that system and consider adopting it for ourselves.
(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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