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India’s Constitution makers Nehru, Patel & Ambedkar were divided on parliamentary system

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Neither Ambedkar nor Patel was in favour of a strictly parliamentary system.

As we celebrate the day when our Constitution came into effect, many misconceptions about how the Constituent Assembly chose the parliamentary system for India remain.

Most Indians believe the parliamentary form of government was the unanimous choice of the Constituent Assembly, but facts prove otherwise: our founding leaders Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were not on the same page.

The choice of the parliamentary system was one political party’s decision. It was taken in the summer of 1946, during a Congress party meeting, and then shepherded through the Constitution-making process as a party directive. The Congress had formed an expert committee under the chairmanship of Nehru in preparation for the Constituent Assembly, and in its meeting of 15 August this small panel decided that independent India would have a British-type government. (The Framing of India’s Constitution by B.S. Rao, Universal Law Publishing, Delhi, 2006, Vol. 1, P 331)

At the time, neither Ambedkar nor Patel was in favour of a strictly parliamentary system. For that matter, neither was Mahatma Gandhi nor Pakistan’s founder and All India Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, although they were not involved in the framing of our Constitution.

As the Constitution-making progressed, both Ambedkar and Patel would bring their own ideas for a different type of government to the Constituent Assembly. But they were either turned down or ignored. As for Jinnah, he had already declared in 1939 his ‘irrevocable opposition’ to the parliamentary form. (The Framing of India’s Constitution by B.S. Rao, Vol. 5, P 28) And Gandhi had said, “If India copies England, it is my firm conviction that she will be ruined.” (Gandhi and Constitution Making in India by D.K. Chatterjee, Associated Publishing House, 1984, P71)

When the Constituent Assembly began its work at the end of 1946, the Congress Expert Committee decisions became the recommendations of the Union Constitution Committee, also chaired by Nehru. But the Provincial Constitution Committee, headed by Patel, came up with a different plan. (Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD), 27 June 1947)

Also read: Seven decades before Statue of Unity, Nehru had unveiled a Sardar Patel statue in Godhra

There were two points of disagreement: whether India should be a unitary or federal state and whether the head of government should be elected directly by the people or indirectly by the legislature.

Nehru’s committee wanted a typical parliamentary structure of a unitary state with an indirectly elected Executive. The two committees held a joint meeting on 7 June 1947 and decided to have independent state governments, with governors appointed by states, not the Centre. As for the Executive, the joint committee decided to have a parliamentary-type system, but one elected ‘on the basis of adult franchise through a special electoral college.’ (Minutes, Joint Meeting, 7 June 1947, Rao, Vol. 2, P 609)

But the matter was far from settled. Nehru’s committee continued to develop the Union Constitution along the old lines, while Patel proceeded to devise a Provincial Constitution with directly elected governors. A few days later, another joint meeting had to be called. Held on 10-11 June 1947, this meeting was chaired by Rajendra Prasad and attended by 36 luminaries, including Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, K.M. Munshi, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Govind Ballabh Pant, Jagjivan Ram, A.K. Ayyar, K.M. Panikkar and J.B. Kriplani.

After two days of heated debate, the joint committee resolved once again to have directly elected President and governors. Nehru was asked in an official resolution to ‘reconsider’ his committee’s decision of electing the President indirectly. (Minutes, Joint Committee Meeting of the Union and Provincial Committees, June 11, 1947, Rao, Vol. 2, P 612)

But he never did.

Still, Patel took his model Provincial Constitution with directly elected governors to the Assembly for consideration. The members were not informed about the disagreements between his and Nehru’s committees. They readily approved Patel’s recommendations. But a couple of years later, on 31 May 1949, in an unprecedented move, the Assembly reversed its decision. (From Constituent Assembly Debates)

The Draft Constitution was modified to have governors appointed instead of directly electing them. This was the only reversal of a major constitutional principle in the Assembly’s history.

Ambedkar’s views on the form of government India should have —including his fervent opposition to parliamentary-type Executive—were well known even before he joined the Assembly. He had said in 1945 that “majority-rule”, the fundamental basis of parliamentary governments, “is untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice”. (Presidential Address, All India Scheduled Castes Federation, 6 May 1945, Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1, P 357-79)

Only seven months before he began work as chairman of the Drafting Committee, he had submitted plans to the Assembly’s Subcommittee on Fundamental Rights for a ‘United States of India’. (Rao, Vol. 2, P 84-104)

Also read: The many plots to kill Jawaharlal Nehru from 1948 to 1955

It had many similarities with the US-style presidential system. When Ambedkar’s proposal came up for discussion, he chose not to attend the session. By then he had become the chief proponent of the Congress’s decision to have a parliamentary system.

When in July 1947, Nehru took his Union Constitution proposals to the Assembly, members were well primed to take a party line decision.

Since the Muslim League’s withdrawal from the Assembly, the Congress party held nearly 70 per cent of the seats. As Ambedkar noted, “Congress holds this House in its possession.” (Constituent Assembly Debates,17  December 1946)

The Congresspersons were not allowed to vote freely. In a practice unheard of in a constitution-making body, India’s Constituent Assembly functioned under a system of whips issued by the party high command.

Nehru’s motion to adopt his Union Constitution Report, with an indirectly elected President and typical parliamentary government, was easily approved. (Constituent Assembly Debates 24 July 1947]

Remarkably, none of the so-called Congress rebels—H.V. Kamath, P.S. Deshmukh, R.K. Sidhwa, K.T. Shah and H.N. Kunzru—said anything during the two afternoons when Nehru’s proposals were being adopted. So much so that every single amendment seeking a directly elected President was withdrawn. (Why India Needs the Presidential System by Bhanu Dhamija, Harper Collins, 2015, P 121)

One Congressman, Shibban Lal Saksena, even admitted that he was “not free in the matter” but “I deeply feel that the scheme that we have accepted in the Provincial Constitution in regard to the election of governors should be adopted in the Union Constitution as well”. (Constituent Assembly Debates, 23 July, 1947)

It is astonishing that India’s Constituent Assembly never voted on the question of whether the country should adopt the parliamentary or another form of government. The members were merely given the choice to approve the recommendations of the committees. No alternatives were presented and there were no opportunities given for reconsideration.

When, near the end, Ambedkar commended the parliamentary system—including his famous point that it offers more responsible albeit less stable governments than the presidential system—the decision to adopt had already been made. He was merely justifying the Draft Constitution, which everyone knew had the sanction of the Congress party.

Also read: Ambedkar was wrong, Gandhi wrote against untouchability in Gujarati journals too

However, it was once again a Congressman who couldn’t stay quiet. As the Draft was being adopted, Ram Narayan Singh blurted out, “I say emphatically that this Constitution is not what is wanted by the country… this parliamentary system of Government must go out of this; it has failed in the west and it will create hell in this country.” (Constituent Assembly Debates, 5 November 1948)

It is high time India reconsidered the choice of the parliamentary system.

Bhanu Dhamija is Founder/CMD of Divya Himachal newspaper, and author of Why India Needs the Presidential System (Harper). Twitter: @BhanuDhamija

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  1. People here are oblivious to the fact that this system has generated some of the most corrupt and autocratic governments in the past and institutions like the parliament and Supreme Court have often been taken for a ride and Courts often assuming overriding powers in domains of the executive and legislature and the legislature never once having quality debates on any issue and often standing as roadblock on several occasions. The system has failed in providing the necessary checks and balances often resulting in each organ of democracy subverting the constitution according to its whims.

    Governance agenda of our nation is not scripted by people anymore. They are authored by party heads and party families. People have just become numbers. Even our representatives have become just numbers. Once a party has the “numbers” it has full control over the parliament and can bulldoze any legislation it deems fit without any proper debate. No party member can ever vote against his party’s wishes lest he wishes to get expelled from both the party and the parliament. Any other bill outside the government is not even taken for consideration and is struck down with brute majority.
    And what is the exact opposite of this situation?
    When a single party can’t muster up the necessary “numbers”? It becomes a free for all. Everyone wants a cabinet “berth”. Parties consider a “pliable” and “accommodating” candidate for prime minister. What is the result then. Governance takes a back seat. The “coalition dharma” comes into effect and ministries and departments are unnecessarily expanded. Tell me why is there a need for a ministry of heavy industries, ministry of micro small and medium industries, ministry of commerce and industry, ministry of chemicals and fertilizers, ministry of food processing industries and a ministry of steel when they could all be included under one umbrella ministry of industries. Don’t tell me because it’s work load because that’s what departmental secretaries are there for. Simple. Coalition Dharma. This in turn contributes to more red tape and lack of co-ordination thus taking development back by several years.

    If on the one hand we have autocratic government then on the other hand we have a completely indecisive large lethargic dysfunctional one. Both are dangerous for the nation. What happens when a government becomes dysfunctional. People take issues to the courts. Courts use this opportunity to take decisions for the government. The parliament and executive are undermined and lead to Kritarchy.

    This is just one example of how the parliamentary system has failed to take the nation forward. People need to overcome this belief that
    1. Parliamentary form is “best suited” for a country as diverse as India. No it’s not. If diversity is to be encourage it should be through true federalism and decentralization up to grass roots level. Not in a unitary form.
    2. Parliamentary form is more “responsible”. No it’s not. Executive decisions with proper independent legislative oversight is the best form of responsiblity and accountability.
    3. We have survived with this for 70 years so need to change. No it’s not. We should thrive. Not survive. We could do much much better with a different form of government.
    4. Constitution makers were “infallible”. No they are not. They are humans like us. Why else did we have more than a hundred amendments in the last 70 years compared to the US Constitution which had only 27 in the last 250 years. The constitution was framed in an atmosphere of distrust. The distrust that states would break away from the union resulted in a unitary form of government. The distrust that in the future, legislators would not by very responsible made our constitution so bulky and unreadable for the common man, putting every single detail of government transaction and day to day business in the constitution when simple legislations would have sufficed.

    Kindly think about it. At least ponder over the possibility that may be, just may be, we could achieve better if it were for a more vibrant system of government. Democratic in the truest sense.

    Imagine being able to elect a popular figure who strives hard to win the approval of everyone in the nation into the high office of president. Not someone who is there as a post retirement sinecure for “services rendered to the party”. A true mass leader directly elected by us.

    Imagine having instead of just and MLA and and MP you could have a president, vice-president, MP both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, governor, MLA, Mayor, Councillor of you corporation or Panchayat Sarpanch and member of Panchayat all directly elected. That is almost 8 representatives per person instead of just 2 who don’t even show up once they are elected.

    Imagine having subject experts running ministries at all levels, central, state and local. Economists in finance ministries, Engineers in infrastructure, power and railways, security experts in defence, scholars of international relations in external affairs.

    Imagine each and every penny of your hard earned tax payer money go through serious heated debates and negotiations before being spent. Even if your representative is in the so-called “opposition”.

    Imagine being able to vote for someone who is from among you and who will truely represent you and your concerns in parliament instead of being forced to vote for someone whose main objective is to become a minister or someone who you don’t even know suddenly parachuted by a party “high command” or someone who only considers you a “vote bank”.

    Imagine every appointment of the government go through hard scrutiny and public televised interviews by the legislature and getting approved by them.

    These are just some of the benefits that you get from a presidential form of government. Just think about the possiblities of how much our nation can grow with such a vibrant form of democracy where people actually rule. Just think about it.

  2. The parliamentary system is well suited for India which has diversity though there could be some hiccups in the beginning. But during the last seven decades the system has passed the test and now there is no need to go for any other system. In the assembly there is bound to be difference on opinion among members. That does not mean the final resolution could be reversed with the passage of time. Our judicial system has corrected many working flaws in the constitution. Hence it be safe for the country to maintain the present constitution.

  3. On the crafting of India’s democratic institutions, starting with foundational principles such as a parliamentary system, Pandit Nehru’s vision towered above both Sardar Patel’s and Dr Ambedkar’s. Let the aversion some instinctively feel towards Nehruji and all he stood for not get in the way of facts. No thousand foot high statues needed to demonstrate his greatness to the world. 2. Whenever we are unable to deliver, all this talk of parliamentary vs presidential takes wings. Vasant Sathe was an old supporter of a presidential form of government. How much more governmental power did Mrs Gandhi really need to lift many more Indians out of poverty …

  4. Seven decades of experience has shown that the current system is well accepted by the people and no calamity has been visited on the nation by adopting this system.
    The genius of the Indian people – who are argumentative and yet seek consensual outcomes – is best expressed through the parliamentary system with an executive answerable to parliament.

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