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)
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)
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.
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