India’s Parliamentary Form of Government Rocks

Last week was a good week for President Obama. A State of the Union Address that was much more plain speak than his usual soaring rhetoric. Then he went into the lion’s den – the Republican Caucus – and demolished them on national television. Without a teleprompter, this time.

That said, the arithmetic in the Senate hasn’t changed. You still need 60 votes in the senate to prevent a filibuster and the Democrats don’t have them. So the stalemate continues.

The use of the filibuster has increased over time to where getting anything passed in a Senate with 100 seats requires 60 votes. Ezra Klein writes about how a supermajority of 60 votes is now a necessity for anything significant to pass in the Senate.

For someone who was educated in India (Civics used to be a separate subject in school) the filibuster and its evolution into a supermajority requirement in the Senate, seems odd. In fact there are many things about the system of government in the US that are odd and like the filibuster don’t really serve the purpose of furthering either democracy or good governance.

Start with the role of the President. There was a time in India when as impatient young people with ideas, my friends and I would look at the American Presidential form of government admiringly. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Presidential form of government that elected a President directly and then he or she would be able to rule wisely and justly and do what was right instead of being beholden to the party apparatchiks or coalition partners?

Wrong. The American President is the head of the Executive, but any significant change involves legislation, which is what the US Congress does. And the US Congress can oppose or stymie the President, or just tie itself up in knots trying to pass legislation. When it does, it is full of compromises and earmarks. And the President, as you can see, can do almost nothing about it.

The Indian Parliamentary system actually is dead simple in comparison. The majority party or coalition in the Lok Sabha gets to rule. Their leader becomes the Prime Minister who is the head of the government. Bills from the government, may be opposed vehemently by the opposition, but they need only a majority to pass which the ruling party already has. If a bill is defeated on the floor of the Lok Sabha, a no-confidence vote might follow which could bring down the government. Something that happens only rarely.

The Rajya Sabha, the other house, is involved in law-making but doesn’t have any teeth. Neither does the President of India. In general, if you are elected into a majority, you can rule unhampered. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t other challenges – coalition politics does weaken the government – but that is more related to the politics of the moment, where regional parties are much stronger than they have been in the past, than a structural issue with the functioning of the legislative process.

The American Congress is bicameral. Both houses are powerful and actively involved in shaping legislation. Districts that elect the House of Representatives are drawn based upon population, just like the Lok Sabha. But the Senate is a completely different animal. There are two senators per state. Wyoming with a population of half a million sends two senators to the senate and so does California with 37 million people. Because of this, the composition of the Senate is not really representative of the American people.

At the state level things can get even weirder. The symmetry in how democracy functions in India at the state and national levels is absent in the US. A state like California whose finances are in shambles is unable to do much about it because every important piece of legislation can be forced to a referendum. This law was inflicted upon California by Californians themselves. To change this law you need a 2/3rd majority in the Assembly. Till that time, you can’t raise taxes and you can’t take on the public employee unions. The result is deficits galore.

Matt Yglesias has another problem with American elections. It is with the number of officials that people need to elect.

Consider, for example, America’s staggering quantity of elected officials. If you live in Toronto, you vote for a member of the Toronto City Council, you vote for a member of the Ontario Parliament, and you vote for a member of the Canadian Parliament. That’s one large Anglophone city in North America.

What happens in New York City? Well, you’ve got a city council member, a borough president, a mayor, a public advocate, a comptroller, and a district attorney. You’ve also got a state assembly member, a state senator, an attorney-general, a state comptroller, and a governor. Then at the federal level, there’s a member of congress, two senators, and the president. That’s sixteen legislative and elected officials rather than Toronto’s three. New Yorkers don’t have three times as much time in their day to monitor the performance of elected officials. Instead, New Yorker elected officials simply aren’t monitored as closely.

So the next time you feel like we should seek a different form of government in India, count your blessings. It could have been much worse. We could have adopted the US form of government instead of British parliamentary democracy in 1950.

Photo by thecnote


  1. ayyappa says:

    I also used to think that Presidential system is good, but seeing how the first year of Obama has gone with almost 60 votes and how difficult it could become with even less than that, I also thought our system is good.
    One thing that I thought could be better though:- who gets to stand in elections is still determined by parties. There could be more capable candidates if a primary system comes to place where people can even choose who should be the candidate for parties.


  2. Krishna says:


    Just in case if you missed out. In India, we have now moved on. Now we wonder (envy, really ! ) at China (than the US) in learning a thing or two about swift infrastructure buildout. After the recent Olympics, that is !


    1. Krishna – no I didn't miss that. 5 trips a year to India keep me pretty current. Although I haven't met anyone who would seriously wish that India had a China type government. More like a Singapore type of system, which is a weak form of democracy. Or a diluted form of authoritarianism.


  3. Mohan says:

    Interesting oversimplification of comparison of governments if there was one! 🙂
    Don’t ALL of us, anywhere in the world like to crib-and-compare politics and politicians.

    Just for fun, add lobbying (as practiced in west) or pure simple bribery – and horse trading, stuffing suitecases with currency, caste, regionalism, Parochialism and the desi bureaucracy – into the Indian political mix and let us see if the argument still holds true.


  4. @Mohan,

    I did think about lobbying but the post was getting too long. I suspect if India had US style lobbying instead of outright bribery, I think it would be focused more on Mantralaya rather than legislators. I mean, you have to follow the money. Even today, the real money is made by becoming a minister. An MP or MLA has very little worth, that way.

    BTW I am not saying that Indian politics is in anyway less distasteful than American politics. But the form of government – Westiminster style democracy – works well.


  5. Siddharth says:

    Hi Basab, I am a returning visitor and delighted on 2 counts. First. you have a very good line up of blogs (which i am about to begin reading). Second, this picture of North (or may South) Block is a good pick. I notice the new-age chopper flying above our almost century-old house of democracy. I some how see strength in that pic.


  6. Very interesting comparison. I have watched with amusement at how even a 60 vote majority has prevented the Democrats from passing anything significant. The US government is truly in a deadly stalemate. Your comparison actually helped me understand why. Thanks.


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