Constitutional debate stirs talk of Gandhi power grab

The world's largest parliamentary democracy is taking a second look at its inherited Westminster-style form of government and questioning whether it is really suited to so vast, diverse, a poor a nation is India.

The debate over the merits and demerits of parliamentary government remains largely confined to the drawing rooms, conferences, and editorial pages of the Indian intellectual and political elite. For the more than half of the Indian population living below the poverty line, it is a dialogue taking place in a never-never land far removed from the daily struggle for adequate food, water, clothing, and shelter.

But Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herserlf is encouraging and occasionally chipping into the debate -- a significant and ominous sign as far as her critics and political opponents are concerned.

The more charitable see it as an attempt to divert public attention from the Gandhi government's seeming inability to deal with India's social and economic problems despite its parliamentary majorities in the central government and in most state governments.

Others, with memories of Mrs. Gandhi's authoritarian emergency rule of 1975 to 1977 still fresh, see it as a thinly disguised move to soften up the public for yet another power grab by India's strong woman.

The alternative most in vogue as a subject of discussion is a presidential system along American or French lines, in which voters elect the head of government for a fixed term.

Speakers at a recent national lawyers' convention extolled the presidential system as a better means of ensuring executive stability than the British-inherited parliamenttary system in which the governing party or party coalition picks the prime minister. The prime minister's government survives as long as the party or coalition keeps its ranks together: It falls when it cannot win a vote of confidence. India, whose politicians are famed for their agility in switching parties, saw two governments fall last year and Mrs. Gandhi's Congress-I (for Indira) Party returned to power this year in a stunning reversal of its defeat at the polls in 1977.

Inaugurating the lawyers' conference, Mrs. Gandhi called for a national debate on whether another form of government would suit India better. She also slapped the opposition parties, saying they were trying to hobble her government by obstructive tactics and a resort to street agitation and violence.

A. B. Vajpayee, president of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, termed Mrs. Gandhi's debate call "a clever gambit to divert the people's attention away from the failures of her government on all fronts." He said her supporters' advocacy of the presidential system had a sinister aim, "as the presidential system in any developing country is a pathway to dictatorship."

Said Lok Dal Party General Secretary Rabi Ray, "It has been proved to the hilt from recent happenings in other third world countries that any attempt to switch over to a presidential form of government means the beginnings of a dictatorial regime. In the present Indian context, it is nothing but perpetuation of a dynastic rule."

For Mrs. Gandhi or any other head of the Indian government, a presidential system would mean an assurance of at least a fixed term, free from the rise and fall of his or her legislative party's fortunes or the specter of massive party defections. Proponents say it would also mean a wider field of talent from which to pick Cabinet members, since the parliamentary system limits the choice to party members who win legislative victories.

But opponents blame the dearth of talent in Mrs. Gandhi's Cabinet -- still one-third unfilled and widely regarded as the weakest in independent India's history -- squarely on Mrs. Gandhi and her party lieutenants, since they selected the candidates for party tickets.

The lawyers conference, largely made up of Congress-I supporters, took no position in favor of the presidential system -- and delegates shouted down a chairman who tried to claim they had. Mrs. Gandhi herself pointed out weaknesses of both systems and took no position, other than urging an examination of whether the British parliamentary model was still relevant to the Indian scene. "It is astonishing that many who swear by democracy should shy away from discussing a matter of public importance," she declared.

Throughout, Mrs. Gandhi has cast herself as a committed believer in democracy who has been thwarted by a disruptive opposition unwilling to allow her elected government to function.

"I agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the most fragile of systems , but there isn't any better," she said at a recent press conference.

"Now, these countries which have presidential forms, many of them consider themselves democracies also," she added wryly.

But the suspicious aroused by her call for debate point up a deep distrust of Mrs. Gandhi's motives among the intellectual and political elite -- many of whom went t jail during her emergency rule.

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