Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist government, now in its second innings, will go down in history as one of the most centralised, top-down and one-person-centric government commanding a super-majority in Parliament.

India’s grand old party and the current opposition party, Indian National Congress, has an identity crisis. Not only it atrophied and been thrown into disarray with occasional defections, but it has also been adopting soft-Hindu nationalism or Hindutva-lite, especially on the more recent Ram temple issue, as a way out of its electoral misfortunes.

Shashi Tharoor, a leading member of the Congress, recently called for a change to a presidential system of democracy. “The parliamentary system we borrowed from the British has not worked in Indian conditions,” he said. “It is time to demand change.”

The schadenfreude cannot be missed on anyone as Tharoor represents a party whose historic commitment to parliamentary democracy is next to none.

However, this critique of parliamentary democracy – along with the recent demotion of Kashmir, the new citizenship law and the building of a Ram temple on a disputed site – points to a likely future where the “idea of India” and what it means to be Indian will be debated and redefined.

If such a redefinition comes to pass, the history of the founding of the nation and its core ideals like secularism will be on the defensive.

History of anti-parliamentarism in India

The wrangling between the national and the non-national, or that between a unitary nation-state with parliamentary democracy and true federation, was at the heart of the founding of free India.

Any critique of the English-type parliamentary democracy should engage not only with its tenacity and durability in India but also the question of why it was chosen at the founding of the nation when there were strong political and ideational currents against it in India and abroad.

English-type parliamentary democracy is the most enduring legacy of the nationalist vision of free India. There were other non-national visions that side-stepped this imaginary of an Indian nation-state, united and unitary, governed by an elected executive owing its allegiance to a sovereign Parliament.

An all-India federation consisting of sovereign units united under a federal government, like in the United States, was one such the non-national vision that had much traction among the Indian princely states and minorities like the Muslims.

The Indian National Congress has a long history of equating nationalism and progressivism with faith in Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. Most of the leaders of the Congress in the 1930s and 1940s – the father of the nation Mohandas Gandhi, the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose, Sardar Patel, Krishna Menon, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Acharya Kripalani and NG Gopalaswamy Ayyangar to name just a few – considered parliamentary democracy of the English-type an article of faith and as an institution, Indians had the right to inherit.

Any deviation from this model of constitutional development was not only beneath their aspirations, but was also a betrayal of the promises that the British had long made to Indians. That is, the Indians will qualify to come out of their colonial tutelage and that they will be ready to establish English-type government and rule India just like the British did.

This commensurability between the arrival of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and the realisation of Indian self-rule or “swaraj” is a peculiar outcome of the Congress party’s nationalist vision of India.

There is no party or group that espoused a consistent faith in parliamentarism as the Congress. All the constitutional reforms that the British introduced in India until 1935 were in line with the slow but steady progress toward parliamentary democracy that the British envisioned for India.

The early 1930s, however, presented a new set of actors in Indian politics – that is, the Indian princes– who had thus far remained aloof from its hustle and bustle, as it were. The convening of the Round Table Conferences in London (1930-’32), inaugurated a new phase of politics predicated on a future Indian federation consisting of both the princely states and the British provinces.

Federal Structure Committee of the India Round-Table Conference on September 14, 1931, at the St James Palace in London, England. Lord Sankey is seen in the chair, with, on his left, Gandhi and Pandit Malaviya. British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to the right of Mahatma Gandhi, and fourth from the left in the foreground is Dr BR Ambedkar. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The conferences and the subsequent constitutional debates that followed, producing the White Paper of 1933 along the way, posed a formidable challenge to the Indian nationalists’ romance with Westminster-style government. The princes, the Muslim League, and the Liberals like Tej Bahadur Sapru and MR Jayakar, joined forces (with occasional murmurs) in articulating a federal vision for India.

The Indian federation as thought up by these groups differed drastically from the Westminster-type and stood closer to the US model in many ways. For one, it was not to be based entirely on the first-past-the-post system or the kind of representational politics that characterise India today. Rather, a variety of options like direct and indirect elections, nominations and even regional representation (like the American states) were considered.

The Government of India Act 1935, which gave life to some of these federal ideas marked a foundational break with parliamentary style-democracy of the English-type that the British had dispensed in instalments until then.

The Congress party was officially against the federation contemplated in the Act as they considered the Constitution it envisaged unworkable and undemocratic. The princes and Muslims made no secret of the fact that Congress’s opposition to the Act was first and foremost a reaction borne out of their inability to capture power through elections. Because the new Constitution did not recognise the first-past-the-post voting system in the princely states.

The strengths of the 1935 Act outweighed its weaknesses. The Act left too much power in the hands of the princely states such that residuary powers were to rest with the constituent states. While this has precedence in the American system, the powers to be vested in the states were far-reaching, including, as BR Ambedkar observed in Federation versus Freedom (1939), the right to secede from the Indian union.

Regardless of the fact that Congress leaders like S Satyamurti of Madras argued that federation deserved a trial, the party remained pitted against the Act and the federal scheme. Even the princes and the Muslims too turned sour against the federal scheme as they found legal challenges and political hostility in securing the “safeguards” that were promised to them in the early 1930s.

However, a large number of Indian leaders, notably the leaders from the princely states, liberals and the minorities like Muslims stood by a federal India that was the opposite of a unitary state with parliamentary democracy.

Pro-federation princely states like Travancore or Bhopal were particularly against Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. CP Ramaswamy Aiyar, the last prime minister of Travancore (1936-’47) and a constitutional lawyer par excellence was a staunch advocate of federalism and a vigorous opponent of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.

He even drafted an American-model Constitution for Travancore in 1946, based on the presidential system. Aiyar wrote to Resident Russell justifying the new Constitution that “the English system of responsible government in the sense of an executive removable by a vote of the legislature would never work in an Indian state or even in British India – the English system depending for its success largely on certain traits of the English character, including a capacity for compromise and the ability to unite at moments of crisis.”

The similarity between Aiyar’s line of thinking and Shashi Tharoor’s recent call to shun parliamentary democracy cannot be missed, even though they both fall on distant sides of the political spectrum.

Thus, the long history of anti-parliamentarism in India has to read with the alternate imaginings of a post-imperial India that came from non-nationalist circles like the princes.

There is an equally old theoretical foundation to anti-parliamentarism, which attained particular salience in Weimar Germany. Carl Schmitt, a Nazi jurist and political philosopher, launched one of the most formidable critiques of parliamentary democracy in the last century. In his 1923 book, ominously called The crisis of parliamentary democracy, Schmitt made a distinction between democracy and parliamentarism, deriding the latter as “party rule and the rule of committees.”

Schmitt denounced any theoretical possibility of the people being represented by their representatives as parliamentarism sought to do. He argued that “if the representatives of the people can decide instead of the people, then certainly a single trusted representative could also decide in the name of the same people. Without ceasing to be democratic, the argument would justify an antiparliamentary ceaserism.”

Schmitt, as later history shows, searched for a juridical basis for Hitler’s rise to power. The critique of parliamentary democracy was very central to that enterprise. The argument that referendums are a better democratic tool than parliaments have a pressing resonance with populist democracies of our time.

It is this theory of counter-parliamentary democracy that is missing in recent debates even as they are of the same feather as Schmitt’s theory that justified the rise of dictators, who commanded people’s trust and mandate by having their “acclamation,” or their aye over nay, outside of legislatures.

Age of populism

Narendra Modi ran the elections much like a presidential system, where each vote throughout the country was seen as cast for or against Modi. Candidates in each constituency were just a stand-in for Modi. His governance style also has parallel to the presidential system in that they centre around one individual and his aides owe him undivided allegiance.

File photo of Bharatiya Janata Party supporters at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in New Delhi. Photo credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

This detour through history and theory should make one thing beyond doubt that anti-parliamentarism is not new to the India of 2020. It is as old as national and non-national imaginings of postcolonial India that marked the founding of independent India. The final adoption of parliamentary democracy was marked by dissensus as much as consensus in that the princely states and the minorities opposed it.

If we look to interwar Europe, nor is the theory behind anti-parliamentarism new. India embraced parliamentary democracy of the Westminster-type despite being buffeted by the strong winds of federalism and state rights in the 1930s and 1940s.

Whether the conditions that favoured the Congress-led national consensus on parliamentary democracy in 1947-’50 have changed in 2020, six years into Modi government’s rule is an open question that must be debated in the most democratic fashion.

But the challenge is, can an argument for or against liberal parliamentary democracy be debated in a liberal democracy that is showing populist tendencies? As William Davies recently wrote, drawing on Schmittian theory and with obvious reference to the Brexit referendum, the bane of populist democracies is that they make each person “decide” with aye or nay even before they understand the consequences of what is being decided upon.

In the age of populism, it is all the more important that we do not privilege the critiques of parliamentary democracy by considering them as new critiques. Nor should we leave it to the people to “decide” for or against parliamentarism with a referendum before it is debated fairly and openly by everyone.

Sarath Pillai is a PhD Candidate in the History Department and a MAPSS Preceptor at the University of Chicago. His PhD dissertation examines the federalist imaginings of the princely states in the 1920s through the 1940s.