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As I have noted, the Vasantha Senanayake proposals that have been sent to the Parliamentary Select Committee are to form the basis of the discussions the Marga Institute is facilitating to promote consensus. The most innovative of the ideas put forward in the memorandum submitted to Parliament is the suggestion that we accept the logic of the Executive Presidential system, and therefore bring the Cabinet in line with the executive system in other countries which have Executive Presidents – the United States and Russia and France and the Philippines, to name but a few.

On a proper Executive Presidential system, unlike the hybrid perversion J R Jayewardene introduced, those put in charge of the different branches of the executive come from outside Parliament. If they are in the legislature, they have to resign their Parliamentary positions, as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry did. Even when the President has a Prime Minister whose tenure depends on the confidence of Parliament, when that Prime Minister has won election and established a majority, he gives up his seat to take up an executive position. And as we saw with Vladimir Putin in Russia, someone who had been elected to Parliament and thereby been chosen as Prime Minister, can easily, and with greater effectiveness, be replaced by a technocrat.

Characteristically, Dayan Jayatilleke opposed the suggestion on the grounds that it would lead to the President filling the executive with his own relations. This was yet another example of an otherwise very distinguished analyst allowing ad hominem arguments to influence his judgment. I should add that his position also fails to take into account the fact that any relations who aspire to executive office will have no difficulty in getting elected, as both our Parliament and many Provincial Councils exemplify. The problem then is that even the very able start making getting re-elected their priority, whereas if Ministers concentrated only on making a success of the areas for which they are responsible, we would have decisions and actions that focus on results rather than popularity.

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Rajya Sabha

One of the most interesting aspects of the recent visit to India by a Parliamentary delegation was the opportunity it gave us to learn more about the Indian upper house and the way it functions. We were taken in to a meeting of the Rajya Sabha as it is called, and did not have to endure any protests, as had happened in the Lok Sabha – though I should note here that, while media attention was concentrated on the ten or so members who shouted at us, the 500 and more who cheered us were ignored, friendship obviously not being as notable in media parlance as hostility. And we should also register the authoritative but dignified way in which the Lady Speaker handled the situation, shooting down singlehanded it seemed the vociferous shouts of the unruly members.

There was a different scene in the Rajya Sabha, when one member insisted on making a protest and then walking out. I was told later that this was a member of the DMK, and he could not allow his party to be outdone, since the protest in the morning had been led by Jayalalitha’s AIDMK. The Chair of the upper house, who is also Vice-President of India, an extremely dignified Muslim gentleman, was not equal to shouting down his recalcitrant member, but that would not have been appropriate perhaps in that house. His apology however was equally sincere, and the rest of his membership, including a very articlulate member from Tamilnadu, more than made up for the embarrassment.

But that is the very nature of an upper house, a forum for quiet and collegiate discussion, where different approaches can be reconciled without recourse to the dramatization that is the essence of lower house debates all over the world. I have already mentioned the need to improve our committee system in Parliament, so as to develop opportunities for informed discussion and the building of consensus.  But whereas that is part of the inner workings of a lower house, it is the very essence of an upper house which, while necessarily subordinate in legislative and other parliamentary powers to its twin, usually has a larger role to play with regard to fine-tuning legislation and ensuring responsiveness to non-political concerns.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2020
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