By Priya Pookkulam
With the rise of autocratically inclined executives in democracies around the world, the time has come to re-examine the limits that India places on its own chief executive. Neither the Constitution nor electoral laws (such as the Representation of People Act, 1951) specifically limit the number of terms that one individual may serve as India’s Prime Minister. Surprisingly, India’s elaborate Constitution only briefly touches upon the Prime Minister’s tenure in Article 75, Section 2, which states: “The Ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the President.” The reference of service at the pleasure of the President alludes to the Westminster convention of service at the pleasure of the crown, in which government officials are able to serve for indefinite periods of time, so long as they meet the crown’s requirements. In the Indian system, as in the Westminster model, the Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party of the Lok Sabha. Thus, the only requirement the Prime Minister must meet is the continued confidence of the majority party in Parliament. Nothing in Indian law prevents a single individual from serving as Prime Minister indefinitely. I argue that this is a dangerous tradition and that adopting term limits affords a safer option.
Term limits exist to prevent individuals from consolidating and abusing power. Generally, it is only presidential democracies that impose term limits on the head of the executive branch; parliamentary democracies often refrain from doing so. Many African and Latin American democracies impose term limits on their presidents, as does the United States. On the other hand, most European and Asian democracies allow a single prime minister to serve an unlimited number of terms, so long as they retain the support of the nation’s Parliament.
Why did presidential democracies choose to establish term limits? The founders or legislators of these nations did not trust a single individual to hold such immense executive power for an unlimited period of time. They believed that the potential of unlimited terms could eventually corrupt a sitting president. The possibility of limitless terms could grant presidents time to accumulate governmental power, alter democratic institutions (such as the courts) to operate in their favor, and to establish the patronage networks and clientelistic relationships that are common in electoral authoritarianism. Scholars also argue that long tenures may lead to a greater tendency to abuse power. Latin American and African nations, in particular, having experienced electoral authoritarianism under presidents who served for life, established presidential term limits in order to protect their democracies from the threat of an all-powerful executive.
As the chief executive in a parliamentary democracy, prime ministers are also positioned to abuse their access to executive power. Why then, do most parliamentary democracies allow their Prime Ministers to serve a limitless number of terms? Opponents of term limits for Prime Ministers point out that there are numerous ways for a Prime Minister to lose his/her seat – most notably the loss of support from the majority coalition in the legislature and the loss of support from an electorate that votes large portions of the Prime Minister’s majority coalition out of office. Thus, they argue, democratic processes will naturally remove incompetent, corrupt or otherwise unacceptable PMs. Others argue that term limits disqualify individuals from holding office just as they have gained governing experience, knowledge about key issues and influence among their peers.
The argument that democratic processes are likely to remove a prime minister who has lost the support of the people ignores the powerful influence of incumbency advantages. Because incumbent leaders have access to government funds and organizations, they are able to take credit for all governmental successes (irrespective of their role) and even weaken other organs of government. Studies have also found that incumbents have distinct advantages over their competitors because of their high visibility, the patriotism associated with their office, and their ability to leverage a national desire for political stability. The advantages that an incumbent prime minister holds skews elections in his favor, hampering the citizen’s ability to make a meaningful choice. Term limits would restrict a sitting prime minister from accumulating electoral advantages and executive power, thus facilitating free and fair elections.
The argument that prime ministerial term limits may deprive India of an able leader points to the nation’s lack of faith in the leadership potential of over a billion people. In the long-term, the cycling of leaders will only lead to the strengthening of democratic institutions. When an individual expects to lose power after a predetermined period of time, he loses the incentive to corrupt independent institutions in favor of his office. Thus, a chief executive that expects to lose power has an incentive to support an independent judiciary, a free press, an unbiased electoral commission and honest government agencies because he would not wish them to be used against him by the next individual or party in power. The constant cycling of power among individuals and parties also serves to destroy clientelistic relationships and decrease the incentive for corruption. Establishing term limits will help to strengthen the democratic backbone of the nation, leaving it less vulnerable to corrupt leaders. India would no longer have to depend on an able prime minister. Rather, the nation’s strengthened democratic institutions would allow it to withstand poor, corrupt leaders and thrive under great leaders.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.