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A Political Legacy of the British Empire

Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka


Harshan Kumarasingham


International Library of Twentieth Century History, vol. 54

London: I.B. Tauris, 2013

Hardcover. xiv+297 p. ISBN 978-1780762289. £59.50


Reviewed by Bιrιnice Guyot-Rιchard

Cambridge University



Comparative scholarship on the Westminster system has a long history. In A Political Legacy of the British Empire, Harshan Kumarasingham takes it beyond its familiar British, Canadian, or Antipodean shores. What happens when 'one of Britain's most famous and enduring exports' [2] is transplanted to a country without a large and dominant European population or culture? Since a majority of Britain's former colonies fall in that category, the question is an important one. A Political Legacy tackles it by exploring the inner workings of the executive in India and Sri Lanka — or Ceylon, as it was called until 1972. The focus is judicious, given that as some of the first non-settlers colonies to gain independence — respectively in 1947 and 1948 — these two countries were among the first to grapple with the challenges of adaptation.

What makes the comparison fascinating is Kumarasingham's demonstration of how two countries that had both experienced British rule could take, very soon after independence, diverging institutional paths. That such would be the case is not prima facie entirely surprising. After all, the flexibility of the Westminster system — with fluid characteristics such as a head of state that is mainly a ceremonial figurehead, a head of government typically appointed from the parliamentary majority, a cabinet that is the de facto executive, and an elected legislature and parliamentary opposition — has long been emphasised by scholars and praised by its political proponents. Yet Kumarasingham shows that this flexibility can have ambivalent results both for the quality of democracy and the efficiency of governance in post-colonial states. Nationalist Indian leaders harnessed Westminster's plasticity to adapt its substance selectively, with independent India's specific conditions and governance challenges in mind; whereas its seemingly smooth replication in Ceylon despite key societal and political differences with Britain led to a gradual degeneration of governance that went unnoticed at first, precisely because, outwardly, things had stayed the same.

The first decade of independence proved crucial in establishing a 'path dependency' that constrains India and Sri Lanka's constitutional and political system to this day. In the former, the constituent assembly resolutely jettisoned British regal and ceremonial paraphernalia — the Crown of course, but also Parliament's symbolic rituals, in short what Kumarasingham calls the 'British "dignified" ceremonial culture' [12]. Instead, India became a Republic with an elected, presidential head of state, forcing the Commonwealth's evolution. But while it rejected Westminster's more ostentatious trappings and inspired itself from other national constitutional systems to create a composite constitution, India still retained Westminster's 'efficient, "operational" culture' [12]. In stark contrast, Ceylon dreamed of itself as 'a little bit of England' [114]. The result was a constitution largely written by British lawyers that was the closest thing to British Westminster in all the Commonwealth — apart from being written. Sri Lankan leaders failed to realise, however, that for Westminster to work efficiently, unwritten conditions had to be met: an institutionalised party system; elite and mass awareness of the political workings of Westminster; and a reasonable degree of Cabinet government. Sri Lankan political life did not meet these conditions. Political parties were dominated by individual leaders that ruled through patronage, parliament and government were beset by factionalism, power was personalised, and independence had not been achieved through a mass movement. Instead, executive power came to be monopolised by a 'duopolitistic' partnership between Governor-General and Prime Minister [126]. This imbalance in the system was worsened by the failure of Sri Lankan leaders to realise that Westminster-style centralisation was ill-suited to soothe potential communal tensions between the Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils.

In fact, Kumarasingham argues that sweeping potential communalism under the rug — by removing separate electorates while keeping to a rigidly unitarian framework — only fuelled tensions that, prior to independence, had seemed manageable provided an adequate institutional system could be found. Had they looked across the Palk Strait, Sri Lankan leaders could have noticed that it was its reflective, motivated adaptation of the Westminster system — and specifically federalism — that enabled India to live up to the considerable challenge of its huge and diverse population. Where the Sri Lankan and Indian case-studies meet again is in their common experience of the tussle for power between the Head of State (the General-Governor and, in India after 1950, the President) and the Prime Minister. The comparison is one of the most interesting aspects of A Political Legacy. While Jawaharlal Nehru successfully fended off Rajendra Prasad's attempts to establish the President as advisor to the Cabinet, in Sri Lanka the partnership clearly turned to the advantage of the Governor-General by the mid-1950s.

Beyond its appeal to political scientists, A Political Legacy's insightful comparison of India and Ceylon makes a valuable contribution to the study of South Asia — a field where comparative analyses not only play second fiddle to national frameworks, but where if comparison takes place, it is generally between India and Pakistan. While some scholars such as Ayesha Jalal (1995) have argued that the supposedly polar opposites of authoritarian Pakistan and democratic India are not so estranged as it might seem, Kumarasingham shows that the similarities between the two Indian and Sri Lankan 'democracies' hide significant substantive differences. His analysis is at its strongest and most useful in the case of Sri Lanka, whose political system has not made the object of such extensive study as that of India. He also underscores the argument that, for India, the balance between a strong government and an accountable government is a constantly precarious one. One may also read in A Political Legacy a muted but valuable criticism of British involvement in Sri Lanka's adaptation process. The desire of Whitehall and British advisers to be seen as masters at the decolonisation game — achieving the transfer of power without a glitch and creating a 'model dominion' [120, cf. Mansergh 1958] — led to a 'British is best' attitude [124] ill-suited to the country's needs. Nor was it particularly democratic: the constitution was adopted through an Order in Council rather than through a political and popular debate.

Some points or comparisons could have been explored further. An analysis of how the Indian Constituent Assembly analysed, evaluated, and selected from other systems would have been valuable. The ways in which political leaders in each country observed constitutional developments on the other side would also have warranted more exploration — the only mention of this is that Ceylon's fondness for Britishness was partly due to its need to singularise itself from India. More importantly, the fascinating point that the Sri Lankan independence and constitution-making process failed to arouse popular emotion and thus to give birth to a national imagination is glossed over. Constitution-making is about nation-building in more ways than one (e.g., Bajpai 2010). In forsaking a public debate on the constitution, Sri Lanka arguably lost a key opportunity in 1948. Its case arguably hints that what an independence process gains in smoothness, peacefulness, and decorum, it may lose in nation-building potential. A final note. Kumarasingham is perhaps too quick to praise India's solution to communalism and regional aspirations — or to believe that India completely jettisoned British regalia. After all, who is the current resident of the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan palace in Delhi?*



Bajpai, Rochana. Debating Difference : Minority Rights and Liberal Democracy in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010).


Jalal, Ayesha. Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia : A Comparative and Historical Perspective (Cambridge: University Press, 1995).


Mansergh, Nicholas. Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs : Problems of Wartime Cooperation and Post-War Change, 1939-1952 (Oxford: University Press, 1958).


* The palatial building built by Lutyens to host the British Viceroy, now the official home of the Indian President.


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