A Political Legacy of the British Empire: Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka.

AuthorMcKinnon, Malcolm
PositionBook review

A POLITICAL LEGACY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE: Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka

Author: Harshan Kumarasingham

Published by: IB Tauris, London, 2012, 297pp, 59.50 [pounds sterling].


Harshan Kumarasingham acquired a deserved reputation among political scientists and students of political history in his Onward with Executive Power: Lessons from New Zealand 1947-57 (2010), which showed how radical in constitutional matters conservative New Zealand politicians could be--and seemingly the more loyal to the British constitution in rhetoric, as Sid Holland, the more radical in practice.

In this volume Kumarasingham turns his attention from one of the 'new Westminsters', as he styles the settler dominions, to two others; the parliamentary democracies established at independence in India (1947) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon, 1948: Kumarasingham defensibly uses Sri Lanka, the name formally adopted only in 1972, throughout the text). He thus sets out to explore the evolution of 'Westminster into 'Eastminster'. Pakistan and Burma, in neither of which the system had much of a post-independence life, are not treated.

Kurnarasingham tackles the topic from three angles: the extent of cultural transmission of the Westminster system; the extent of what he calls 'horizontal accountability'; and the significance of events--of path dependency--in shaping the adaptation of the system in the two countries. The 'event' in India is the advent of language-based states and in Sri Lanka the eruption of communalism. Both occurrences happened about a decade after independence, with that decade being the main focus of the study.

Each theme produces different findings. In respect of cultural inheritance, Kumarasingham demonstrates how marked was the contrast between, on the one hand, India's rejection of the 'dignified' (as per Bagehot) but adherence to the 'efficient' parts of the Westminster system and, on the other, Ceylon's proclivity for the dignified but distance from the efficient--the Union Jack continued to be flown, the role of the sovereign highlighted, but its rulers were a kind of whig oligarchy, not in any sense a parliamentary government.

In the matter of horizontal accountability, the divergence is not so marked but still revealing. In India Prime Minister Nehru became much more than a first among equals, even with the persistence of Cabinet government. He set robust limits to the powers of fellow...

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