Brainstorm Think

If We Can Keep It

This is the first post on the Brainstorm subject, ‘The Future of the Indian Republic.’ You can read Amit Varma’s introductory post here.

The Republic of India is a child of high idealism. If its parent was the unprecedented politics of a non-violent freedom struggle, it was delivered into this world through the midwifery of an extraordinary group of people that made up the Constituent Assembly. These men and women were from privileged backgrounds, mostly unrepresentative of the people in whose name they were crafting a constitution. Yet the product of their labour was not merely a set of rules that laid out the relationships between the government and the governed, but an action plan for social revolution.

The Indian republic was not to be an ordinary state. It was to be a vehicle that would transform the structure of Indian society: from a stratified, unequal, “dreary desert sand of dead habit” to an egalitarian one that affirmed liberty, equality and fraternity of all citizens. On 26th January 1950, the Enlightenment—a historical process of intellectual development that evolved in Western Europe and the United States over centuries—was injected into the veins of Indian society in the form of a written statute. We are still dealing with the shock of that moment.

The successes of the Indian constitution are too widely celebrated to bear repeating here. Suffice it to say that for the first time in history a substantial part of the subcontinent—despite Partition—united under one political regime. Citizens of the republic were equals and enjoyed fundamental rights that the state could abridge but not take away entirely. A complicated, imperfect and contested framework of compromises and entitlements was put in place to manage the religious, ethnic, linguistic, economic and a myriad of other social diversities that constituted the people of India.

All this has held for close to seven decades, so much that we take the Indian Republic’s survival for granted. Yet our confidence might be as contingent as the scepticism of many in the 1940s and ‘50s who didn’t think that the grand political project called India would last beyond a few years. The survival of the Indian Republic must not be taken for granted, and indeed, cannot be taken for granted. It is not the violence from without and within that present the greatest risks to the future of our republic. What we should be more concerned with are the side effects of the high idealism of our Constitution, for they might one day overwhelm the intended good.

An insufficient legitimacy

The first side effect of the Constitution is a contest of values, between those enshrined in law and those hallowed by tradition. When it came into force, almost overnight in the 1950s, communities were told that many of their traditions, customs and practices were not merely wrong but downright illegal. Without doubt, the parachuting of Enlightenment values was a remarkably swift way to prevent child marriages, end untouchability, address atrocious caste discrimination, raise the status of women to match that of men and so on. Yet the old values didn’t go entirely go away: very often they lingered on, enjoying an underground legitimacy. Then, with the passing of the generation that gave us the constitution they began to resurface, reflecting the mores of the people and their leaders. That is why, for instance, we still hear of brazen casteist lynchings that are carried out with the explicit sanction of khap panchayats in some places, and the tacit instigation of communities elsewhere. And that is why communal rioters seldom receive due punishment.

A result of the contestation of constitutional and traditional values is that for many people, the relatively new law of the land is dubious because it does not square with age-old tradition and practice. This doubt is fungible. Once you consider the constitution as less than legitimate, you are likely to treat its laws with a degree of contempt. So people often break the law out of a sense of their own righteousness. Law-abiding citizens, on the other hand, get increasingly cynical as they see law-breakers of all stripes—from the casual to the scandalous—not only go scot-free but become successful. One reason why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s great cash transfusion of 2016 was popular is because many saw it as delivering comeuppance to people who had habitually gotten away with illegality.

If more citizens begin to think that it doesn’t make sense to be law abiding, the republic will begin to hollow from the inside. Democracy will appoint leaders, officials and judges who are representative of the people and who share their values and beliefs. You have only to consider statements by ministers and judges on the matter of freedom of speech, the most fundamental of our rights, to see how tenuous constitutional norms are. Andre Beteille has argued that India swings between populism and constitutionalism. Who can say that one powerful swing towards populism will not be more or less permanent?

Arresting the drift towards lawlessness and populism requires us to strengthen the legitimacy of constitutional norms in society. That, in turn, calls for arresting the drift towards lawlessness and populism. We must break this vicious cycle before it breaks the republic.

States of unfairness

The overriding concern of the Constitution’s makers to unify the country and its people under one state gives us the second side effect: iniquitous federalism. The inequity is at two levels. One, while states are politically and fiscally empowered to carry out their charter, they lack adequate constitutional bases to weigh in on national policy where it concerns them. Two, local governments are both designated and treated as the third tier, at the mercy of state governments that do not want to devolve real power.

From its inception, although called the Council of States, the Rajya Sabha was more like the House of Lords in the unitary British system, than the Senate in the federal setup of the United States of America. Despite its name, it acted more as a check on the Lok Sabha than to really represent the interests of the states. Population decides how many Rajya Sabha seats a state gets, just like the Lok Sabha, giving the most populous states more power in national politics.

This is unlike the United States, where Rhode Island and Wyoming—the smallest states by size and population—have the same number of seats in the Senate as large populous states as Texas and California. There states are political equals. In India, Manipur and Goa have one Rajya Sabha seat each, Uttar Pradesh has 31. Indian states are not political equals.

More recent changes—to accommodate party grandees who have no chance to win Lok Sabha elections or have lost them—have removed the necessity for a Rajya Sabha member to be a resident of the state he or she represents. There are already stirrings of protest against ‘outsiders’ being sent to the Rajya Sabha by party leaderships against the wishes of the people of the states they are supposed to represent.

It is not surprising then that people of small North Eastern states or the more developed Southern states feel overwhelmed by the Hindi-speaking northern states. The palpable lack of clout in federal politics creates room for linguistic chauvinism, political violence and separatism. Demographic trends over the next few decades—with the North outstripping the fertility rates in the rest of the country—will shift more seats and power to already powerful states. At some point the relatively disempowered populations will express themselves politically.

The Indian republic must not only arrest the growing political inequality among states, but reverse the process. The Rajya Sabha must be reformed. We might also need new constitutional institutions that better accommodate the interests of the states in the making of national policy.

Meanwhile cities complain that while they generate much of the government’s tax revenues, state governments treat them like step-children, vis-a-vis the rest of the state. The inadequacy of the 74th amendment that provides for urban local bodies has been recognised by its architects. Projections vary, but it is clear that over the next couple of decades, the old Gandhian adage will have to change: India will live in its cities. It would be both undemocratic and politically fraught to persist with a state of affairs where Indian cities cannot govern themselves.

A colonial steel frame

The third side effect is more of a lapse on the part of constituent assembly and early governments of independent India. They did not match their political idealism with a reconstitution of the state administration.

Administrators enjoy primacy over citizens. The hierarchical, colonial structure of the administration remains intact and has become highly resistant to change. The civil service behaves as an overlord because that’s what it was during the British raj. Our police force is structured and functions in the way it did before Independence. India’s armed forces are still largely organised along Lord Ismay’s plan. The Indian republic has been unable to carry out administrative, police and military reforms befitting an independent, liberal democratic republic.

India is entering the Information Age of the twenty-first century with an administrative structure designed for the Industrial Age of the nineteenth. No wonder that it is increasingly falling short of the expectations of its citizens. Unless the Indian republic radically transforms its administrative structure—from top-down hierarchies to flat networks—it will fail in delivering even basic public services, leave alone lofty ones like social revolution. People are already able to mobilise faster—for good or bad—than the state machinery. As Indians get even more connected, the speed at which citizens make demands of their governments will far outpace the ability to deliver. This administrative failing can lead people to believe that it is the Indian republic that has failed. Administrative reforms are thus more urgent and more important than our public discourse suggests.

Dharmo rakshati rakshitah

Thus far, the beneficial effects of the Constitution have overpowered the side effects: unity, liberty, rule of law and pluralism enable hundreds of millions of Indians to pursue well-being, prosperity and happiness. Imperfect and incomplete as this is, it is no mean achievement. However, further progress along this path will be limited by side effects which are getting stronger by the day.

This calls for big changes. If we want to keep the republic, we have to make them.

About the author

Nitin Pai

Nitin Pai is co-founder & director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. His policy research covers defence economics and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Pai is a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore), Nanyang Technological University and National College (Bangalore).