The Indian republic completes 60 years today as a middling success: We have neither gone down the tube as neighbouring Pakistan has, nor have we met the lofty goals set at the dawn of freedom.
There is now a new surge of patriotic confidence running through the country, but much of it currently manifests itself in flag waving rather than introspection about the core ideas that have formed the backbone of our republic. These ideas are expressed in the Constitution, a remarkable document that was given to us by the remarkable leaders of the freedom movement, many of whom were accomplished lawyers who turned their backs on lucrative careers to follow their political destinies.
The Constitution was based on a bold gamble: grafting a liberal political system on a society that was scarred by age-old inequities such as the caste system and feudalism. This is perhaps one reason why many leaders had warned that a set of liberal rules would be inadequate unless they are backed by liberal and democratic behaviour in our national life.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
One of those who gave a prescient warning was Rajendra Prasad, president of the Constituent Assembly and the first president of the republic. “We have prepared a democratic constitution. But successful working of democratic institutions requires…willingness to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and accommodation. Many things which cannot be written in a constitution are done by conventions. Let me hope that we shall show these capacities and develop these conventions,” he said in his closing speech in the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949.
It is not too hard to see that while we have protected the process of democracy we have deeply violated its spirit. Political parties that swear by the democratic Constitution do not bother to hold internal elections and are intolerant to dissent. Citizens are touchy about all views that they disagree with and sometimes take recourse to violence to impose their will.
The gradual institutional decline that India has seen in recent decades can at least partly be ascribed to the failure of the political leadership and the citizens who elect them to evolve a truly liberal culture. The old inequities have at least partially been alleviated, but there are now new social developments that make a mockery of democratic values, from corporate power to mob violence.
The contradiction between our political ideals and social realities has taken a new form.
The challenges are the same that B.R. Ambedkar identified in a powerful and timeless speech in the Constituent Assembly, when he asked: “If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form but also in fact, what must we do?”
Ambedkar had offered three suggestions, none of which has yet sunk in.
One, we must stick to constitutional methods, abandoning both bloody revolution and non-violent civil disobedience. “These methods are nothing but the grammar of anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us,” said Ambedkar.
Two, we have to break free of the old Indian habit of hero worship, because while bhakti in religion “may be the road to the salvation of the soul, in politics it is “a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship”.
Three, we must make our political democracy a social democracy as well: “a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life”.
India is now in the midst of a long economic boom and on the cusp of rapidly growing global influence. But we need to avoid the trap that so many middle-income countries find themselves in: Growth prematurely tapers off and the political system is either captured or dominated by powerful special interests with the ability to undermine democracy.
That is why understanding the importance of the liberal Constitution is so important to all of us.
We have got this far through selecting a system of adult franchise, the rule of the law and individual rights.
Contemporary India has the potential to finally destroy the old belief that no nation can emerge out of poverty without the strong arm of dictatorship.
More importantly, a long boom and revitalized political system also gives citizens the chance to live amid economic and political security: the right atmosphere for initiative and enterprise.
India chose an open political system which was based on constitutional rule in 1950 and, though belatedly, an open economic system in 1991. We need to nurture both so that the republic flourishes over the next six decades.
Sixty years of the republic: success or failure? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org