Barun S. Mitra, Director of Liberty Institute, an independent think tank based in New Delhi

The socialist intent of the Preamble has been extended by law to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, (RP Act) through an amendment in 1988. Section 29 A (5) of the Act now states that the application for registration “shall be accompanied by a copy of the memorandum or rules and regulations of the association…shall bear…allegiance to the Constitution of India…to the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy, …uphold the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India."

Rajiv Gandhi’s government introduced this amendment when the ruling Congress party enjoyed three-fourths majority in Parliament. The amendment was carried without any dissenting vote.

But at the root of this change, was the infamous 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, enacted by the Congress government under then prime minister Indira Gandhi during the days of national emergency, in 1976. The Bill had proposed nearly 60 amendments—one of these amended the Preamble to the Constitution to term India a “sovereign, secular, socialist democratic republic."

When the Janata Party formed government after the Congress lost the 1977 election, it sought to undo a lot of the draconian provisions of the 42nd Amendment, but retained the section that pertained to socialism and secularism in the Preamble. While Indira Gandhi wanted to lean towards socialist policies and diluted protection of property rights in order to pursue a more active intervention in the private sector, Morarji Desai’s government actually deleted the right to property as a fundamental right from the Constitution in 1978. Clearly, there was an almost unanimous opinion in Indian politics that socialism was the preferred path for the country.

However, B.R. Ambedkar, the man who helped draft the Constitution, specifically gave his reason for the non-inclusion of the word “socialism" when it was sought to be inserted into the Preamble by another member during the deliberations. Ambedkar did not want the Constitution to tie down future generations. He said in the Assembly on 15 November, 1948 : “(H)ow the society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether… It is perfectly possible today, for the majority people to hold that the socialist organization of society is better than the capitalist... But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form...which might be better than the socialist organization of today or of tomorrow."

In 1950, when the Constitution was adopted, the Preamble read: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens…"

Six decades after Ambedkar’s caution, three decades after the amendment which added socialism in the Preamble and two decades after the change in the election law that made it mandatory for all political organizations in the country to affirm to the cause of socialism, there is now an opportunity to seriously reconsider this whole issue. The Supreme Court recently issued a notice to the government, in response to a public interest petition questioning the validity of the affirmation of socialism. The court wanted to know the practical and legal implications of having a socialist intent in the Preamble, as reflected in the RP Act.

The Swatantra Party in Maharashtra has been trying to challenge this provision in the high court for more than a decade, with little success. If all political parties are to have the same ideology, we would hardly need multiple parties. If we don’t have parties, there would be no need for contested elections. If we don’t have free and fair elections, we won’t have representative democracy. If we don’t have democracy…does this path sound familiar?

What is at stake is not whether one believes in the tenets of socialism or secularism. At stake is the democratic and political process, which includes campaigning and convincing the people of any particular political ideology; and the freedom of the people to choose from the competing policies.

Democracy is not just about majority rule, it is also about the freedom enjoyed by those who hold a minority opinion today to win over their fellow citizens. Without that freedom, democracy cannot have any substance. It is no coincidence that countries which had incorporated socialism as the only political ideology of the state inevitably degenerated into one-party dictatorship. This can’t be the goal of the most vibrant multiparty democracy in the world—India.

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