How the Constitution played a pivotal role in the election

Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi holds a copy of the Constitution, at a press conference on 4 June.  (AP)
Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi holds a copy of the Constitution, at a press conference on 4 June. (AP)


Pundits didn’t think it could have the power of ‘Garibi hatao’ or ‘Ab ki baar 400 paar’. Yet somehow the Constitution became the dark horse of the election

Trigonometry often felt mind-boggling. The differences between kharif crops and rabi crops in geography class felt dreary. And the laundry list of later Mughals and British governor-generals and viceroys could get quite confusing. But no subject felt as deathly dull in school as civics.

At least history had winners and losers. Geography came with mountains and rivers even if I confused the Narmada with the Tapti. But civics just came with duties, obligations, rights and amendments, all very worthy and all very dull. It was like the Isabgol dietary fibre of school subjects—essential for the system to function smoothly but utterly bland.

That is why it’s been such a surprise to see the Constitution play a cameo role, and a pivotal one at that, in the 2024 general election. In school I would pray to be saved from civics class. But this election “Save the Constitution" or “Samvidhaan bachao" became quite the rallying cry.

Pundits didn’t think it could have the power of “Garibi hatao". Or match up to the machismo of “Ab ki baar 400 paar". Yet somehow the Constitution became the dark horse of the election.

Though the BJP won the election, it came up well shy of its 400 paar boast. When the victorious National Democratic Alliance met to formally choose their leader, Narendra Modi first paid obeisance to the Constitution, bowing before it and then touching the book to his forehead. Meanwhile, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi carried a pocket-sized version around to make his point. The Constitution is no longer the doughty book that weighed down my civics class. It’s become a piece of performance art.

In fact literally so. This year Hand for Handmade, a network of artists and craft patrons, chose 75 artisans from across the country to create 1x1m pieces, 75 tapestries that paid tribute to the Preamble to the Constitution in its 75th year. The 2024 edition of the Mahatma Gandhi University Arts Festival in Kottayam called itself “We, the People of India", the opening phrase of the Preamble. Right before the pran pratistha or consecration ceremony at the Ram Temple in Ayodhya got underway in January, many celebrities, especially from the Malayalam film industry, shared an image of the Preamble on their social media handles without any commentary.

The Preamble had become not just a pledge that we learnt by rote in school, but also a tool of protest. But it was an amulet as well, a talisman to protect oneself against charges of being branded an anti-national seditious troublemaker.

Long before this election, the women protesting against the government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh in 2020 marked Republic Day by reading the Preamble of the Constitution at midnight. At that time, writer Kapil Komireddi told me, “Their song is the national anthem. Their standard is the Indian flag. Their holy book is the Indian Constitution. That’s an extraordinary sight for anyone to behold, especially anyone who loves India."

At a time when dissent can easily be labelled “anti-national", this became an act of what some called “constitutional patriotism".

There were precedents. In December 2017, scores of non-profit organisations, many of them Dalit and anti-caste, came together for the Elgar Parishad in Pune to speak up against casteism and communalism. When violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon after that, the police alleged it had been instigated and provoked by “urban Naxalites" and Maoists who had organised the Elgar Parishad. In fact, two retired judges, both Maratha, were the main organisers. One of the two, Justice P.B. Sawant said, “Our main theme was to save the Constitution and the nation." The Bhima Koregaon case is still ongoing, but Alpa Shah writes in the 2024 book The Incarcerations—Bhima Koregaon and the Search for Democracy in India, the allegedly “anti-national" event actually ended with an activist leading the audience in a pledge to protect the Constitution and its values.

Several years ago, tribals in Jharkhand erected monoliths as part of the Pathalgadi movement to assert their rights. Once those monoliths were used to commemorate ancestors of the Munda tribe. Though the government cried foul, villagers inscribed lines from the Constitution and details from the Act meant to protect tribal areas from exploitation on the stone slabs to remind the government of what the Constitution had promised them.

Of course more than the Constitution, it’s the Preamble that’s captured the imagination. In 2020, the Kerala government proposed making it mandatory reading during morning assembly in schools. The Centre for Law & Policy Research says its Preamble on a T-shirt line is back in stock. One suspects that’s not just because the Preamble is profound but because the Constitution itself is just too voluminous for ordinary people to digest. The legal scholar Upendra Baxi called it an “unparalleled exercise in verbosity". Now politicians might be touching it to their forehead, calling it their holy book but most of us, activists, politicians or just aam aadmis in T-shirts, have never actually read this book.

In fact, despite its hallowed status now, especially after the elections, the Constitution had plenty of detractors when it was initially drafted. In the 2023 book The Colonial Constitution, Arghya Sengupta recounts how the Gandhian Kengal Hanumanthaiah, future chief minister of Mysore state, complained that instead of hearing the notes of the veena or the sitar, the Constitution resembled the “music of an English band".

Lately there’s been a buzz that the Constitution itself needed to be “decolonised" and the BJP had to hastily distance itself from its then Uttara Kannada MP Anantkumar Hegde when he claimed in March that the BJP needed to win 400 seats so it could “rewrite" the Constitution. Hegde was denied a ticket, but the Constitution was suddenly very much part of the electoral campaign. Some wanted to change it. Some wanted to protect it. But either way it became something that belonged to the people.

In a way the Prime Minister was acknowledging that reality when he tweeted after the election results came out, “It is our Constitution, due to which a person like me, born in a poor and backward family, got the opportunity to serve the nation. It is our Constitution, due to which today crores of countrymen are getting hope, strength, and a dignified life."

He was in effect admitting that the so-called Constitution that was supposedly the bequest of the elite belonged to the little people as well. That was the contention of Yale University assistant professor Rohit De in his 2018 book A People’s Constitution. There he pointed out that very ordinary people, some whom might well be looked down upon by the bhadralok, have used the Constitution to reshape their lives.

A Parsi man challenged the Prohibition laws in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1950 saying he should be permitted to “exercise his right to possess and consume foreign liquor" and the Bombay Prohibition Act restricted his freedom of speech and action and violated his right to equal treatment. A sex worker in Allahabad went to court in 1958 saying the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act violated her fundamental right to practise her profession. In 1957, Muslim butchers filed petitions against cow slaughter laws. Though the Supreme Court upheld most of the cow slaughter laws, De writes he was amazed to find that more than 3,000 petitioners, all of them Muslim, 90% from the Qureshi community, had signed or put their thumb print on the petition. “Thus the Hanif Qureshi case was possibly one of the earliest class-action cases in post independent India," writes De. Whether the cases succeeded or not is not the issue. That the cases happened at all is a marker of engagement.

In his book, De writes that even though India did not have an organisation like the American Civil Liberties Union, ordinary lawyers and ordinary people made the courtroom the “space of the unexpected" where “instead of citizens encountering the state, the state suddenly encounters its citizens."

In a way Elections 2024 were a continuation of that encounter.

And we shouldn’t have been so surprised because all those cases of Muslim butchers, tribals in Jharkhand, mothers in Shaheen Bagh, the sex workers and dancers of Allahabad served as a preamble to that encounter.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr

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