Reclaiming constitutional democracy

The Great Indian Manthan is held together by a common concern about India’s democratic backsliding and a need to return to the constitutional vision.

Published : Dec 14, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Members of the civil society group Bahutva Karnataka release report cards on the performance of the Karnataka government ahead of the Assembly election in Bengaluru on April 12.

Members of the civil society group Bahutva Karnataka release report cards on the performance of the Karnataka government ahead of the Assembly election in Bengaluru on April 12. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

This unique volume brings together essays by leading political leaders, bureaucrats, policymakers, and legislators who make a case for a constitutional democracy, which has now gradually been replaced by an “electoral autocracy”. It laments the loss of balance between the “ethic of moral conviction” and the “ethic of responsibility” that the sociologist Max Weber had called for in his essay “Politics as a vocation”. Whereas constitutional democracies provided for such a balance between order and change, the “regressive modernism” that has come to replace it has undermined the constitutional vision and converted popular will into a majoritarian aggression and righteous lawlessness.

The Great Indian Manthan: State, Statecraft and the Republic
Edited by Pushparaj Deshpande and Gurdeep Singh Sappal
Vintage Books
Price: Rs.699
Pages: 256

The book features contributions by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, former chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Sonia Gandhi, former Vice President Hamid Ansari, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur, former Governor of Goa Margaret Alva, and former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, among others. The volume is held together by a common concern about the democratic backsliding witnessed in “New India” and a renewed faith in the need to return to the constitutional vision.

The introduction points to the limitations in the centrist politics of the Congress that pulled 271 million people out of poverty even as “sub-caste Dalits and sub-caste Other Backward Classes felt that both India’s traditional social welfare paradigm as well as the new schemes of empowerment continued to exclude them from the promise of the nation” (page xxviii).

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That said, most of the essays focus on mapping the difference between the inclusive centrism of the UPA and the exclusivist majoritarianism of the current regime. How much of the current trends had their roots in the limitations of centrist liberalism and why was there a change in the mood of the people to tilt, sanction, and remain indifferent to the vagaries and excesses of majoritarianism?

The epilogue by Gurdeep Singh Sappal, currently adviser to the Congress president, does pitch for a firm resolve to overcome the current impasse and argues that “as and when a different political group forms a government, it will face unprecedented problems because the governance and development agenda for the nation could be subverted from within. Therefore, reclaiming and repurposing the state is of the utmost importance” (page 223). Intriguingly, he adds that “we should not expect any quarter or nicety from the RSS-BJP, even when they go out of government” (ibid).

Populist authoritarianism is unique in disregarding the difference between political leaders and the people who stand to oppose the regime. This is also the source of its legitimacy as it advances, in a perverted way, a Marxist-like posturing against a “ruling class”, while positioning the current rulers, by default, as the underdogs driven by the “ethic of moral conviction”.

The need to search for alternatives

This book gives us a clear insight into the urgency felt by those in the opposition to redraw ideological boundaries that merged after the emergence of the “neoliberal consensus” in the 1990s and the “cultural nationalist” consensus in 2002. The RSS-BJP has currently occupied the entirety of the horizon, and the question is, Can a plea for return to constitutional centrism challenge the current impasse? It is the crisis of imagination in the opposition that seems to strengthen the brazenness of the current regime. This book signals the realisation that the search for alternatives marks the current moment.

The book offers suggestions on how to make policy effective, bring back accountability, and restore the autonomy of institutions. These have to be conjoined with popular mobilisation and efforts to bring institutions back into the popular imagination. The essays do not go that far, though; perhaps a chapter on the Bharat Jodo Yatra and its success would have filled the gap at least partially. The point is to think afresh and not slide back into the sureties of centrism of a bygone era and the old binaries of ideological programmes and pragmatic electoral strategies. This endemic gap has been assiduously mobilised by the Narendra Modi regime.

In his essay, Mallikarjun Kharge reminds readers of Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach of being the first among equals to encourage differences of opinion and collective responsibility in the Cabinet and how he took care not to centralise power with the Prime Minister’s Office. In stark contrast stands the approach of the current regime where centralisation has not only made decision-making arbitrary but also evaded accountability. This model has replicated itself at all levels of governance and institutional functioning, impacting efficiency and encouraging mediocrity.

National Advisory Council

Sonia Gandhi’s essay in the volume focusses on the creation and working of the National Advisory Council (NAC) under the UPA. She offers details of the time schedules they followed and how Manmohan Singh was briefed about the suggestions of the council that led to forward-looking legislation such as the Food Security Act, the Right to Information Act, and the MGNREGA. She concludes by noting how the welfare vision has shrunk under the NDA.

In retrospect, while the NAC was undoubtedly a progressive body that influenced policy direction, what such an arrangement resulted in was a policy direction that did not involve or impress Congress workers and leaders; they did not either understand or own up the welfarism. This unholy divide between ideology/policy and elections that are fought on pragmatic considerations is also why the Congress is struggling to politically challenge the Right.

“In “New India”, economic sovereignty has been surrendered; regional gaurav (pride) and garima (dignity) have been mobilised; state patronage and subsistence welfare coexist with a high-decibel pitch for Atmanirbhar Bharat; and crass corporatisation and crony/monopoly capitalism cohabit with slogans of “vocal for local”. ”

At a time when the Congress needs an ideological battle, its leaders, barring a few honourable exceptions, are ill-prepared. In my own conversations with Congress leaders, I found it amusing that many of them had reservations about the left-of-centre shift that Rahul Gandhi forged. The Congress continues to win elections by default rather than its own convictions. It may be instructive for the party to evaluate critically the NAC experiment even as it continues with its welfarist frame.

The chapters on Parliament, the judiciary, the Election Commission, Governors, and the undermining of federalism tell the familiar story of how institutions have been undermined by the current regime. Representative institutions have been scuttled by blocking deliberations, the use of money, and by engineering defections.

Federalism has lost its edge, with a uniform model of development eroding the autonomy of States. The sustained agrarian crisis has only made the situation worse. During the Nehruvian period, the national parties represented the interests of the bourgeoisie, the regional parties stood for agrarian capital. This balance resulted in the “relative autonomy” of the State and statecraft. But with liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation, this autonomy got eroded, and there seems to be little political or electoral impact when the autonomy of States is undermined in the name of “cooperative federalism”.

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The flattening of social policy and the economic model of development has restored the ideas of autonomy and difference only in the residual cultural registers. In “New India”, economic sovereignty has been surrendered; regional gaurav (pride) and garima (dignity) have been mobilised; state patronage and subsistence welfare coexist with a high-decibel pitch for Atmanirbhar Bharatand crass corporatisation and crony/monopoly capitalism cohabit with slogans of “vocal for local”. Will merely reiterating the need for constitutional norms and institutional autonomy redeem the structural anomaly created through a libertarian fantasy?

The book concludes with a chapter on civil society and how it has been intimidated into submission under the current regime. India’s constitutional vision allowed a certain autonomy for protest-politics in civil society; it is this space that is asserting and bailing out mainstream political parties in their struggle to face the excesses of the state. In Karnataka, over 100 autonomous social organisations working at the grassroots came together under the slogan “Eddelu Karnataka” (Wake up Karnataka), which generated a butterfly effect to create a new consensus against majoritarianism. Something similar is happening in Telangana, with 50 social organisations coming together to resist the RSS-BJP combine. Political parties need to initiate the shift from a party to a movement.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra was a movement beyond electoral calculations, which raised social questions of inclusion and dignity, love and compassion. While this shift on the ground signifies the actualisation of the constitutional vision, it needs to remain more durable in order to resonate with concerns raised in the book. That, in effect, would mean closing the gap between social movements and political parties, between social policy and electoral machinations.

Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His most recent book is Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’ (Routledge, 2023).

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