A vote for constitutional values

Modi government’s actions belittling constitutional values opened up space for opposition parties to revive the struggle to protect the Constitution.

Published : Jun 23, 2024 12:15 IST - 6 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying his respects to the Constitution of India as he attends the NDA Parliamentary Party meeting at Samvidhan Sadan, in New Delhi, on June 7.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying his respects to the Constitution of India as he attends the NDA Parliamentary Party meeting at Samvidhan Sadan, in New Delhi, on June 7. | Photo Credit: PTI 

Narendra Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister for a third consecutive time came with a caveat to realign the majoritarian politics of his government with constitutional values. The failure of the Hindutva polity to reach majority on its own is expected to stall the majoritarian agenda and give space for constitutional politics. While the BJP’s rabble-rousing politics benefits a small section of the elite, in the long run it deprives the majority of the people of equality, employment, freedom of speech, and other significant rights, and large numbers of ordinary people are taken for granted because of the arrogance of majoritarian electoral success. Communal polarisation in the form of hate speech and violence against Muslims, Dalits, and other vulnerable sections has surged sharply over past 10 years. This is in conflict with the fundamental constitutional values envisaged by the founding fathers and mothers of the Constitution. The present result has put a strong restraint on the majoritarian agenda that tried to override the democratic aspects of parliamentary politics.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher, gave us the concept of “general will”, which influenced the French Revolution and modern parliamentary politics. It acts as a check against majoritarian imposition by the democratic participation of all sections of society in the decision-making process. The concept of general will is also the founding principle of Indian constitutional values. According to Rousseau, general will is not merely a collection of all individual wills but an underlying moral principle that emphasises social justice, egalitarianism, and liberty irrespective of an individual’s social and political standing in society. Thus, decisions made in politics are not based merely on numbers but on how far the majority takes into consideration the concerns of the minorities while making the final decision. The final decision should reflect the general will principle and address the concerns of all sections of the population.

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When majoritarian decisions are imposed over the minorities, it defies the concept of general will. The way in which the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, were passed, the latter by disabling Article 370, shows that the consent of the people who were affected by the Acts did not matter to the government. Even the resistance shown to the farmers protesting the three farm laws stems from a majoritarian agenda.

The Constitution reflects the principle of general will through the word “fraternity”, which underpins “general will”. The word fraternity was not in the original objective resolution introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1946. It was a unique contribution by B.R. Ambedkar and acts as the foundation for the other values of equality, justice, and liberty. Ambedkar derived it from the Buddhist concept of “Maitreyi”, which widens the meaning of fraternity beyond more than just brotherhood/sisterhood and equates it with the concept of democracy. Without respecting and treating people equally, based on the concept of fraternity, no other constitutional values can be realised. Thus, Ambedkar locates the concept of fraternity as the moral foundation of the Indian Constitution. Fraternal values accommodate the concerns of diverse sections of society in the decision-making process. This constitutional value is still very relevant and has emancipatory potential, giving hope to minorities, Dalits, women, and other vulnerable populations.

But in the last 10 years we have seen explicit hatred towards minorities, including towards those who are ideologically opposed, within institutional structures and in the public sphere. Violence, murder, hate speeches, and institutional targeting of opposition parties have defied constitutional values. In this election, we saw that wherever such constitutional deviations peaked, there was a resisting response from the electorate. Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, the core forts of Hindutva politics, responded astutely and restrained the free march of the regime. Thus, it was not just economic and political reasons but the politics based on religious polarisation that made minorities and Dalits reassert their voting power and reclaim the constitutional values.

Hate crimes on the rise

India Hate Lab (IHL), a Washington-based research group, has documented around 668 instances of hate speech in 2023 that targeted Muslims. Almost 75 per cent of these took place in BJP-ruled States, with Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh topping the list. Uttar Pradesh also has recorded the highest number of atrocities against Dalits, according to the National Crimes Record Bureau’s report of 2022. According to Human Rights Watch’s report of 2019, between 2015 and 2018 around 44 people were killed, including 36 Muslims, in the name of cow protection. The IHL report also highlighted that the Hamas attack on Israel was used as a pretext to fuel fear and animosity towards Indian Muslims, where between October and December 2023, 41 hate speeches were delivered (32 in BJP-ruled States) to target and project Muslims as inherently violent.

The reservation policy based on the constitutional ideology of positive liberalism, meant to uplift the vulnerable and help them participate in the developmental path of the nation, has long been an eyesore for the BJP. In the Champakam Dorairajan case in 1951, when the court overturned the Communal Government Order issued by the Madras Presidency in 1927, the Union government came with the first amendment to the Constitution that, along with other issues, introduced a special provision for the advancement of backward classes under Article 15. The Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha in its election manifesto in 1951 promised to overturn this amendment if it came to power. It was Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, who started the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor to the BJP, which was launched in 1980.

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The BJP withdrew its support to the V.P. Singh-led National Front coalition government when it implemented the Mandal Commission report giving 27 per cent reservation to OBCs. Even though the party does not explicitly state its opposition to reservation, a move that can impact its SC/ST and OBC voter base, the way it has implemented the Economically Weaker Sections reservation, which favours the privileged castes and dilutes the constitutional essence of reservation, shows its hidden animosity to reservation. Even the Women’s Reservation Act was linked to delimitation to delay its implementation.

The Indian Constitution, which protects the political identity of citizenship inclusively, irrespective of cultural identity, has always been a problem for the exclusive cultural nationalist. Even though Indian secularism does not explicitly prohibit the government from participating in religious events, the constitutional value system prescribes equal treatment of all religions without discrimination. The participation of the Prime Minister in a particular religious event and the glorification of Hinduism, accompanied with the targeting of minorities during the election campaign, go against the secular ethos of the constitutional framework. This cultural nationalist politics has concealed the widening economic disparities, unemployment, poverty, and inflation.

The government’s actions belittling constitutional values opened up space for opposition parties to revive the struggle to protect the Constitution. The Congress played a major role in bringing the discussion around the Constitution from the sphere of academics and elite conferences to roads and rallies. The minorities, Dalits, Adivasis, and other backward classes, who still depend on the Constitution for their livelihood, peace, security, and growth, have strengthened the struggle with their vote. The BJP’s numbers are drastically reduced in SC/ST constituencies. Even though the election did not overturn the regime, it has conveyed a strong message to all political parties that constitutional values are still relevant in the lives of the majority of this country’s citizens. 

Venkatanarayanan S is an academician and views expressed are his personal.

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