(This is the second in what should be a three or four part series on the Indian Constitution. I am trying to understand how and why the Consti was written the way it was. I think I should be able to make good headway on this by reading certain chapters of Granville Austin’s book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation. This post is basically a summary of chapter 3 of that book.)
Democracy is not worth anything, if once in a blue moon individuals are brought together for one common purpose, merely electing X, Y, and Z to this assembly and thereafter disperse.
These were words uttered in the Constituent Assembly by the freedom fighter M.A. Ayyangar. Quite a few Indians today would think that these words describe Indian democracy today, perhaps justifiably so. But back in 1950, what more did the Constitution makers expect from Indian democracy ? What made them choose the kind of democracy that they did ?
The Constitution was meant to guide India through three revolutions: political, social and economic. The principle of authority in the Indian society was to change. Power would not be dictated by caste or gender, but by democratic elections at every level of government. The inequalities that Indians had to endure for millennia would end through the actions of a state committed to equality. The rights that the hard earned Constitution would bestow on the common man/woman would empower him/her to take charge of his/her own destiny. These were the lofty expectations of the document. And failure to reach these goals would result in catastrophy,
The choice for India is between rapid evolution and violent revolution because the Indian masses cannot and will not wait for a long time to obtain the satisfaction of their minimum needs.
said K. Santhanam, a prominent member of the Assembly and then editor of The Hindustan Times. The leaders of the freedom struggle had a few different ideas on how to reach these goals. Primarily, the contest seemed to be between Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a decentralized nation made up of ‘village republics’ and the Nehruvian idea of a strong centralized state elected directly by universal suffrage.
Mahatma Gandhi believed that the ‘essence of non-violence is decentralization’. Austin mentions,
Gandhi believed that the achievement of social justice as the common lot must proceed from a character reformation of each individual.
In his vision, India would consist of self-governing village communities. The primary political unit would be the directly elected village panchayat, which would have control over the aspects of government that have the most effect on people’s day to day lives such as roads, schools and health. Above the panchayats would be two layers of indirectly elected bodies, one at the state level and one at the Centre. These would handle broader issues such as irrigation, defence and communication. The drive for the revolution would thus come from the individual and community itself, not from a distant centralized state.
The contrasting and ultimately triumphant vision was that of a strong centralized state elected directly by adult suffrage. The experiences of the partition, the example of European and American democracies and the (limited) experience with representative government during the colonial occupation meant that most members of the Constituent Assembly favored the Nehruvian vision over the Gandhian one. Not just the Assembly members, but even intellectuals outside the Assembly favored the parliamentary vision. Austin points out,
Of a large number of articles published in the Indian Journal of Political Science from 1940 to 1945 concerning India’s future constitution, every one used the Euro-American constitutional tradition as its source of both principles and detailed suggestions.
India thus became the largest country in the world to adopt representative democracy. However, on account of the demands of various members, the leaders of the Assembly grudgingly included Article 40 in the Constitution, the article that laid the foundations of today’s Panchayati Raj.
Of all the provisions in the new Constitution, one stood out as the pillar for the social revolution in a new India: adult suffrage. Two quotes in Austin’s book point out the faith and hopes the Constitution makers had in adult suffrage,
The Assembly has adopted the principle of adult franchise with an abundant faith in the common man and the ultimate success of democratic rule.
Adult suffrage has social implications far beyond its political significance. Many social groups previously unaware of their strength and barely touched by the political changes that had taken place, suddenly realized that they were in a position to wield power.
One person. One vote. This was the fundamental device on which the future evolution of the Indian society was to depend.
A lot could be said about the choices made by the Constitution drafters. Clearly, the goals of social and economic revolution are far from being met in modern India. Also, administration in India is widely seen to be top heavy and overly centralized. However, it would be very unfair to blame the Assembly members for this. It is quite obvious that the final path chosen by them was based on deep thought and substantial debate. And as I pointed out earlier, the idea of the Assembly leaders throughout the drafting process was consensus, not coercion.
One must however express concern about the fact that the idea of peaceful democratic revolution has almost completely disappeared from the language of politics in India today. Instead one, has the mental secession of the middle classes (who often ignore the vote) and the violent rebellion of the Maoists (who reject the vote). In many states, social revolution via adult suffrage has been reduced to an electoral caste war. The words of the Constitution makers should make us pause and reflect on whats wrong with Indian democracy. These were highly educated men and women who had strived hard to earn our freedom. We should not let their optimism for the future get buried in the cynicism of the present.