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Bibek Debroy is right, India needs a new Constitution

Bibek Debroy does not have to set the terms of debate. We can broaden it to include a range of vital issues that would make the Constitution a more life-giving entity.
Last Updated : 21 August 2023, 09:12 IST
Last Updated : 21 August 2023, 09:12 IST

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Indian politics today is at a desperate stage. It is ready to settle for empty spectacles, as a substitute for real events. It lacks ideas and issues, and when a Manipur catches the imagination, we are quick to erase it. The frivolous is easier to control and sustain than the poignant. The controversy over Bibek Debroy illustrates this.

Debroy is one of the few current intellectuals who offers both food for thought and entertainment. One does not have to agree with him: a quarrel with him is an interesting interlude in intellectual life today. Debroy also is a dedicated student of the Mahabharat, and sometimes, his sense of myth is more interesting than his economics. He is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.

Recently he reminded us that the Constitution like any human instrument, needs to be reworked. The consternation that followed was like a bad play. Quick on his reflexes, Jairam Ramesh — the Congress spokesman, made Debroy the pretext, rather than the text for controversy. He implied that Debroy was incidental. The deeper concern was what would happen if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were to revise the Constitution. This does send a shiver down the spine as a prescient scenario. A majoritarian regime can be a potential threat to the Constitution.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president Mayawati also took the constitutional bull by the horns. She warned that Debroy had overstepped his role, and was turning the Constitution into an anti-peoples document. This act of political sacrilege was also an insult to the memory of B R Ambedkar. For Mayawati, the Constitution was one of the few creative movements that could sustain the creativity of the nation. Mayawati accuses Debroy of overstepping his role. She sees him as a backstage creature, not a public figure.

For the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister the Constitution was an immaculate document “a guarantee of egalitarianism, and humanitarianism for the poor”. She reads Debroy’s effort as an attempt to turn the Constitution into an anti-people and pro-capitalist document. She feels Debroy should be reprimanded for overstepping his formal clerical roles.

Debroy is an interesting gadfly. He demands an overhauling of the Constitution. His statement could be narrowly read as a violation of protocol, but his argument is relevant, interesting, and inviting. It is a genuine invitation to a public debate. It could be improved upon. The Constitution must go beyond linear time. Nature must be treated as a lifeworld, rather than a resource or a commodity. It must rework the idea of citizenship, so people do not wallow in vulnerability. Debroy does not make such points. Yet, his arguments are also pertinent. He points out that the life span of a Constitution is 17 years. It needs a reworking. This is a real argument, which pious politicians do not want to confront. They merely want to punish Debroy for being an embarrassment.

Debroy has raised a critical issue. In fact, given the crisis in bureaucracy and politics, one should encourage experts and bureaucrats to be more critical. Debroy adds a zest to intellectual life, while being a technical embarrassment to the regime, but he is right in saying that the people need a new Constitution. This one statement of his says more for wellbeing than all his economic writings. It offers a different sense of debate as an invitation to the political imagination. Debroy does not have to set the terms of debate. We can broaden it to include a whole range of vital issues that would make the Constitution a more life-giving entity.

One must thank him for flagging the issue, for making sure that public life is not always a dull debate, between a Rahul Gandhi, a Sharad Pawar, and a Narendra Modi. There is an enthusiasm about his trigger-happy prose that one must be grateful for. The debate now must be a people’s debate embodying plurality, rather than a majoritarian controversy.

We need to think from the fundamentals. To insult bureaucrats for not being bureaucratic is to fault them on correctness. Truth then becomes the casualty here. Now we must rework the debate, not as an end to Ambedkar, but a celebration of his intellectual continuity. One must move from violations of protocol to issues of a more substantive kind.

Lastly, one needs to reiterate faith in the Constitution and the people. The Constitution is a sacrament, not a formal contract. Its sense of the sacred lies in the norms it upholds and the vision it stands for. It must be reinvented from fundamentals, as another working peoples’ constitution, whose ideas might surprise even Debroy and his masters.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist and professor, OP Jindal Global University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 21 August 2023, 09:12 IST

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