Constitutional Morality: Whither the Republic?

Constitutional Morality: Whither the Republic?

Democratic governance requires debate & discussion. Instead, we're seeing institutional decline and arbitrary decision-making. The farmers' protest shows exactly that

A vendor sells Indian national flags at a roadside on the eve of the country's Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 25, 2021. Credit: AFP Photo

As we celebrate the 72nd Republic Day today, democracies across the world are at risk, with the rise of populist and authoritarian regimes. India has been no exception under the current political regime. The rise of authoritarian regimes and its implications for democratic decline is a global phenomenon. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), in its annual Democracy Report 2018, “Democracy for All?” noted that “autocratisation is now manifesting in a number of large countries, including Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Aspects of democracy that make elections truly meaningful are in decline. Media autonomy, freedom of expression and alternative sources of information, and the rule of law have undergone the greatest declines among democracy metrics in recent years.”

This reflects the lapses in the commitment of the political leaders to the values of democratic tradition, including in India. The current government has come under heavy criticism from within and outside the country for its political intrusion into the autonomous functioning of institutions of governance through its patronage and identity politics.

During the tenure of the Narendra Modi government since 2014-20, a democratic value that has not got attention in practice is consensus decision-making through deliberation, discussion and dissent. It is observed that only 25% of Bills were referred to Parliamentary Committees for scrutiny, which is far lower than that done during the 14th (60%) and 15th (71%) Lok Sabha. The ongoing farmers’ protests on the three farm laws are one of the recent examples that show the denial of democratic practices.

One of the performance indicators of democracy is the nature of decision-making and inclusiveness in governance. The inevitability of political contestation and pressures in a democracy is well-known, and the stability of government is critical. However, it can’t be misunderstood as necessitating arbitrariness in the decision-making process, as the current political regime does. The political stability that evolves out of debate and discussion provides much-needed social legitimacy, which the one acquired through monopoly of power and authority does not.

Issues of nationalism and terrorism have been evoked during electoral campaigns, leaving aside the social and economic problems of the country. This pattern has given the necessary political dividends to the ruling party, but it must be noted that democracy has become a casualty of this electoral process itself. The role played by the media and money makes a mockery of democracy. The use of ‘behavioural politics,’ rather than the ‘performative’ or ‘transformative’ politics, has become a prominent poll strategy.

The argument of morality in politics needs to be understood from the changing political culture since the 1952 elections. In the formative years, the people of India exercised franchise with great zeal and enthusiasm to be part of the nation’s development. The 2014 general election had seen the same hope in giving a strong leader for nation-building. However, what changed from 1952 to 2014 is the nature of the governing leadership and their political value system. Be it majority government or a coalition, what matters is whether the top leadership shows commitment to the constitutional values of democracy or not. The role of the top leadership matters a lot in protecting and preserving the democratic legitimacy of Parliament as the country witnessed in the formative stages of the Indian republic.

The question is, how to view this institutional decline, be it of Parliament, the Election Commission of India, the Universities, and so on. Can we attribute this to individual or institutional deficits or to a general democratic decline as a whole? The role of the political regime in steering institutional decline, especially in influencing the functioning of constitutional institutions, is the heart of the problem.

The interplay between the different organs of the State is a complex phenomenon. Delineating the dynamics behind this complexity is essential to understanding the institutional interaction in a functional democracy. The failure of the institutions of governance to abide by constitutional provisions, most importantly in fulfilling citizens' aspirations, can be correlated with the decline of democracy. However, all these are consequences of both functionality decline and institutional autonomy of democratic institutions. Apart from these institutional and political economy factors, another critical yet unattended factor is the issue of committed leadership or individuals in governance.

In the context of the shrinking space for democratic voices, there is an urgent necessity to strengthen the citizen’s stake in a democracy through civil society organisations to put pressure on governments to uphold constitutional governance and to maintain the rule of law. It’s high time all of us as citizens showed the power of “We, the people of India…”, who gave ourselves this Constitution, by actively participating in governance rather than leaving it in the hands of the political elites. The transition from representative to participative democracy is the need of the hour.

The ongoing farmers' protest demonstrates such active citizenship as a fight for the issues of rights, equality and justice. This has to be perceived and understood from a democratic citizenship point of view by combining the elements of human values into political theory, thereby enabling a way to construct a project of democratisation. In order to sustain our democracy, it is pertinent here to remind ourselves of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s great caution, which he expressed in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly: “(what) we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution.” Individual citizen’s assertion is the basis of all reforms, be those political or social. It could be one of the ways through which various processes underlying the un-armed revolution can be pushed further for peaceful human advancement.

(The writer is a PhD Fellow & Guest Faculty at ISEC, Bengaluru, and University Law College, Bangalore University, respectively)