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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

All Well for Now — And How

Saturday 26 December 2015, by Badri Raina

When I spoke of the historical inevitability of the Constitution of India some months ago (see “Republic Resilient”), in contradistinction to inevitability of another kind that we have been taught to expect—namely, the demise of Capitalism at the hands of its own progeny—I could have had little idea that events would rush with such emphasis to prove me right. The crushing assertion of the sensible, secular vote in the Bihar elections—which must go down as watershed in the history of Independent India—and, especially, the refusal of the Dalit voter to tow the polarising line of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Paswan, Manjhi, Kushwaha troika notwithstanding, was not only to scurry the ruling RSS-led establishment to call upon Parliament to celebrate the one hundred and twentyfifth birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar—Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly (1946-1949), but to call the two-day session a “Commitment to Constitution” one. This from a political force that had at the time of Constitution-making suggested that there was no need for a Constitution since the Manusmriti would do fine; and that had, during the tenure of the amiable Vajpayee regime (1998-2004), set up a “Constitution Review Committee” with a barely-concealed view to supplant the parliamentary system of democracy with a presidential one, but happily failed to do so. Indeed, if one were to include the charming hosannas sung by the Prime Minsiter to the Constitution of India as “our only holy book”, a benign chuckle might be excused. This indeed has been the historical inevitability at work, like it or not.

What then is it about the Constitution of India that compels every consequential political force in the country who participate, willy nilly, in the electoral process, be it from the Left or the Right of the spectrum, to succumb to its virtues and wiles? If you listened to the uplifting debate in the Rajya Sabha, the best answer came from that cheeky member from the All India Trinamul Congress, Derek O’Brien: speaking on the issue, he cited what a Pakistani friend of his said to him—the member was asked by that friend which one of the world’s books over five millennia he thought to be the best, and proceded to give the answer “Hindustan ka Dastoor”, meaning the Constitution of India, for being the “most inclusive, humane, egalitarian document ever written”. High praise now mightily endorsed by a ruling political force whose ideological predilections have been—and continue to be—anti-thetical to much that is within the pages of India’s Constitution.

Yet, it would be a fatal error to think that this magnificent document is some sort of a scriptural wizard. Its genius draws upon the collective will of India’s diverse, plural, accommodating, intermeshed, hard-working, peace-loving ordinary citizens, and on their repeated declaration that they wish its centralities, its tryst and covenant with them, to be diligently and honestly pursued. It is truly, therefore, a day of great relief and satisfaction that a Parliament under the aegis of an unlikely regime has made such a demonstrative affirmation of constitutional values, to the extent in the Rajya Sabha of adopting, unanimously, a resolution to that effect—one that makes mention, significantly, of both Nehru and secularism. Bitter pill for some, but one that they have swallowed.

Two cheers, therefore, for Indian democracy. The third must come only if and when that all-important caveat that the far-seeing Ambedkar had administered to the Constituent Assembly the last iime that he addressed it, namely, the obtaining of social and economic equality pursuant to political freedom and universal franchise. In his ringing words, the “contra-diction” entered upon with the making of the egalitarian Constitution—that politically adult Indians would comprise one man, one vote, one value, but be limited socially and economically to one man, one vote only—a contradiction that could either be resolved in the decades to come with a dedicated commitment to the enunciations of the “Objectives Resolution”, the Preamble that faithfully incorporated that Resol-ution, and the core pronouncements of the Karachi and Avadi Congress sessions before Independence, or be allowed to intensify to a point where the political edifice itself would be threatened with collapse. It would be wishful and camplacent to think that such a danger is behind us. Especially since the “Reforms” of 1991 and thereafter, the objective conditions for such intensification have multiplied manifold, as wealth has come to be centralised horrendously among a handful of people and the indigent come to be made more indigent in mind-boggling numbers. If India’s GDP continues to be privatised at the rate that we have seen, and fewer and fewer rupees are allocated to public requirements, the magic of the Constitution may unravel before our celebrations are over.

Thankfully, there is evidence to the effect that the mother of all parties who piloted the Constitution but succumbed to neo-liberal enticements from 1991-2009 is rethiniking that course in favour of one more loyal to the enunciations of the Constitution. It will not be a surprise if such a turn around draws back to it the support of masses it has been losing both to its hitherto pro-reformist inclinations and its distance from the hoi polloi. There is hope in the fact that its younger leaderships seem now less hidebound and more articulate on behalf of secular and egalitarian values. Is it to be hoped that the major Left parties will in the days to come learn to make more realistic evaluations of what they can do on their exclusive own, and of where the qualitatively fatal challenges to the Republican future of India lie.

In the meanwhile, in celebrating the “Commitment to the Constitution”, tndia’s Prime Minister has made a pronouncement that many among his political base may not have liked. It will be a matter of great interest to see how he handles the not inconsiderable contradiction between his oath of office and the thrust of the political ideology within which he has grown and come of age. There can, however, be little doubt that the drubbing in Bihar ought to have chastened and subdued the disdainful swagger with which he has tended to treat both the Opposition and the people of India.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.