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The republic’s paradox

India celebrates both democracy and elections. But is the latter dominating the former today?

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
January 26, 2017 12:00:46 am
republic day, national voters day, elections, elections 2017, election commission, indian elections, democracy, democratic elections, election democracy, voter republic day, indian express news, india news, indian express column
India’s great achievement has been, for the most part, claiming and reclaiming that political equality every election.

Republic Day comes the day after National Voters’ Day. The link between the two is conceptually and historically appropriate. Easily accepting universal suffrage was a morally daring act of the nationalist movement. That simple assertion of political equality marked the creation of a new India and a decisive rupture with everything that came before.

India’s great achievement has been, for the most part, claiming and reclaiming that political equality every election. The sheer scale, exuberance and dignity of Indian elections can still make the most cynical observers giddy. The Election Commission has emerged as the vital institution that safeguards this cornerstone of modern Indian identity. But as Ornit Shani’s wonderful work on the creation of the first voters’ list pointed out, the commitment required to institutionalise political equality, ensure that each voter was recognised, transformed the character of the Indian state. The mundane act of preparing lists is not just a bureaucratic exercise; it is the fundamental act through which each one of us is given political standing.

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So far, both the state and the citizens have zealously safeguarded, enthusiastically participated in and exuberantly celebrated this one liturgy that unites Indians: Elections. These are often a safeguard against tyranny, but not always. In fact, as we are discovering, they act as that safeguard largely when they throw up somewhat divided power. A concentration of power legitimised by an election can under some circumstances be quite insidious for liberty.

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But many citizens feel there is a paradox at the heart of our political identities. It is best expressed in a joke I once heard at a sociology congress. One speaker said, in most countries, elections exist for democracy; in India, democracy exists for elections. It was one of those enigmatically cute remarks whose meaning would probably implode if you thought about it long enough. At one level, it was pointing to our admirable passion for elections. But there were two more serious issues. The first is whether we regard elections as the floor for democracy or the ceiling? Is the meaning of democracy and our celebration of it largely going to be exhausted by the importance of elections? Or are elections also an instrument of a meaning of democracy that goes beyond elections?

The second issue underlying the remark was, in some senses, even more interesting: Do elections also have the ability to colonise and subordinate almost all other issues in society? The great virtue of elections is that they have politicised all aspects of Indian society, dissolved authority in all kinds of ways. But this very virtue can also be a handicap for every issue is then framed in terms of their implications for elections — the very exuberance of our political identity also crowds out space for other virtues.

It is questions like these, on the link between electoral democracy and other values, that occasion the need to reflect on the connection between Voters’ Day and Republic Day; between elections and constitutional values. This is particularly so for a number of reasons. First, constitutional values are precarious. Our democracy will probably ensure there will be no frontal assault on the core of the Constitution.

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But the use of state power to bleed the promise of the Constitution by a thousand cuts has always been a possibility in democracies. Many other democratic values, freedom of expression, protection of civil liberties, security for political activity, regard for due process and non-arbitrariness in state action, have to be built into the civic structures of the state and its administration. The link between elections and these protections is very tenuous in many states.

Our founders, particularly Ambedkar, were absolutely clear that entering into a relationship with fellow citizens through a constitution was a very special type of relationship. It was not a relationship founded on kinship or ties of blood; it was based on shared values, not a shared identity. Patriotism required allegiance to those values, not to forced shows of a unified will. It involved a political style that eschewed both revolution and satyagraha, the idea that any one person or group’s conscience could unilaterally dispose of public matters.

They had the vision of a new modality of human relationships. The right to vote created a new political creature. But the paradigm of this political creature would be an individual who seriously conducts their affairs under the imprimatur of public institutions. They respond to each other as fellow citizens, honouring both the individuality and the arguments of their compatriots. They would censure government without fear, but would have respect for the forms of the Constitution as the framework that makes collective deliberation and action possible.

Of course this ideal of a constitutional politics has been threatened from many sources. It has been threatened whenever community sentiment is evoked, without space for evaluating underlying moral claims. Our Constitution recognised identities in two ways; people should be free to imagine their identities in whichever way they choose; they should not be targetted simply for being who they are. And where identities are an axis of subordination, the background conditions that produce that subordination will need to be addressed.

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But if community sentiment becomes the basis of legislation or administration, it negates the promise of modern constitutionalism.

Constitutional politics is threatened when electoral politics becomes too corrupt, or when the state, an extended arm of plutocracy.

Constitutional politics has been threatened by an impatience with institutions, a contempt for forms. It is threatened when it is subordinate to single leaders, or when politics is reduced to mere manipulation and performance.

So here is the abiding question for our republic: Will the exuberance and promise of the right promised by Voters’ Day lead to the promise of a deep constitutionalism that Republic Day invites us to celebrate? This is a good moment to ask that question. Major elections are around the corner. Globally, the prospects of liberal constitutionalism are looking bleaker than they have in recent memory. If the success of India’s democracy could be translated into a little more conviction about its own constitutional values, perhaps the star of democracy can rise again.

This may seem like a distant, unworkable dream. But then, so were the elections, which still manage to excite us.

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The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’

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