On January 26, India celebrated Republic Day, which commemorates the adoption of its constitution in 1950. This constitution, still in force, established a parliamentary model with a figurehead president. Republic Day is always a major celebration in India, featuring invited heads of state such as Barack Obama (and this year François Hollande), because it commemorates the end of India’s status as a dominion under the rule of the British monarch. Canada and Australia still are ruled by the Queen of England today, though they are independent nations; this was the case in India between 1947 and 1950. Neighboring Pakistan only became a republic in 1956, so thus Queen Elizabeth II was, for a time, the Queen of Pakistan. Imagine that!
History took the path it did, but could India have instead retained a monarchic form of government, albeit under a native monarch? At the time of independence, there were 565 princely states in India, some of whom had high rank and ruled extensive lands, while others ruled a mere few villages. India could have chosen a constitutional monarch from an illustrious family, most probably from descendants of the Mughals or the Marathas, the last two major Indian dynasties that spanned most of the subcontinent and were viewed as legitimate by princely families and the population alike.
Alternatively, India could have set up a system similar to that which was later set up by two other former British colonies with native princes: Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. Malaysia contains nine hereditary states, the rulers of which elect the king, Yang di-Pertuan Agong, of Malaysia from among themselves for a five-year term. Likewise, the president of the United Arab Emirates is elected from among one of the seven hereditary emirs of the constituent emirates.
There is no doubt that democracy is uniquely suited to India relative to other non-Western societies. Its people are argumentative and it has many loci of power whose leaders can use the democratic system to keep on rotating in and out of office, like a giant game of musical chairs. Ancient India had oligarchic republics. Its monarchies were never absolute in the Chinese or Russian sense — Indian rulers had to uphold dharma, or righteousness; otherwise they could be legitimately removed. Indian villages always governed themselves through local councils. Yet permeating this was always a monarchical form of government that was, in a sense, part of the sacred order of things that also enabled representative councils at the village level made up of representatives of all castes.
In the Hindu-Buddhist traditions as well as the Perso-Islamic traditions of South Asia, monarchy is the only legitimate form of government. Following the Persian traditions, the Mughals argued that “royalty is a light emanating from god, and a ray from the sun called farr-i-izidi (the divine light).” This farr is a special grace that can be bestowed on a good ruler that then spreads prosperity and hope throughout the land; alternatively, it can be withdrawn from an unjust ruler. The Hindu-Buddhist traditions also come down strongly on the side of monarchy, much of which is inspired by the story of Rama in the Ramayana, which portrays him and his reign as the ideal form of political organization. The reverence shown to the Thai and Bhutanese monarchies as well as the Hindu right’s dream of a new Rama Rajya (reign of Rama) are all inspired by these ideals. The Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, also explains the origin and theory of kingship:
Yudhishthira said, ‘Whence arose the word Rajan (King)… Possessed of hands and arms and neck like others, having understanding and senses like those of others, subject like others to the same kinds of joy and grief… for what reason does one man, the king, govern the rest of the world numbering many men possessed of great intelligence and bravery?’
Bhishma said, ‘…because men sought to obtain objects, which they did not possess, another passion called lust (of acquisition) got hold of them. When they became subject to lust, another passion, named anger, soon soiled them. Once subject to wrath, they lost all consideration of what should be done and what should not… Then Vishnu, and the deities of Indra, and the Rishis, and the Regents of the world, and the Brahmanas, assembled together for crowning Prithu as the king of the world… that high-souled king caused all creatures to regard righteousness as the foremost of all things; and because he gratified all the people, therefore, was he called Rajan (king)… Such a person becomes endued with greatness and is really a portion of Vishnu on earth. He becomes possessed of great intelligence and obtains superiority over others. Established by the gods, no one transcends him. It is for this reason that everybody acts in obedience to one, and it is for this that the world cannot command him.’
India’s 565 princely states were the link to its past and traditions and also, due to their close connections with Western powers, the channel of modern but disciplined ideas into the country. These ideas were unlike the socialist idealism that permeated much of the leadership of the Indian National Congress, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who was descended, ironically, from a high-ranking Mughal official: his grandfather was the last police chief of Mughal-ruled Delhi.
India as a monarchy, would have of course, been a parliamentary monarchy with an empowered prime minister and a system not too dissimilar to India’s today. This would still have had some benefits. An Indian monarch would have signaled continuation to retain some sort of monarchical form of government, especially given that most of is population was not conversant with the norms of democracy and was thus easily swayed into the personality cults and populism of the Nehru-Gandhi family. A figurehead dynasty would have been better suited to India, not only because of tradition, but because it would have united people professing different religions and speaking various languages.
Additionally, the human need to worship celebrity could have been directed toward a celebrity without actual power. This would keep, as in the United Kingdom, the actual parliamentarians and heads of government more humble, since they themselves are not the object of praise and worship. This would have been important in India, where politicians often behave as though they are gods. Such a system would have also potentially led to a different type of Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament. The upper house often has no great purpose, other than abetting obstructionism, and is stacked with politicians from all major Indian parties. The upper house of an Indian parliamentary monarchy could have been stacked with its 565 ruling families, curbing populism and caste-based politics. These parliamentarians could have used their knowledge and wealth to help India. Many Indian politicians are corrupt because they are not secure in their positions and use their time in government to embezzle as much wealth as possible. Hereditary lawmakers, secure in their positions, are less likely to be corrupt as they already have wealth and position. A Rajya Sabha filled with princes but without too much power would have been a good counterpart to the excesses of India’s Lok Sabha (Lower House) throughout its history.
Though this is mostly wishful thinking now, the counter-factual scenario of India becoming a native monarchy in 1950 is fascinating. It’s not impossible to imagine that it would have had some beneficial impact on India’s post-independence economic and political development.