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Does the Indian Constitution Need to be Amended?

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Does the Indian Constitution Need to be Amended?

While the intent of some of those calling for a new constitution is questionable, India needs to brainstorm why institutions like Parliament and the judiciary have failed to stem the rapid erosion of democracy.

Does the Indian Constitution Need to be Amended?

Preamble to the Constitution of India.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Indian Constitution is considered to be one of the finest constitutional documents in the world, and yet it has undergone 105 amendments to date.

Despite so many amendments, any hint of a review provokes outrage, particularly from liberals, who fear this will lead to the diminishing of India’s democracy and the dismantling of its parliamentary system. Such outrage is particularly intense when the issue of amendment is raised by the Hindutva camp.

In this context, Bibek Debroy, chairman of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Economic Advisory Council, stirred the hornet’s nest when he suggested in his column last week that India needs a new constitution. Realizing the damage it would do politically when elections are just a few months away, the Modi government swiftly distanced itself from his assertion.

Debroy’s assertion was rubbished by government critics as well. A few smelled a conspiracy and drew attention to the long-standing objections of Hindutva organizations to the present constitution. When the constitution was adopted on January 26, 1950, Hindutva organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindu Maha Sabha had alleged that the constitution did not have an Indian soul as it had borrowed Western concepts verbatim.

I am no fan of Debroy. Neither do I subscribe to the ideology he professes. But I do feel that the time has come for a critical assessment of the constitution and if needed, amendments should be made.

Baba Saheb Bheem Rao Ambedkar, independent India’s first law minister, who is considered to be the architect of the constitution, was aware of the criticism of the newly drafted constitution, and tried to dispel some misgivings. But his most profound assessment was that “India must strive to be a social democracy and not merely a political democracy.” By social democracy, he meant “a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.”

A rationalist, Ambedkar was not blinded by faith of any kind. By 1953 he realized the practical inadequacies of the constitution. I won’t say he was disillusioned, but he definitely thought that the constitution could have been better. His was an intellectual pursuit; he was not in favor of discarding the constitution but was searching for perfection. He was aware of the imperfections and infirmities of Indian society, which had adopted the ultra-modern constitution. He was like a genius who, after having created a masterpiece, finds too many faults in his creation.

But this cannot be said about persons occupying high constitutional positions today like Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar and former Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, who are raising doubts about the basic structure of the constitution and questioning its very existence. There is valid reason to doubt their intent.

Serious brainstorming is required to understand why Indian democracy has been circumvented in the last few years in the way that it has been. What has to be understood is why and how a powerful leader with a cult following turns the functioning of democracy into a facade at the expense of common citizens.

How do institutions that at one point looked so robust suddenly cave in under the pressure of the executive? How did the civil society, which took great pride in its secular credentials, and rich tradition of pluralism and diversity, become majoritarian and spew venom against other communities? How did the civil society go from safeguarding the rights of citizens, implementing the rule of law strictly, and penalizing hate-filled individuals and groups, to becoming an accomplice in abuses?

The framers of the Indian Constitution created a parliamentary system of governance with checks and balances. They adopted the concept of separation of powers with an understanding and experience that one individual should not become so powerful that they should assume that they are above the law and that other institutions are there to serve their interest.

After 73 years of experience in parliamentary democracy, one can say with confidence that whenever any leader starts controlling their party absolutely and attains an absolute majority in the lower house, they come to believe they are above the constitution and Parliament. The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an exception, but the same thing cannot be said about Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

Who after Nehru? Who after Indira? Who after Modi? These are absurd debates that reflect the poverty of thinking among the political class and society at large. The fact is that a country of India’s diversity has flourished more, economically and otherwise, and its vital organs were much healthier when it was ruled by a large coalition, representing every section of the society, not burdened by one leader, and one party.

India successfully unleashed the most robust economic reforms that changed the course of the country for the better when it was led by a coalition government and a supposedly weak prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao. The period between 1991 to 2014 saw spectacular economic growth, and this was the time when no single party had an absolute majority in the Parliament. Therefore, the idea that only a powerful prime minister can lead a country like India is a myth created to fulfill the ambitions of one individual.

If Manmohan Singh, who like Narsimha Rao was perceived to be a weak prime minister, could clinch an epoch-changing nuclear deal, why do we need so-called powerful prime ministers?

In my opinion, the time has come to seriously think if the institution of the prime minister needs to be restrained by more robust constitutional fetters. They should not be allowed to assume that they are supreme and that no one can question them. The framers of the constitution believed that the prime minister should be one among equals.

There is a need to debate a reform of the party system. This is important because all the parties, except for a few, have become family-operated with no internal democracy. To stop a leader from becoming all-powerful, why should it not be made mandatory that a person cannot hold the office of prime minister for more than two terms and each term should not be more than four years?

The system of majority rule also needs to be investigated. Since 2014, the central cabinet and the cabinets in the states ruled by the BJP have witnessed negligible presence of minority communities. Why should it not be amended that every social group should mandatorily be duly represented in the cabinet, irrespective of the party ruling the state or at the center?

In the last few decades, the role of investigative agencies has emerged as a matter of concern. Are they independent or have become subservient to the interest of the ruling party? If democracy is to survive in the country, then these agencies have to be freed from the clutches of the government. Either they should be made accountable directly to the Parliament or the judiciary or some other mechanism can be evolved so that the executive dare not touch them or misuse them. Any officer found to be serving the interests of a political party, leader, individual, group, or government should be penalized. Moreover, after retirement, officers should not be allowed to join any political party or accept any government post for at least five years. The same should be the rule for judges as well.

The time has come to abolish the post of governors. Governors have become the tool through which the central government throttles state governments. The tenure of the state government should be fixed. Constitutional provisions like Article 356, which have been misused by successive central governments, should be abolished. The term of the government can be shortened by a year, but its early termination is anti-democratic in nature. In a parliamentary democracy, governments are chosen by the people and only people have a sovereign right to remove them.

And finally, a way should be found to make India a social democracy. Ambedkar had said that “without social democracy, India could become a dictatorship.”

We can take great pride that, in a country riddled with deep-rooted inequalities due to the caste system, the Indian Constitution guaranteed equality to all its citizens. But in the absence of fraternity, the equality debate has become a farce. The dominance of upper castes in every sphere of life is problematic and is against the basic ethos of representative democracy. In the long run, this a bigger threat to democracy, and it must be addressed as a priority.

No doubt in the last 73 years, India has surpassed many hurdles and despite many predictions at the time of independence that India would not survive without the British, it has been an inspiring story for all democratic countries the world over. But then, like every institution and individual, it is also not perfect. There is always scope for improvement as realities keep changing.

I don’t subscribe to Deroy’s argument for a new constitution because I doubt his intent, but surely deep thought is in order if a few amendments are needed to counter the challenges of the day.