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For the first time after the emergency of 1975, India once again stands united. But this time it is united against its own democratically elected government, protesting to get a strong anti-graft law passed.  During this crusade Mr. Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare has been a source of inspiration and unity, cutting across religious, cast and state lines. For once Indians are united to fight and root out corruption in India through the Jan Lokpal law, a well-legislated and strong law. Unfortunately the Parliament (India’s Supreme Legislative body) has been reluctant in passing this bill since 1968. Despite the agitation throughout India, the Parliamentarians have failed to understand the feelings and aspirations of the citizens, whom they represent, and took an oath to uphold and preserve their rights as enumerated in the Constitution. This deadlock and uncouth behavior of the politicians, especially the members of the United Progressive Alliance in general and the Indian National Congress in particular has raised concerns about the Indian democracy.

These concerns become all the more legitimate, especially in the backdrop of the mammoth amount of wide spread corruption by the ministers, politicians and bureaucracy alike. If the legislative body shys away from fulfilling its obligation of enacting effective laws, when the citizens and the situation demands, it is the time to do a health check for the democracy. The question that emerged from this embarrassing incident, where the citizens demands were ruthlessly turned down and their protest harshly dealt with by invoking police powers is: “whether India can be called a true democracy”?

The framers of the Indian constitution adopted a hybrid system that had stood the test of time in many countries. They merged two, sometimes conflicting, philosophical and political traditions: democracy and the republicanism. While democracy celebrates the ability and desire of ordinary people to rule themselves, and it favors political institutions, such as majority rule, to preserve its form. On the other hand, republicanism celebrates freedom and individual rights, but views too much government and too much popular involvement in politics and government as threats to its core values. Balancing the two has always been a very complex art, mastered by no constitutional expert so far. Yet, the models we see in existence in United States of America, Canada, Switzerland, Britain, Japan and many other countries have done a fairly good job. Similarly, the framers of our constitution labored hard and drafted the Constitution of India, 1950. Although they tried there best to incorporate as many provisions, defining the powers, putting checks and balances for various branches of the government, making it the world’s lengthiest constitution, they somehow fell short in understanding the prospective challenges and this unbalance over the years is what has started haunting the Indian democracy.

Unfortunately, the Indian Constitution, even though a well drafted document, could not withstand the strikes from power hungry and abusive minds of the politicians. This outcome was a result of not balancing the two traditions of “democracy” and “republicanism” by the three organs of the government in the later years. Before venturing immediately into the complexities that made the system fail, it would be prudent to deal with the two concepts, democracy and republicanism separately.

Republicanism as a concept was conceptualized in Rome where Aristotle’s writings on the politics of Greek-city states and Cicero and Cato’s writings on the Roman Republic stressed the primacy of the rule of law, the equality of citizens before law, and the illegitimacy of monarchs who acted outside the law. This was further strengthened by the English manifestation of these ideas in the Magna Carta, an agreement forced on King John by his nobles in 1215, stipulating a range of individual rights that the king could not intrude upon. In 1628, Charles-I signed the Petition of Rights, stipulating that the British monarch could not imprison political critics and that he or she was subject to law, not above it. This was further strengthened by allowing the British monarch to rule only with the consent of the Parliament and prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment among others in the English Bill of Rights, passed in 1689. The idea of inalienable individual rights were further merged with the writings of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) and John Locke (The Second Treatise on Government, 1690). Government was seen as an outcome of a social contract to protect the rights of citizens. This philosophy was then tangled with the writings of Montesquieu (see especially his Spirit of Laws, 1748), which was balanced by imposing an obligation on the government to represent the interests of the three main components if the society- the monarch (the one), the aristocracy (the few) and the people (the many)- in separate branches of the government: the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature. The culmination of these ideas is what we see in the Indian Constitution today.

It was all about individual rights and its protection, but the most important fear that lingered was how to protect the citizens from the tyranny of a few elite (aristocrats, military dictators, a king). The solution to this was threefold: to elect government leaders, limit their powers, and to put roadblocks in the path of the majority. We see this scheme in the Indian constitution through the establishment of a separate legislature, an executive and an independent judiciary. All the branches of the government have checks and balances but the legislature, over the years toppled this balance in their favor. The republicanism gave the idea of representative government (a government whose political leaders are elected by the people) which overshadowed the discussion of the drafting committee, as they at that time considered Indians incapable of making right decisions, and thus wanted that the public affairs be away from the masses, with the “better” parts of the society, with people who were experienced, capable, had social standing, substantial financial resources and were true leaders of the citizens. We did see this in working for the initial few years, and had some outstanding “leaders” (note: I am not using the term “politicians”), who governed the infant nation.

But the tussle for struggle and power started with the appointment of our first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, who undermined democracy and ousted Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel to gain power. This became the first example of the republicanism going too extreme. It was in 1946 when the Working Committee and Pradesh Committees of the Indian National Congress (INC) had to elect its president who would later become the first Prime Minister of Independent India. There were three candidates contesting the elections: Acharya Kripalani, Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. Sardar Patel was the clear favorite, with 12 out of 19 Pradesh Committees backing him. None backed Nehru. However, despite being the popular choices in the INC, first Kripalani and then Patel had to withdraw their nominations on Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence. It was Gandhi who believed in the elitist mindset and stated, “Jawaharlal cannot be replaced today whilst the charge is being taken from the British. He, a Harrow boy, a Cambridge graduate, and a barrister, is wanted to carry on the negotiations with the Englishmen.”

Although it was the republicanism thinking that once in office the elected representative should not be too responsive to public opinion and exercise rational independent judgment to govern the affairs, about how to best serve the public interest. Too much participation by the people could lead to majority tyranny. But India had to pay a heavy cost for this ideology and continues to pay even after over sixty years of independence. It was this over shadowing republicanism that shaped the Indian political institutions in the formative years, but were later abused to fulfill self interests.

This idea, even though extraordinary capable for governing was not sufficient enough to govern a country, but had to be balanced with another Greek philosophy of democracy, if the people were to truly be their masters. As Aristotle expressed his views about democracy in his work Politics, where he observed that democracy “is a government in the hands of men of low birth, no property, and vulgar employments,” was something that India as a nation wanted and this was equally backed by the masses. But, before we analyze the situation in Independent India it is important to understand that immediately after independence, it were the few educated elite who were responsible for shaping the destiny of a new born country and many of them could not digest Aristotle’s views about democracy. I do not condemn their stand, nor do I challenge their intentions, but leave it by saying that, maybe it was in the nation’s best interest to have a few “better” parts of society to accomplish public business.

Democracy as a principle can never be adopted in its entirety, as it presumes that ordinary people are capable of, and interested in governing themselves. This assumption then mandates all the citizens to meet together regularly to debate and decide the issue of the day, which so far has only been seen in the fifth-century Athens. As direct participatory democracy is only possible in small communities but is not practical as Thomas Jefferson stated, “although ideal, such government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population.” The solution to this was a REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY.

It is this act of ‘tight rope walking’ between republicanism and representative democracy that today governs us. But, unfortunately the representative democracy, overshadowed by too much republicanism has miserably failed in our nation, which now undermines the very principles of governance. Over the years the legislature has encroached upon the domains of executive and the judiciary, from their appointments to the working. It is the quest of power, with lack of checks and balances that has led to this chaos and utter failure of governance in the world’s biggest democracy.

A democracy has to be tested on the touchstones of “popular sovereignty,” “political equality,” and “political liberty.” A nation where these flourish is said to be a healthy representative democracy. Popular Sovereignty is established when the people are the ultimate source of government authority and what the government does is determined by what the people want. Popular Sovereignty has to satisfy five conditions to flourish, which are:

  • Government leaders are elected: This misconception was broken as early as 1946, even before independence, when the majority opinion in the support of Sardar Patel was undermined to nominate Nehru to become the president of the Indian National Congress. Despite, attaining our freedom on August 15, 1947, we have been unable to get free from the colonial mindset that has now come to undermine our “right to vote”. Right to vote is a pre-requisite to democracy, but unfortunately we as citizens of India do not have a fundamental right to vote! Surprised, don’t be, at least this is what the Supreme Court of India states and the issue is sub judice before the Court. To have a in depth understanding about our right to vote see generally “Tracing a meaningful right to vote.
  • People have access to credible political information: In a democracy it is the information that plays a vital role in ensuring that the democracy is healthy, but unfortunately not until 2001 the citizens had the right to seek information about their candidates. Moreover when the judiciary ordered the disclosure of information from candidates contesting elections, it was blocked by amending the Representation of People’s Act by the Parliament, which was subsequently held unconstitutional. This issue of voters right to information is still sub judice before the Supreme Court.
  • Elections are free and fair: Elections were generally free and fair until the criminalization of politics took place and votes started being purchased. It was Indira Gandhi through her political heir Sanjay Gandhi induced bigger evils of electoral malpractice like money and muscle power to win elections, making the situation bad to worse.  Electoral malpractice is rampant in India and the legislature has been reluctant in making laws addressing the concerns. The Judiciary has tried its best to tackle the situation, but it is the legislative domain to make effective laws to address the situation.
  • Government policies reflect the wishes of the people: This misconception in the Indian Democracy was highlighted see a few days back when despite of nation wide agitation for passing a strong and effective anti-graft bill was going on the parliament was reluctant in taking the issue up. This is not the first time that such an incident has happened, even in the past parliament was off and on undermined the judicial orders and gone against the wishes of the people. Be it during the emergency of 1970s or be it when the criminal antecedents were asked to be disclosed from the contesting candidates.
  • People participate in the political process: It is not only the system to blame, but, we as citizens over the years have stopped participating in the political process through abstaining from voting. It may have many reasons behind abstaining, but being a part of a democracy entails a few obligations, among which the ‘right to vote’ being the foremost.

The second fundamental principle of democracy is political equality, the idea that each person carries the same weight in voting and other political decision-making. But without having a fundamental right to vote this cannot be achieved. The citizens now eagerly await the decision of the apex court to let them know if they have a right to vote.

The last and important element is that of political liberty, which refers to basic political freedoms essential to the formation and expression of majority opinion and its translation into policy. These essential liberties include the freedoms of speech, of conscience, of religion, of the press, of assembly and association, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, without which political liberty cannot prevail. The political liberty has been undermined, not once but many times by the government and in effect it has undermined the basic tenant of our nation: Democracy. Be it the emergency of 1976, the recent arrest of Anna Hazare to the use of force on the peaceful assembly of Baba Ramdev and many other such incidents; political liberty is non-existent in India.

Over arched republicanism had made representative democracy into secondary indirect democracy, where the representatives not only make laws but also chose members of the upper house (Rajya Sabha), the head of the Executive, the President, State Governors and influence in the appointment of members of higher Judiciary. Allowing the legislature to have too much influence on appointing the checking officers, i.e. the governors and the president, further degrades the balancing act between the republicanism and democracy. The appointments of governors are political to serve the interests of the ruling political party and so is the appointment of the president. It was utter disgrace when the national media reported that the current president was granted the post in lieu of her services in the kitchen of the former Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

The over arching republicanism was inducted in the constitution to ensure that the majority rule or the mob rule does not take an infant nation on a path of self-destruction, and because of this fear the most important democratic feature, “referendum” was not incorporated in the constitution. Although the constitutions that were referred by the drafting committee, especially the Swiss, has elaborate referendum provisions, but at the cost of republicanism democracy was sacrificed.

Given the above scenario, at least theoretically India has failed as a democracy. But, we as citizens should not give up yet. With the new unity for the anti-corruption law and promises by Anna Hazare to continue the struggle for electoral reforms, if we remain stead fast we can once again walk comfortably on the tight rope between the republicanism and democracy as intended by the framers of our constitution. It is also a time to educate the citizenry about the constitution and make radical constitutional reforms even if it demands writing a new constitution. The tight rope walking has to be mastered, and mastered as early as possible. The differences of caste, religion, state, location for once should be left aside and the Indian outlook should guide the coming reforms. The anti-corruption crusade has been termed as the second freedom struggle, let it be so, and lets also give ourselves constitutional reforms and balance out the philosophies of republicanism and democracy so that India can truly be termed as a Democratic Republic of India.