In March 1942, the distinguished British lawyer – later Secretary of the Exchequer – Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to India, to negotiate Indian support during World War II. Cripps offered Dominion status for the Indian territories after the war, only to find that Indian freedom fighters would settle for no less than full independence. The sentiment was summed up by no less than Gandhi:
“I ask for [Britain] to… leave India to God, and if that be too much, then leave her to anarchy – but for God’s sake, leave immediately!”
That the British left is historical fact; what they left India to, however, remains to be seen. Seven decades later, one is tempted to say the choice was moot: that India is home to both God and anarchy, a chaotic mix of belief and dysfunction, making it a unique social experiment on an unprecedented scale. On Republic Day, we celebrate the farsighted effort of the Constituent Assembly to institute some method to the madness of democratic politics in as centripetal a state as India.
It is one of history’s great ironies that Churchill, of all people, described democracy as “the worst system of government, except all the others”.(Given the limited nature of Athens’ democracy, Churchill’s racism and misogyny make him somewhat of an originalist). The man still had a point: the true value of democracy lies not in the delivery of optimal outcomes, but rather the avoidance of catastrophic ones. Constitutional democracy, in particular, is not designed to be efficient.
Our democracy is built around the idea of checks and balances – to make the consolidation of any single locus of power almost impossibly difficult, to force even the relatively unassailable to negotiate and compromise if they wish to further their agenda, and – in keeping any grasp on power precarious – to regularly punish the inattentive or arrogant. In many ways, the myriad inefficiencies of Indian politics – with its motley cast of implausible stars and idiosyncratic demands – are the price we pay for remaining a stable and approximately functional democracy.
The Constitution envisages at least two such systems of checks and balances. First, the institutional safeguard of separation of powers, wherein each branch of government acts as a guardian against the excesses of the others. Second, the political safeguard of federalism, wherein – for all that our system skews in favour of the union – national parties frequently find themselves at a disadvantage to regional and local powers. On a generous reading of Art. 19 of the Constitution, one might add a third safeguard, in the form of vibrant media and civil society that subject institutions and politicians alike to annoyingly close scrutiny.
Taken together, these are the ingredients in a recipe for incrementalism, for conservatism, for preferring stability over innovation. Yet they are also our bulwarks against the would-be tyrant. Consider: if you do not know, before the fact, whether the leader will share your values or despise them, would you rather their path to imposing those values was smooth, or difficult and contested? The maze of actors and interests that frustrates your heroes in their admirable intentions is the same as that which stymies your most feared opponents in their despicable schemes.
That said, it would be a disservice to call our Constitution – or those who drafted it – conservative. Quite the opposite, the values they enshrined can only be described as progressive; our constitutional scheme is one of social and cultural transformation, with the gradual superseding of caste, linguistic, and religious identity by a national identity – one defined by unity in diversity. Ambedkar, whose personality shines through in the text, described with utter accuracy the dangers of a formal democracy without the substantive achievement of economic and social justice.
Herein lies the contradiction: the goals and virtues espoused by the Constitution run up against its own checks and balances. The same layers of social identity, community, and tradition that provide basis for organising against absolutist or centralist tendencies derive cultural legitimacy from ideologies of hierarchy, of purity, and of exclusion. Without those intermediate orders and institutions, India would be a prime candidate for fascism; with them, we are a fractious polity, and often a callous state. As another famous laureate of democracy would have it.
I contradict myself? Then
I contradict myself –
I am vast. I contain
To be sure, none of this is to excuse bureaucratic inefficiency (to say nothing of corruption). An inefficient political system can still be cast in a favourable light – truly faint praise! – by comparison to its logical alternative; a traditionalist, secretive, and self-aggrandising bureaucracy, however, is in no wise preferable to the alternative of a transparent and professional bureaucracy. The challenge for a reformist politician in India today is thus to improve the efficiency of governance and promote the universalisation of Constitutional values while countering political forces entrenched in the habits of patronage and parochialism.
It will not be easy, and that is by design – the same design that has kept us from disaster, if also from miracles. In celebration of which, I wish all my fellow Indians a modestly happy Republic Day.