Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jan 25, 2023 Updated 3 Days ago
India’s impeccable story of constitutional promise and practice has much to offer to the G20 members and the world
Dissecting India’s constitutional resilience: Lessons for G20 countries India celebrates its 74th Republic Day this week marking the historic moment in which the Indian Constitution was officially adopted on 26 January 1950, declaring India as a sovereign republic. This year bears special significance not only because India completes 74 years of its journey as a vibrant democratic republic but also because India has presently assumed the presidency of G20—a forum of immense significance comprising the world’s most advanced and emerging economies. India’s leadership role in the G20 is undoubtedly a manifestation of its increasing importance and clout in contemporary global politics. It is an opportune moment to showcase its immense strength, remarkable achievements, and democratic resilience to the world.

The heart of India’s success story lies in its ability to weather the herculean challenges of nation-building in a societal makeup replete with a plethora of social, cultural, economic, and regional complexities and disparities.

India’s journey as the largest democracy in the world with multi-dimensional diversity is an extremely interesting and remarkable story which has been well-documented, adequately discussed and delved into in a rich body of literature. The heart of India’s success story lies in its ability to weather the herculean challenges of nation-building in a societal makeup replete with a plethora of social, cultural, economic, and regional complexities and disparities. In this regard, the Indian Constitution has been the indispensable and unique edifice that has served as a guiding light for the Indian nation-state in the last seven decades to traverse the tumult of establishing, sustaining, and flourishing as a major democratic power on the global stage. While Indian polity’s interactions with the form and substance of its Constitution since independence has a magnificent and varied array of dimensions, all of which cannot be explored in this brief, three crucial aspects of India’s constitutional strength and resilience stand out.

1. Democratic consolidation against the odds

Despite the apprehensions posed by political observers across the world at the time of drafting the Indian Constitution, the Constitution makers paved the way for a multi-party democratic political system in India immediately after independence despite being confronted with the challenges of illiteracy and widespread poverty at that time. Defying all the scepticism, India witnessed the successful conduct of relatively free and fair democratic elections under the auspices of a constitutionally sanctioned independent Election Commission that consolidated its democratic credentials. At a time when most post-colonial countries were battling strenuous political instability, India’s ability to adopt and continuously practice electoral democracy by overcoming its own challenges of governance acted as a beacon of hope for the future of democracy in the developing world. With time, India not only witnessed considerable socio-economic development but also the political participation of the citizens, especially the youth, increased manifold. Voters’ turnout in India, both at the national as well as state elections, has impressively increased with time. Most importantly, the participation of women voters has visibly increased over the years and has now at par with male voters. India’s adoption of a multi-party system witnessed the development of an immensely competitive electoral landscape in which numerous political parties (more than 2,000 registered political parties presently) representing varied interests of diverse constituencies have emerged. However, it is not to argue that India’s complex and multifarious architecture of electoral politics is bereft of challenges. As the theatre of politics and mass mobilisation incessantly confronts and negotiates power tussles emanating with the rise of new competing aspirations and conflicts over demands of representation and redistribution, further electoral reforms, societal and cultural transformation, and greater accountability mechanisms are much needed.

Defying all the scepticism, India witnessed the successful conduct of relatively free and fair democratic elections under the auspices of a constitutionally sanctioned independent Election Commission that consolidated its democratic credentials.

2. Conflict management and efficient governance

Second, the Indian Constitution has provided for a federal political system in which the Centre as well as the state governments has clearly laid down independent jurisdiction of power. Though the Partition of 1947 and the associated socio-political turmoil compelled the Constitution makers to create a strong Central government, subjects which can be better governed at the regional or local level have been entrusted to the states. Bearing in mind the breadth and diversity of India’s geographical and demographic landscape, empowering the states to govern at the provincial level allowed the regional interests to be better represented and also enabled the administrative machinery to be more effective in its response to the needs of development and governance. Also, subsequent constitutional amendments in the early 1990s provided for the federal institutional arrangement for a third tier of local self-government both in rural as well as urban areas leading to political empowerment at the grassroots, further deepening democracy. Also, the federal political arrangement acted as an effective instrument of political accommodation. After the independence, notable secessionist and separatist movements in South India and the Northeast were eventually resolved by peaceful settlement in the spirit of national integration as many of these movements culminated in the creation of separate provinces within the Indian Union, mostly based on language. Therefore, the flexibility of redrawing state boundaries granted by the Constitution empowered the Indian state to effectively negotiate and eventually resolve some of the extremely vexed autonomy movements which could have threatened the unity of India in the initial period after the independence. As in few other newly independent countries at that time, language-based secessionist movements led to prolonged civil wars and even territorial balkanisation, the Indian model of accommodation, peaceful dialogue and empowerment of diverse regional interests, apart from military operations, undoubtedly reinforced the resilience of India’s constitutional vision. However, federal conflicts and partisan politics do vitiate India’s federal architecture of governance which needs adequate redressal through long-term institutional reforms.

The Indian Constitution has provided for a federal political system in which the Centre as well as the state governments has clearly laid down independent jurisdiction of power.

3. Prioritising citizens’ empowerment

The Indian constitution in Part III has granted a wide range of legally enforceable fundamental rights to its citizens which is extremely crucial in any democratic polity. The fundamental principles of the right to life and dignity; equality before the law; elimination of unfair discrimination; right to association and freedom of expression not only created a legally enforceable regime of rights that protected the citizens from unlawful encroachments and excesses. Rather, it has gradually facilitated the formation of public consciousness and informed public discourse on civil and democratic rights which has eventually increased citizen’s awareness regarding the avenues of individual liberty and political accountability that democratic politics offer to its people. Such a conducive environment for strengthening citizens’ rights over the long run paved the way for autonomous civil society forums and interest and pressure groups to grow and pose their demands of responsive governance from the political elite, many times leading to major reforms. Another constitutional innovation has been the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) enshrined in Part IV of the Indian constitution. The constitutional mandate of the DPSP underlines the duty of the Indian state to ensure for its citizens adequate means of livelihood, equitable development and distribution of resources, special protection to children, women, weaker and vulnerable sections, proper healthcare and other kinds of support to provide a life of basic dignity. Though not legally enforceable, these provisions in the constitution provide the crucial basis and impetus for the Indian state, both at the Centre as well the states, to roll out a slew of welfare measures, largely access to basic private goods, that act as the vital social protection mechanism for the major sections of economically vulnerable people. The DPSP along with expediencies of electoral politics propelled India to adopt and expand a responsive welfare state. However, the welfare delivery, though gives necessary support to the needy sections for leading a life with basic dignity, such measures are still largely inadequate, many times disproportionate in their delivery and often suffer from the policy infirmity of excluding sections of the target population and hence needs further improvement and innovation.

The constitutional mandate of the DPSP underlines the duty of the Indian state to ensure for its citizens adequate means of livelihood, equitable development and distribution of resources, special protection to children, women, weaker and vulnerable sections, proper healthcare and other kinds of support to provide a life of basic dignity.

A promising edifice of emancipation

The Indian constitution, though enacted seven decades back, has been envisaged as a dynamic edifice of governance which had been granted the flexibility needed for initiating reforms in tandem with the changing demands of time without compromising its core foundational principles on which the Indian republic thrives and prosper. The primacy of the rule of law within a democratic polity, separation of powers with commensurate checks and balances, and a layered federal structure to meet the differentiated demands of governance are some of the basic tenets that assisted the Indian state to confront and manage the severe challenges of nation-building, especially in the initial years after independence. Not only has the Constitution stood the test of time but it has also opened up avenues for new idioms of electoral politics that facilitated the further deepening of democracy. However, public discourse and political culture have a key role to play in making the constitutional promises work in reality and thus such conducive conditions must be preserved and strengthened relentlessly to nurture the constitutional resilience that India has demonstrated to the world. On this momentous occasion of India’s 74th Republic Day, when India presides over the G20 presidency, India’s impeccable story of constitutional promise and practice has much to offer to the G20 members and the world.
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Author

Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is an Associate Fellow under the Political Reforms and Governance Initiative at ORF Kolkata. His primary areas of research interest include studying ...

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