Guidebook of the nation

Written by Sreeram Chaulia | SREERAM CHAULIA | Updated: Jan 27 2010, 02:16am hrs
Celebrating the 60th birthday of a book, which lays out the warp and woof of democratic government, is the hallmark of a highly evolved society that prizes liberty and prefers a stable political trajectory. When Indians of all shades proudly commemorate this special Republic Day, they should marvel at the longevity of a constitution that came into effect on January 26, 1950, and survived the millions of mutinies that have befallen the country since that day.

How could a fast-changing India that surprises itself every few years through tremendous social churning and economic reconfiguration remain content with a document drafted in a bygone era Why have there been no movements to rewrite, overhaul or completely jettison the Constitution on the grounds that a new India needs new foundations of rules and principles to suit its contemporary orientations

The answers lie as much in institutional stickiness, i.e. the tendency of rational actors to persist with norms and aspirations they are familiar with, as in the truth that the Indian psyche seeks continuity of core civilisational pursuits that are echoed in the sexagenarian Constitution.

More than a 100 reformist amendments have indeed modified parts of the Constitution in the face of new problems that arise from time to time while governing a complex society. But no one has credibly made the case for throwing the baby out with the bath water because Indians know that the Constitution they inherited from the founding mothers and fathers is an ultimate guarantor against transgression of the freedoms that were won through immense sacrifice by their ancestors.

Indias Constituent Assembly, a storehouse of the wise heads we now salute, was elected by popularly chosen peoples representatives and threw open its doors to mass petitions and solicitation of ideas from the general public during the two-and-a-half years it took to finalise the Constitution.

Described memorably by the American scholar Granville Austin as the greatest political venture since the commencement of the writing of the US constitution in 1787, the work of the Constituent Assembly was a microcosm of the spirit of India that endures as a live-and-let-live philosophy.

Formal institutions that were given life by the Constitution could not have lasted this long with their basic structure intact if not for the fact that they matched expectations of accountability and justness of rule, the two informal institutions that are refrains in Indias political history.

The world has many unenviable examples of constitutions being written, consigned to dustbins, and then replaced by brand new ones after each tumultuous political turnover. A joke about Sri Lankas constitutional volatility, for instance, is most unflattering and goes as follows: A curious foreign visitor to Sri Lankas government press asks for a copy of the constitution and is met with incredulous stares and the response, Sorry, we do not sell periodicals. With three post-independence constitutions failing to meet the demands of different sections and regions of society for equality and fairness, Sri Lanka is now staring at a possible fourth constitution in just 60 years.

Pakistan, likewise, has had three constitutions and is still unable to find the right balance and division of powers between different arms of the state that could usher in genuine democracy. Afghanistan is now operating on its sixth constitution since independence and is again sliding into a transitional abyss, with a fraudulently elected government and a kleptocratic state that violates the charters precepts without checks.

To an extent, the long life of the Indian Constitution is a tribute to the effective management of social cleavages by the state over the last six decades. The fact that no system-upending upheaval has been allowed to mature by Indian elites has kept the Constitution safe from being discarded like a commodity that has crossed its expiry date.

But the correlation goes the other way round as wellthe elasticity and broad parameters of the Indian Constitution have been important assets in the hands of the state to accommodate ever new claims against it. If not for an intelligently worded, rigourously parsed, and morally universalistic guidebook of sheer class, India would likely have balkanised into thousands of splinters by now. The final solution to every separatist cause in this vast country with multiple grievances has fallen within the purview of the Constitution and must remain so in order not to tear apart the socio-political fabric that was woven with care and has been internalised at the mass level.

Constitutions composed through popular consultation and input are dear to citizens because they stand as last guarantors against abuses of a draconian nature by the state, non-state actors or by fellow citizens. When Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela after decades of revolving rule by the same two conservative parties, he ordered pocket-sized copies of the 1999 Bolivarian constitution and distributed them widely to citizens as empowering tools. Constitutionalism is so advanced in this Latin American country that packages of rice and flour have excerpts from the charter printed on the labels.

Constitutions are often products of determined struggles against tyrannical regimes. One drama of this kind is unfolding today in Nepal, where a Constituent Assembly has been elected to navigate the ex-kingdom towards a functioning democracy.

Political volatility and lack of consensus among different parties in the Assembly threaten to derail the process, but overwhelming mass sentiment against reversion to monarchy will propel constitution-framing. Neighbouring Indias successful experience of federalism and protection of liberal freedoms is a touchstone that also inspires Nepals constitution-making.

On this marquee Republic Day, Indians can afford self-congratulation for being genuine role models in constitutionalism. Legatees of a brilliant legal text, they have proven worthy defenders of it.

The author is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University