Enter the Second Republic?

November 21, 1997

Will India remain the world's largest democracy? Meghnad Desai describes the changes needed to ensure it holds the title.

Forty-seven years ago, on January 26 1950, India became a sovereign democratic republic. The Constituent Assembly elected on a limited franchise in 1946 had framed the constitution of India, one of the longest documents of its kind. It was a constitution that embodied the salient features of the Government of India Act, 1935 - in itself one of the longest pieces of legislation deliberated upon by the British Parliament - but also added innovative elements: universal adult franchise, a chapter on fundamental rights and another on directive principles of state policy.

The constitution gave India a federal structure, albeit with a strong centralist bias. Unlike some other federations (Australia for instance), individual units of the federation (states, union territories) have no prior and autonomous existence. Their boundaries can be altered by legislation passed in the union legislature with a simple majority. There have been many such changes and they continue to be proposed. At any time, there are live controversies surrounding the demand of one group or another that it be given a separate state.

Sometimes such demands have put intolerable strains on the Indian polity, as in the case of Khalistan; other contentious cases raise the issue of whether territories are part of the union at all, for example the north-east (Nagaland) and Kashmir. That said, the major achievement of the 50 years since independence has been the preservation of the country's territorial integrity in a period during which many of the decolonised countries have proved unable to do so. India has avoided a damaging civil war and managed to contain local dissidence, though at the cost of some formidable deployment of violence by the government.

Another and equally significant achievement has been the maintenance of parliamentary democracy built on universal adult franchise. Today, after the end of the cold war, there seems to be a universal celebration of democracy; but it was not ever thus, not even in the so-called free world. In choosing to have a parliamentary democracy based on universal adult franchise, India became one of the pioneers of parliamentary democracy. France granted women the franchise only in 1945. India became a democracy at about the same time as Germany and Italy, and has been a democracy longer than Spain, Portugal and Greece. It is one of the older democracies in the modern world. It is also one of the toughest and most complex.

Despite these twin successes, there are considerable strains on the polity. Rather than dealing with the inability of India to grow sufficiently fast economically to relieve mass poverty, I shall here concentrate on political strains.

These are visible in many ways. There is increased political volatility. Elections are more frequent now than before and governments change more often. In the first 25 years of the republic, there were five general elections; in the following 22 years, there were six. In the first 25 years, there were three prime ministers; in the following 21 years, there were nine (plus one who straddles both periods).

There is increased political fragmentation. The Indian constitution was patterned on the Westminster model with an idealistic two-party system in mind. In the past two decades, regional parties, as well as parties based on caste affiliation, have multiplied. One indication of this is the present United Front government, a coalition of 13 parties, none of which could claim to be an all-India party. There are increased federal tensions.The Indian constitution deliberately builds in a powerful centre and weak states. The new leaders of independent India feared a balkanisation of the country more than anything else, and the partition of India confirmed their fears. Thus the centre was given powers of unparalleled extent in a federal constitution.

The use of president's rule has also become more frequent in the second half of the republic than it was in the first. In Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, this has led to considerable tension when it was felt that the central government was trying to impose president's rule, even after a successful confidence vote in the assembly, only to keep the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) out of power. In an unprecedented move the president refused to accede to the cabinet's demands. This highlights the need for constitutional reform.

These strains have meant that political as well as daily life in India is becoming volatile, violent and precarious. Tensions between religious communities - Hindus and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, Hindus and Neo-Buddhists (Dalits) - as well as within the Hindu population between upper and lower castes, are on the increase and often take violent forms. Communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, which were infrequent in the 1950s (60 a year on average for 1954-59) and claimed few casualties (25 annually), had by 1987-92 increased to 1, 000 riots a year with the same number of casualties. The social movements - on behalf of Dalits, women, tribals, backward castes - have also frequently come in conflict with the police as well as members of the elite who can also be quite violent. There are also complaints about the sinister nexus between politics and crime, as well as of "black" money.

The above strains can be viewed dialectically. On the one hand, they are a decline from the stable days of the Nehru decade when parliamentary democracy functioned along prescribed constitutional grooves. They can also be seen positively as evidence of democracy becoming more inclusive with the leadership no longer monopolised by the upper caste, wealthy or university-educated elite. There is an explosion of political democratic activity in India. People may dislike politicians, but they have faith in politics.

Yet there is evidence that people are beginning to question whether these trends will render the Indian state dysfunctional. Even discounting the particular difficulties of the present fragile coalition in power, the inaction and instability of the centre have been worrisome. Thus Shivraj Patil, the former speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Indian equivalent of the House of Commons, wrote recently: "As the situation at the union level has become more dismal and likely to be still more dismal in the years to come,it is causing real concern to all those who can realise what it is not to have a working and stable national government."

Patil went on to explore various constitutional changes that could alleviate the situation. Taking a coalition government to be the norm in the future rather than an exception, he explored large changes, such as adapting the French Fifth Republic presidency, as well as smaller changes, such as rules for no-confidence motions that at present require a simple majority of those present. He also explored a shift to a system of proportional representation.

One answer is to say that there is no problem. As soon as a single-party majority government comes back, no change will be necessary. But the golden jubilee of India's independence this year and the forthcoming golden jubilee of the Indian republic in 2000 provide an opportunity to think more fundamentally about the issue of the governance of India.

Since the constitution of India was framed, the democratic system has grown both much more pluralistic and much more participative. For an electorate of about 550 million people and a turnout of 60 to 65 per cent, with scores of parties at the local, state and national level, and growing but by no means proportionate numbers of women, Dalit and tribal candidates, India represents a unique democracy. But the constitution has been built on a suspicion of action at the periphery or the lowest level, which it treats as something destabilising, something to be nipped - smacking of the old powers of paramountcy, pre-1947, under which the viceroy could remove the ruler of a native state. The innovative chapters on fundamental rights and the directive principles of state policy are, on the other hand, based on an egalitarian democratic logic that has been allowed to flower superbly in a series of actual rights and liberties supported by the judiciary over the past 50 years.

The constitution is also paradoxically very easy to amend, unilaterally by the union legislature. This weapon of easy amendment has been used frequently by elected governments either to cancel a judicial decision that it did not like, or to abridge some right that came in its way. The constitution has been amended more than 70 times. In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court had to state explicitly that there was a "core" to the constitution - the secular, democratic character of India - that was not amendable. But even in matters of secularism, the ultimate crisis of the Indian secular state - the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992 - demonstrated that political practice determines the content of secularism more than adjudication.

So, keeping democracy and secularism intact, can we change the constitution? Of course countries do not change constitutions in peaceful times; a major crisis, such as defeat in war, a revolution or decolonisation, is generally needed to make countries change constitutions.There is no likelihood of any such event in India. All the same, schemes of constitutional change must be discussed. India's first republic, already 47 years old, is becoming problematic. A solution must be found. The changes I would like to see are: 1. All states of the union to be original members of the federation and any change in their boundaries to be made subject to their legislative consent. This will also affect the ability of the centre to impose president's rule. The conditions for doing so will be more stringent. The states can also be given greater sources of revenue and be made fiscally responsible for servicing their debts.

2. The constitution to be amended only by the consent of a majority of all states and the union. The majority can be defined in the same way as is used for election of the president or in the way the United States constitution does.

3. Proportional representation for elections to the Lok Sabha with a relatively low threshold of, say, 2.5 per cent. This will allow regional parties to have legitimate representation. By this calculation, in the 1996 elections, four parties (or party groups) holding 24 seats, would have been barred.

These three amendments are the only ones necessary to overcome India's major political defects. A Westminster constitution gives the governing party enormous and arbitrary powers to run the country. If politics is to be more democratic and more participative, this asymmetry has to be reversed. There is no doubt that there is much bad government and, even more, bad politicians at the state level. But a system must recognise rules that are independent of personalities. Duly elected governments should not be removed. Indian citizens have a vibrant political life at the state level where their primary identity often lies, but they want to remain part of the Indian union. After 50 years, the fears of balkanisation can be laid to rest. State autonomy will be positive.

The second major amendment will make it difficult for the union government easily to amend the constitution. These powers have often been used arbitrarily, and populist ways have been utilised by governments, in part to encroach upon the neutral space that should be occupied by the judiciary, the civil service and the police. It is the centre's arbitrary power, given to any elected majority government, to abridge constitutional rights, that is at the core of the debate about secularism and communalism.

The third amendment is a simple change in electoral rules. It recognises de jure what has already happened de facto. It will make single-party majority governments difficult if not impossible. But, given how single-party majority governments have often behaved in the past, a coalition government would be more democratic, less arbitrary and less likely to encroach upon the judiciary, civil service and police.

These proposals, if adopted, will mean the end of the First Republic and the de facto inauguration of the Second Republic. As republics go, 47 years is quite old. Of the five French republics, only one - the Third - managed a longer life. The Weimar Republic was short lived, as was the Third Reich. The Franco regime did not enjoy this length of life, nor did the republic inaugurated in Austria after the collapse of the Hapsburgs. If India can manage a smooth transition from the First to the Second Republic, it will have registered another landmark in world history.

Lord Desai is director, Centre for Global Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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