Creating the nation

Topics Constitution | democracy | Elections

Let us indulge in a thought experiment. The government runs an all-India referendum today and gives people two choices. One option is for the people to give up their right to vote in return for a monarchical system of guaranteed rulers with a responsibility for social and economic well-being of the citizens while the other choice is to continue to have the right to vote with no guarantees. Would Indians, after experiencing seven decades of the right to vote, give up their right or would they implicitly distrust rulers and prefer to keep their right to vote and keep governments in check? 

I do not know of any scholarly empirical study done along these lines, so we don’t know the answer. The larger question here is how important is the right to vote for the average Indian? How satisfied is the average Indian with the nation’s tryst with electoral democracy? 

Seven decades after India’s founding fathers chose constitutional republicanism with universal adult suffrage, modern political scientists lament the corruption of the ideals of India’s electoral democracy where the relationship between the voter and his political representative has dwindled to a commercial transaction enveloped in cynicism about politics and politicians. Which often raises the question over how important do today’s Indians consider their right to vote. 

Madhav Khosla’s 160-page book India’s Founding Moment  is a scholarly tome of the choices that confronted India’s founders and the nuanced, conscious and sub-conscious decisions they took to create a nation that many scholars then deemed foolish. The book is deceptively simple in its introduction when it outlines its emphasis on just three aspects of the making of India’s constitution — the decision to codify it, the factors underlying the choice of a strong Centre and the framework 
for identity representation of pluralistic India. 

Each of these three topics are covered in extraordinary depth and profundity. The author has made a stellar attempt to dive into the minds of India’s great founding leaders such as B R Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, M Visvesaraya and others and place them in the larger context of global thought prevailing then. Each chapter ends with a conclusion that provides a concise summary of the chapter. 

The book raises some deep questions and issues in the reader’s minds as one traverses through the book. It made me think of the thought experiment outlined above. The book left me astonished at the complexity of some of the decisions made by the Constituent Assembly, such as the one about universal suffrage or the need for a strong state. The book details how much India’s leaders agonised over these decisions and to balance their individual prejudices against the larger nation’s. 

It is fashionable today to mock at the length of the Constitution, which is the world’s longest, or the seemingly anti-federal nature of it or to dismiss it as a mere copy of the British’s Government of India Act. Dr Khosla refutes each of these charges in an erudite manner with research, evidence and persuasive arguments. He has devoted an entire chapter just to explain the need and decision to codify the Constitution, which eventually resulted in a very large document that even one member of the Constituent Assembly observed sarcastically, “I venture to think that if they had the time, they would have even prescribed a code of life in this Constitution”. 

Modern day “small government” liberals criticise the decision to establish a strong and a large State. Again, the complexity of this decision in the context of the situation then and the Constitution makers’ apprehensions of integrating a disparate, pluralistic and hierarchical society is evocatively described in the second chapter, which is a must-read for today’s critics. There is a delightful section titled “Centralisation and Modernisation” which describes the engineer M Visvesaraya’s 1920 document “Reconstructing India”, a nugget that is perhaps unknown to many people. It goes right to the heart of the modern economic debate over the role, size and powers of the State in economic development. 

Should adult franchise be a right or a privilege? Should the Constitution be easily amendable or not? Questions such as these are raised and answered with great felicity of reason and knowledge. Amid today’s social unrest over citizenship and immigration, the chapter on Identity and Representation provides a fascinating historical context. 

Overall, the book is exceptionally deep and thoughtful. But it is also extremely dense. The language is complicated and difficult even for an English-speaking, non-academician. The book too often refers to lacunae in current scholarship of India’s constitution which is needless. Perhaps the book is intended as an academic reference text for doctoral students. But it is a pity that by being so complex, the book is out of bounds for the average English-speaking Indian to understand the extraordinary efforts taken by the nation’s founders to give them their country as they know it today.

India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democract 
Author: 
Madhav Khosla Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Price:  Rs 599
Pages: 240


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