Straying from Constitutional values: India’s democracy is at a crossroads

ANURAG TIWARY writes about the various factors that have undermined the democratic ethos of our country, and have set us on a path different from what the Constituent Assembly had envisioned.


Back in 1947, amidst the holocaust of partition, as India gained independence from the shackles of a ruthless British colonial rule, democracy wasn’t an obvious choice. Western political thinkers, scientists and theorists, had prophesised that introducing democracy in the sub-continent was a big mistake.

Even Dr B.R. Ambedkar had his own set of doubts. He said in the Constituent Assembly, “Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”

On the other side of the table were optimists like Pandit Nehru, who believed democracy was an inevitable choice for the Indian people. On 9th December 1946, while answering the objections raised against the Objective Resolution presented by him, Nehru said before the Constituent Assembly, “We are aiming at a democracy and nothing less than a democracy. The whole of our past is witness to the fact that we stand for democratic institutions. It is for this house to determine what shape to give to that democracy, the fullest democracy, I hope”.

Also read: Join the Struggle to Defend Democracy Now!

For some members in the Constituent Assembly, democracy couldn’t be achieved without certain prerequisites. A few believed ‘secularism’ was indispensable to democracy, and some others like Dr. Ambedkar felt that installing ‘state socialism’ was an essential prerequisite.

These, and several other concerns, were deliberated upon for nearly three long years in the Constituent Assembly, which finally incorporated those values into the text of our Constitution.

Equality, rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, free and fair elections, universal adult franchise, co-operative federalism, distribution of powers, and above all, democracy, were the underlying principles of the world’s lengthiest written Constitution ever.

Also read: Democracy, Distance, Difference, and Disrespect

Ambedkar’s fears and India’s democratic evolution

But Ambedkar still had another fear. In his last speech in the Constituent Assembly he said “However good a constitution may be, it may turn out to be bad if those who are called to work it, happen to be bad.” He had also said, “It is futile to pass any judgment on the Constitution without reference to the part that people and political parties are likely to play in the future.”

The term ‘future’ is key in his argument. Those who inherited the Constitution (this includes both citizens and political parties) had to live up to the principles enshrined in the text.

Did we live up to the expectations of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru and fulfil our responsibilities as citizens of the world’s largest democracy? Have subsequent governments lived up to the ideals enshrined by the founders? These are indeed burning questions today.

Political scientist Professor Ashutosh Varshney, in his 1998 paper titled ‘Why Democracy Survives: India defies the odds’ took an optimistic view of Indian democracy. In it, he argued that India’s democracy has historically fought all odds, and has been strengthened over the years by increased political participation of its people, institutional autonomy and a free press.

However, the same Professor Varshney, in a 2021 piece titled The Rise and Fall argued that “India’s democratic exceptionalism is now withering away”. He reasoned that “a democracy which speaks with one voice, which elevates citizen duties over citizen rights, which privileges obedience over freedom, which uses fear to instil ideological uniformity and which weakens checks on executive power, is a contradiction in terms”.

Perhaps the evolution in Varshney’s views is a direct result of the unfortunate road that our democracy has traversed lately.

Also read: No discussion, few disclosures: how Centre puts democracy at risk

The three P’s that marks India’s democracy

While the institution of democracy is characterized by elements such as rule of law, republican governance and peaceful co-existence of all people in a nation-state, in India, it has lately been characterised by three P’s – Populism, Polarization and Personalities.

Through most of its political history but especially in the last decade, India has witnessed extreme rhetoric and sheer rabble-rousing demagoguery by larger than life personalities who have electorally manipulated citizens by exploiting their religious and cultural sensitivities. Political debates today are often skewed and motivated by jingoistic chauvinism and hyper-nationalism.

Our body politic seems to be diseased by a dangerous ‘alternative syndrome’ – the “if not ‘him’ then ‘who’ virus”. Elected representatives today, as opposed to those in the past, are increasingly becoming irrelevant as a result of the ‘Presidentialisation’ of politics, where each one of them is dependent on a central figure, usually a single leader surrounded by a cult of personality. They are elected to office and subsequently demit office at the pleasure of this single individual.

This overt centralization of parliamentary democracy in India has consequently reduced elections to a mere formality.

Also read: The Decline of the Parliamentary Process in India

Democratic backsliding

One of the essential features of democratic governance is the realization of the highest levels of participatory and deliberative democracy, where each and every view is represented, deliberated and addressed by a collectively accountable central parliament, in consultation and collaboration with the provincial legislative assemblies.

But what if the Parliament itself is rendered nugatory, and legislation is passed without discussions or prior consultations with important stakeholders? What if parliamentary committees are not allowed to function and their working is stalled?

When gubernatorial activism becomes rife, young people are kept out of politics, students, farmers, women and children are beaten up and arrested for exercising their democratic right to protest, cases of sedition are methodically filed against citizens, attacks on the media become part of the government’s policy, bouncers are allegedly sent on the floor of the Parliament to beat up women MPs, political opponents are extra-judicially locked up for over a year, and citizens and political opponents are deviously spied upon without just cause, it becomes a cause for concern and worry.

No wonder, then, that international institutions have begun downgrading the quality of democracy in India.

Also read: Why has Indian democracy been downgraded?

Culling history

India’s democracy, for the longest time ever, was proof of how institutions could survive even in the most difficult of times. The key to accomplishing this was our pre-modern ethos of being tolerant and empathetic. Our political inclination to protect citizens’ fundamental rights and ensure that independent institutions exist for the effective redressal of their concerns, did not just make us unique, but also gave us leverage to exercise more ‘soft-power’ in global politics than many of our adversaries in the neighbourhood.

Gandhi’s famous remarks on tolerance and inclusivity are relevant even today. He said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.” That was what our foundations were made of.

All that seems to gradually withering away. Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar have not just been rendered irrelevant, but are frequently and relentlessly vilified publicly today. There is a conscious effort today by the political elite to erase and rewrite history in this country.

Also read: Indian Democracy is only as strong as its institutions

The road ahead

Despite all this, democracy might still exist – but only nominally on paper and in popular media. It might also exist for a megalomaniac who shall use it every once in a while, to shed tears by holding the constitution as his holy book and his guiding light, yet continue to butcher its roots in real time.

Democracy, then, will slowly cease to exist for millions of Indians who are marginalised, struck by extreme poverty and have been historically oppressed. They are a long way away from the promise of the Constitution and the vision of the Constituent Assembly.

Perhaps it is true that achieving the fullest and purest form of democracy is a work in continuity. Political theorist Madhav Khosla, in his book ‘India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy’ has rightly argued that democratization itself is a form of education.

The future of Indian democracy, however, is at a constant inflection point and we are at a crossroads. It is we who decide where it takes off from here. The least we can do is rise up to the occasion and define the goals for an India that will be truly democratic – in letter and in spirit. If we decide to do otherwise, history will not be kind to us.

(Anurag Tiwary is an ‘Impact Fellow’ at Global Governance Initiative (GGI) and a final-year undergraduate law student at the Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam. The views expressed are personal.)