Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (History) by Rashtrakut

The Indian constitution (and the Indian republic) celebrated its 60th birthday today on January 26, 2010.  Apart from a 2 year suspension when Indira Gandhi imposed a national Emergency, the Indian constitution has been the foundation of the world’s largest democracy.  It is no small achievement.  At its birth few thought that democracy could flourish in a poor country with deep cultural, linguistic and religious divides and with such a large illiterate population.  But the creaky wheels of Indian democracy have kept on churning and have so far overcome some structural flaws within the constitution’s federal layout (see link), an over-centralization imposed as a reaction to the partition of India and from the insecurities and authoritarian tendencies of Indira Gandhi.

A lot of the credit must go to India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.  Ever since the dismantling of the license raj and the beginning of free market reforms in India in 1991, it has become fashionable to criticize Nehru.  However, unlike many of the early leaders of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, Nehru was at heart a believer of democracy and its institutions.  He did not attempt to turn his ruling party into a gaggle of sycophants, create a cult of personality or attempt to create a political dynasty by aggressively promoting his daughter Indira.  The ultimate respect for constitutional norms survived Indira Gandhi’s failure on all these three points (and even the Emergency was imposed based on a constitutional provision).  And even with this failure, Indira Gandhi like her father did take steps that created a national identity.

As Kashmiri Brahmins who grew up in the North Indian heartland, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi projected an Indian identity.  Buttressed by the boost to their reputation by their history in the independence struggle they belonged to India in a manner that few leaders other than Mahatma Gandhi could.  While this did have the deleterious effect of choking the growth of an alternative set of leaders, it delayed the rise of regional satraps  until a core Indian national identity was nurtured.  India has suffered secessionist movements along the periphery, but with the rise of coalition politics reliant on regional support some of this tension has eased.  This has eased the concerns (more often raised in Western media about the fragmentation of India).

Finally credit must be given to the professionalism of the Indian armed forces and their willingness to obey civilian authority.  In most newly independent countries, Nehru’s neglect of the army in the 1950s followed by the debacle at the hands of the Chinese in the 1962 war would have sparked a coup.  It did not happen.  Western media raised similar fears of a coup in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, a thought not seriously considered domestically within India.  Today such an eventuality seems unthinkable.

And so India’s democratic republic continues to move on into is projected rise as a new world power.  There are issues of concern.  The division of revenues (as noted in the article linked above) is and will continue to be a source of tension between haves and have nots within India.  India has punted the issue of reapportioning parliamentary seats till 2026.  When reapportionment does happen, it will cause tension as the more prosperous states (which have done a better job implementing family planning policies) lose parliamentary seats (and as a result political power) to poorer states.  Indian democracy, like many young democracies, is often rooted in support of personalities as opposed to policies and political dynasties dot the landscape.  This phenomenon is not unknown in the United States, but the next step to the maturation of Indian democracy has to be the strengthening of parties based on political ideologies rather than vehicles for personalities.

So far India’s politicians have generally shown a sense of flexibility in working towards a common national purpose.  As long as that continues, the passage time will buttress the sense of Indian national identity and the Republic of India will continue to thrive.  So here are birthday wishes to the longest written constitution in the world.

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