Readers will recall the three words Sovereign, Secular and Democratic in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. They are the defining qualities of a modern republic. India won its freedom on August 15, 1947, in order to establish such a republic.
Tomorrow, the nation will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Independence. I am certain the nation will survive to celebrate the 100th anniversary and many more anniversaries, but — I ask this question with great trepidation — will the Republic remain sovereign, secular and democratic in 2047?
For centuries, most parts of India were sovereign only in the sense they were not ruled by foreign kings and queens. The state was ‘sovereign’ but the people were not. Several rulers were despots, incompetent and did little to improve the lives of the people.
Under a republican Constitution, it is not only the State that is sovereign, the people are also sovereign. The power to change the rulers is the hallmark of a sovereign people. Free and fair election is the sovereign right of the people. However, in recent years, that has come under a cloud. Elections, nowadays, seem to be largely determined by money and it is the BJP which has the largest amount of money. In fact, the BJP government invented a diabolically clever and opaque instrument (Electoral Bonds) to garner nearly 95 per cent of the money donated to political parties. The BJP has also other instruments to win elections: media that is tamed, institutions that are captured, laws that are weaponised and agencies that are suborned. And if the BJP loses an election, it has the ultimate weapon called Operation Lotus that it shamelessly employed in Goa, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and attempted in Rajasthan.
Will we reach a point when elections cease to be free or fair? I sincerely hope not, but that danger cannot be ruled out altogether. Congress-mukt Bharat is not a bullet aimed at the Congress alone. Mr J P Nadda’s recent statement that “small parties will vanish leaving only the BJP as a national party” is more than the usual political rhetoric; it is an idea that is carefully nurtured in the BJP nursery.
The people will not lose their sovereignty in a flash. It will be like the spread of slow poison. The erosion will begin by depriving, bit by bit, personal liberty, freedom of speech and writing, right to dissent, right to protest, privacy, freedom to travel and, ultimately, freedom from fear. Ask yourself, in which direction is India headed?
India will be the most populous country in a few years and the population will peak at 160 crore. Since fertility rates are converging, the religious composition of the population will not change significantly from the current proportions: Hindu 78.4 per cent, Muslim 14.4, Christian 2.2, Sikh 1.7 and others 3.3. For 2,000 years India was a plural country and, today, India is a plural country, but we seem to be in an overdrive to deny our pluralism. On the contrary, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others, proudly acknowledge the huge benefits of having a plural society. Their institutions including courts, media and universities, actively seek and promote diversity in their ranks. Currently, there is one honourable judge each from the Muslim and Christian communities in the Supreme Court and none from the Sikhs. There is an apprehension that another Muslim or Christian judge may not be appointed until after the incumbent retired.
Ask yourself, can India be anything but secular? Our music, literature, cinema, sports, science, medicine, law, teaching and civil services will be poorer if we exclude Muslims and Christians. It is the leaders of the BJP and the RSS who gave a bad name to secularism. They called it ‘appeasement’, and that has distorted their outlook and policy on Jammu & Kashmir, electoral representation, reservations, language, food habits, clothes, and personal law. The death of secularism and the declaration of a Hindu rashtra (nation) will be a body blow to the idea of India and may hasten the death of democracy itself. The overwhelming majority of Indians does not wish that outcome, but the overwhelming majority of BJP supporters seem to want a Hindu rashtra. When an irresistible force (the Hindutva believers) meets an immovable block (the moderate and tolerant Indians), I do not know which will prevail.
Democracy is not just voting once every five years. Democracy has to be practised every day through dialogue, discussion, debate and dissent. By that standard, democracy in India is gasping for breath. There are fewer days every year on which Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies meet. The Sweden-based V-Dem Institute called India an “electoral autocracy” and lowered India’s rank to 53 in the Democracy Index 2021. Each state party fights for its space in its home-state but is loath to help other state parties to protect their spaces or to join forces to fight the BJP. Nightmarish as it may seem, we cannot rule out the emergence of a one-party system (as Mr Nadda devoutly wishes). His party will claim we are a democracy but with Indian characteristics!
Tomorrow, when you salute the Tricolour, please remember its designer, Pingali Venkayya, and that, in the current political context, the tri-colour represents sovereignty, secularism and democracy.