The Missing Raj Dharma of Our Republic

Raj dharma is quintessentially a moral code that translates into ‘Rule of Law’ and the institutions that are designed to protect it are under serious threat today.

Some years ago, a wise old prime minister who was a poet-statesman chided the chief minister of a state, saying, ‘You should have followed your raj dharma.’ When the chief minister responded feebly that he was ‘protecting his dharma’, the prime minister again reminded him that ‘There is nothing higher than raj dharma.’ That chief minister today is the prime minister of India; he has been for the last eight years or so. It’s a good time to take stock as to whether he has been true to raj dharma or not.

To those who are innocent of what raj dharma is or where to find it, one must refer them not to any text in the Ramayana or Mahabharata but to a document far more recent than that. In fact, Sushma Swaraj, in one of her elevated moments, said on the floor of Lok Sabha that ‘the holy book for us is not the Bhagavad Gita but the Constitution of India’. But then, she belonged to a different generation of BJP leaders.

Truly, the founding document of our Republic, the Constitution of India, is the final legal and moral code, the dharma of our state. That dharma is distinct from and opposite to ‘adharma’ – or a state of lawlessness, a Hobbesian state of jungle law. Dharma comes from the Sanskrit root word ‘dhri’, which means to maintain or to preserve. In the early Vedas and other ancient texts, dharma referred to the cosmic law that created the ‘ordered universe’ from chaos.

It is the Constitution that provided an ‘orderly’ political arrangement for a nation emerging from the chaotic state of 200 of colonial rule. It proclaimed our nation as a Republic – one that is ‘ruled by laws’ and not by the whims and fancies of a monarch or dictator. Republic also meant that the highest authority in the land shall be an elected head and that all offices in the government are open to all citizens, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, race, region or gender.

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The Constitution is a socio-political contract between the rulers and the ruled, and it lays down the rules as to how they shall be governed. The first three words of the preamble, ‘We the People’, are therefore rich in significance and implication. For in it is the location of ultimate sovereignty over this land. The Preamble needs to be reiterated, even if briefly. We the People have solemnly resolved to constitute India into a ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’ and to secure to all its citizens Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The present government may quibble with the words ‘Socialist and Secular’ but that is the law of the land, as it stands today. A prime minister who has sworn, while taking the oath of office, to ‘bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India’ must protect its Preamble, to start with. These goals are not merely aspirational ones. They are embodied as fundamental rights enforceable in a court of law by every citizen who feels discriminated against or denied equal treatment.

Is raj dharma being followed today?

Let us start by examining the promise and the delivery. Modi made the promise of ‘Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ in 2014, and in 2019 added ‘Sab ka vishwas’, for he probably realised at the end of the first term that he had not gained people’s trust.

We have seen enough evidence of the fact that he clearly excluded minority communities in his declared policy of ‘Sab ka saath’, though he has now started remembering them, since last week, as the countdown to the general elections has begun. Nor was there much vikas in his first term in office. The country went through eight quarters of negative growth from 6.80% in 2017 to 3.74% in December 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, with the poor and the weak getting the worst brunt of it. There was no equality of opportunities for minorities. Nor equity in incomes for the poor and the deprived, despite a promise to double the incomes of farmers and workers.

The first tenet of raj dharma to be abandoned was secularism, the constitutional guarantee that no one shall be discriminated against on grounds of religion. We saw the incorporation of religion into the notion of citizenship through the legislation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Then there were repeated pronouncements on the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens, all aimed at disenfranchising one minority community.

Second was the abandonment of socialism, as the government’s policies increasingly favoured a few rich individuals, particularly belonging to one state. As the latest Oxfam report indicates, 1% of India’s rich control 40% of the nation’s wealth and the top 10% of our population holds 77% of the national wealth. As much as 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1% while 670 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth.

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Third is the change in the nature of the political discourse. Today, the ruler is the great benefactor, the one who bestows gifts on his people. The people, today, are regarded not as citizens with rights, but as ‘labharthis’ – subjects who seek and have benefitted from the munificence of the Great Leader. Incidentally, the ‘labha’ or the benefits that the subject has received are all from the state treasury, from the taxpayers’ money, but it is projected as a gift from the magnanimous leader, with his photos stuck on everything from the ration bags to vaccination certificates.

The term ‘labharthi’ is a pernicious change in terminology as the citizen is alienated and disempowered from his rights that the raj dharma guarantees, such as the right to life, liberty, equality, justice, right to education, health care, housing and jobs. The Constitution only recognises a citizen and not a ‘labharthi’. A labharthi may or may not get his benefits, he is not entitled to them; whereas a citizen has certain inalienable rights, which no government can deny or take away.

Fourth, the key architecture of our Constitution is in the separation of powers and independence of constitutional bodies to act as checks and balance upon one another. That now stands completely eroded as an authoritarian ruler rides roughshod over the powers of the Election Commission, the CAG, the ED, the CBI and the judiciary. The ongoing battle between the law minister and vice president on the one hand, and the Supreme Court on the other, over its power to appoint judges, is aimed at capturing the last bastion of independence.

Raj dharma is quintessentially a moral code that translates into ‘Rule of Law’ and the institutions that are designed to protect it are under serious threat today. This is no raj dharma, it is adharma. If A.B. Vajpayee was alive today, he would indeed be a sad man.

Ravi Joshi was formerly in the Cabinet Secretariat.