Neither Licchavi, Uttaramerur or Westminster, India Needs a Republic That Empowers Its Citizens

We need to think anew about how we can transform the current Indian republic into one where the people can realise their rights. Those who speak only of "duties" clearly have no such intention. 

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As we celebrate Republic Day, one has to wonder whether today’s India can either be called a republic or a democracy, if we go by the true meaning of these terms.

A republic is a country where supreme power is held by the people. A democracy is where people have a central role in running the affairs of the country. But can anyone really deny that supreme power in India resides in the hands of a small coterie of ministers who work for the richest sections of Indian society? Democracy has been reduced to conducting elections periodically with people having the right to vote but nothing else thereafter. They neither seem to have control over their elected representatives nor do they have any role in running the affairs of the country.

Whenever this stark marginalisation of people from political power is voiced from various quarters, spokespersons of the ruling establishment come up with romantic versions of the glory of ancient Indian republics and the concept of democracy in India’s distant past.

At the Democracy Summit held in December 2021, Prime Minister Modi said that, ‘The democratic spirit is integral to our civilisation ethos. Elected republican city-states such as Licchavi and Shakya flourished in India as far as 2500 years back. The same democratic spirit is seen in the 10th century “Uttaramerur” inscription that codified the principles of democratic participation. This very democratic spirit and ethos had made ancient India one of the most prosperous. Centuries of colonial rule could not suppress the democratic spirit of the Indian people. It again found full expression with India’s independence, and led to an unparalleled story in democratic nation-building over the last 75 years’.

In case someone missed the point, Modi added that ‘Democracy is not only of the people, by the people, for the people but also with the people, within the people’.

Notwithstanding this meaningless embellishment to Lincoln’s rhetoric, one can see that this is a tall claim in the current system where elected representatives remain unaccountable to those who voted them. People have no role in the political process except on polling day. Their aspirations are regularly crushed by draconian laws.  The general body of citizens is marginalised from decision-making on all matters of concern to society.

In what way, then, does the current parliamentary system and process of representative democracy represent a further development of the “democratic spirit and ethos of ancient India” as Modi claims?

While drafting the constitution, several members of the constituent assembly argued that India’s rich experience of building republics and democratic systems should not be ignored. But as Subhash Kashyap put it, the ‘founding fathers of the Indian constitution were fascinated by British parliamentary institutions and aspired to have the same for themselves in India. They said goodbye to British rule, but embraced the colonial model of governance’.

While taking a step forward in some respects, especially on the question of fundamental rights, the makers of the Indian Constitution undermined those same rights by retaining key vestiges of the outmoded colonial system as far as politics and administration were concerned. They placed faith in the Westminster system of democracy, which suited the mercantile classes of Europe of the 17th century to overthrow the monarchy and retain power in their hands. They retained the legal framework of English laws which were used to subjugate the people of Britain as well as those in the colonies. That is why independence is referred to as the ‘transfer of power’; it did not empower ordinary citizens except in the formal sense envisaged by the Westminster system where universal adult suffrage was seen as the be all and end all of empowerment.

This is the reason why Modi’s words contradicted reality when he asserted – at the ‘democracy summit’ – that ‘It (democratic nation-building) is a story of unprecedented socio-economic inclusion in all spheres. It is a story of constant improvements in health, education, and human well-being at an un-imaginable scale’.

What the PM spoke of in the summit hardly reflects ground realities in a nation reeling under the repeated shocks of demonetisation, black laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, etc and the consummate insensitivity of the ruling elite to the plight of farmers, workers, Bahujans and women.

Today, after 72 years of the Indian Republic, the people stand thoroughly marginalised in the current political process. Even the formal mechanism of elections has been totally subverted by money power, the system of electoral bonds being the latest manifestation of this reality.

What is the alternative to this state of affairs?

Even as we fault the Westminster system, simply harking back to our rich and ancient past, glorifying it and attributing it to a particular religion is nothing but unhelpful chauvinism. The gana sanghas, the ancient republics, of the Licchavis and Shakyas were advanced political systems 2600 years back. The Uttaramerur inscriptions detailed the democratic process which was advanced for that period, 1000 years ago. And there are other examples too which captured the essence of the democratising impulse.  However, they cannot be transplanted to today’s democratic system and political process. Of course, they do set a benchmark for us to think anew about how we can transform the current Indian republic into one where the people can realise their rights. Those who speak only of “duties” clearly have no such intention.

It has become imperative that we work towards a political process, a system of democracy and a form of government that are in tune with the aspirations of modern Indians. In this system, sovereignty has to reside in the hands of the entire people, who should be empowered to exercise their sovereignty in practical, meaningful ways. Such a system would be a true source of inspiration for people all over the world rather than empty boasts about an ancient past that have no bearing on the undemocratic realities of today’s India.

Raghavan Srinivasan is an author, writer and President of Lok Raj Sangathan