Elections are less than three weeks away and there are many who are not sure how they will vote, and even, whether they will vote. I go into this election with definite concerns and preferences. This post is written as a way of sharing those in a constructive way, in the hope that someone will find them useful.
The touchstone for me are Constitutional values. I grant, none of our politicians show a steadfast devotion to them, but which group is less likely to want to intervene and actually change them? In my head, the answer is clear, but I will not spell it out for you. I will instead take you through my reflections on the Preamble, which offers us the clearest distillation of the values that our founding leadership in the Constituent Assembly thought were important. You can make your decision.
“We, the People of India”
This phrase thrills me, always has, but in recent years, I have had to meditate more and more on it.
Who are we, the ‘People of India’? Even when I was a child, I knew that this was not a homogeneous lump of humans. People were different from me, like my classmates in school and their parents. Their languages were different and their lunch dabbas were different. Diversity looked like the floats on Republic Day.
I see so much more when I now look, as an adult in a world where we are learning to think intersectionally and take better cognizance of how each one wants to be identified. And all of us, each of us, with our full wardrobes of identities, make up the ‘People of India.’
A Brazilian friend once said, “I am not Brazilian because I am White/ Black/ etc. I am Brazilian and therefore, I am all those things.” In that spirit, “we” who are the people of India are Bangla and Tamil and Muslim and Hindu and cis-men and transwomen and Dalit and Brahmin and music-lovers and kabbadi players and an infinite number of our identities-as-numerous-as-our-gods.
I thrill to try and imagine that unimaginable possibility of being so much and so many. Now that I am learning that our diversity and my possibilities are infinite, I do not want anyone to boil me down to a simple two-ingredient soup stock. And I will vote and advocate for a government that enables me to be all the different people I want to be.
Nationalism loads ‘sovereign’ with agendas that the word need not have. It once simply meant being acknowledged by the world as free to decide for itself and acknowledged by people within as competent to decide for them. The idea of self-interest, very narrowly and contentiously defined by nationalism, I am uncomfortable with.
Nehru’s much reviled idealism is the kind of sovereignty that works for me. I want India to be focused on doing the right thing and to be an imaginative influence for a more peaceful world. I want us to be secure enough in our sovereignty to be a part of global regimes and conventions that promote human rights, justice, sustainable development and equity.
Within India, I want the government to show the moral courage to take decisions that create a more equal and fairer world and to take a strong stand against those whose speech and actions diminish the humanity of others. I would consider such a government worthy of the authority to make decisions in my name.
It is ‘we, the people of India’ who are constituting ourselves as sovereign and not the government of India which is sovereign. Whoever is the agent of our sovereignty—the government of India—must engage with us, respond to our questions and challenges and be accountable to us. They cannot take actions in our name that violate the core values we go on to list.
Yes, it is true that disrespect for civil society and public questioning are common traits of Indian governments in the last few decades. However, I would vote for people who would be more likely to hesitate to slap sedition charges, and less likely to disdain media interactions or revile civil society. That would be my way of understanding how ‘sovereignty’ is meant to work.
“Socialist,” read with “Equality of status and opportunity”
The Constituent Assembly of India did not feel the need to write the word ‘socialist’ into the Preamble. It was perhaps assumed that justice and equality would suffice. By the time this word was added in 1975, we had however been speaking of a ‘socialistic pattern’ of society for a long time.
India is a hierarchical society and the only way an Indian would not notice that is if they were sitting at the top of the hierarchy. A hierarchical society and a democratic polity are mutually incompatible, and the very intelligent people who debated and drafted our Constitution knew that. In order to balance the individualistic orientation of the Fundamental Rights chapter, they wrote the Directive Principles of State Policy which essentially asked successive governments of India to place the common good over individual interest. While the word ‘socialist’ was not in the Preamble for the first twenty-five years of the Republic, the idea of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” certainly informed the government’s approach to development—from planning to nationalisation to the public distribution system to food self-sufficiency.
Some things improved, but so much inequality remains. While the post-liberalisation boom has extended some benefits across the board—maybe the ownership of consumer durables like televisions, mobile phones or scooters—so much that is essential remains shamefully inaccessible to too many Indians—drinking water, decent schools, primary health care. We are still talking about the same shortages that prevailed forty years ago. Some of us live in comfort we could scarcely have imagined then, connected at the tips of our fingers to the whole world, and others, still cannot read, cannot reach a hospital in time or dare to dream about what they will be when they grow up.
India’s burgeoning youth population is growing up with the same unconscionable inequalities and discrimination as their parents did.
This means, as I reflect on the Preamble three weeks before elections, I am going to seek out those who feel for ordinary people and place them front and centre in their politics. I am going to look for people who condemn discrimination on any grounds. I want a government that will balance growth and equity but when tough choices are made, will have enough compassion and fairness to place equity first. I want a government that will engage with local communities before dumping infrastructure projects and economic zones into their lives. I want leaders who understand how hard it was for women to save those 1000s and 500s that suddenly lost value. I want a government whose heart places economic and social justice ahead of private profits and Davos invitations.
I am particularly passionate about this rather dry word. India as the home to people of many faiths is a part of what defines me.
The people I grew up around were from families that followed many faiths and many versions and variations of the same traditions. All of these taught the same values—truth, kindness, generosity and faith. The manner of observance, the dates of celebration and the feasts may have been different as well as the ways in which we named those we worshipped or venerated. But something at bottom was the same and as children, we understood that.
As an adult, I have sought help and succour where I could reach when I needed it, and I have found it. Music from all faith traditions has touched me in the same way. And I am convinced that if there is a god, as it comforts many of us to believe, that god could not be so petty as to discriminate between one cry for help or another.
An India reduced to one faith community, whose faith (mine) is simplified in the most unimaginative way with all of us expected to conform is an unbearable idea to me. What I do cherish is that the way that I get to be Hindu is the way that appeals to my heart and mind, and if you take that away from me and impose your essentialised notion of this magnificently plural civilisation of traditions and ideas, you will kill all that is appealing about being a Hindu.
Secularism is about keeping the state, the government and the raucous majority out of my house of worship, my sacred text, my communion with what I consider divine and my way of relating to that. Secularism is about freedom of religion (or no religion) and freedom of conscience.
I will not have the government define faith, tradition or culture for me. Nor will I have a government that wants to tell me what to eat, how to eat or when to eat. The only relationship a government should have with my food is to make sure I have some and that it is safe and healthy. Everything else is a violation of my freedom.
A few weeks ago, we had a discussion in our office on the Preamble and in response to my question about democracy, a young student chimed, “Government of the people, for the people, by the people.”
The word ‘democratic’ ties together all the other words in the Preamble. It speaks to popular sovereignty—by the people. It speaks to equality and justice, socialism and secularism, fraternity and freedom—for the people. And it is the people who choose the representatives who will make all this a reality for all of us—of the people.
How democratic is India? Indian elections make history every time and they are an awe-inspiring logistical exercise but not perfect, as anyone whose name has mysteriously disappeared off the electoral list will tell you. However, elections are not the only way to judge democracy. Others include: autonomy and unimpaired functioning of institutions; accountability in systems and in political culture; rule of law and freedom of speech, expression and conscience.
I am old enough to have reason to be cynical, but still, I am going to vote hopefully for a government I think will at least have some qualms about decimating democracy in India.
The word ‘republic’ has two common meanings. The first is that sovereignty resides in the people and the people rule. In most republics, they rule through representatives they elect, directly or indirectly. The second signals that those who rule, do so by the authority people vest in them through elections rather than through hereditary right. And yes, this means that the children of politicians cannot assume that they will inherit the ‘throne’ but have to work for it in some way.
But there is a larger, and to my mind, more important point. Even a government with a large majority, even a majority of votes, ultimately acts in our name, and must have the humility to communicate with us. Communication means a two-way exchange—you tell me, I tell you, I ask you, you respond and if you cannot, you tell me so honestly. Communication is not a broadcast; you talk, I listen. And if I have any questions I dare ask, I am anti-national and seditious. That is not how republics should work.
It is my duty to hold governments accountable and good governments invite and respond to that act of citizenship with grace and honesty.
I will state honestly that most governments I have seen in my life fail to meet that bar but that means my only way to control that tendency is to give people just one term so that they do not feel that can perennially get away with silencing me.
The Preamble explicitly states that we decide to constitute ourselves as a republic in order to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. That is, the whole point of being India, and the government of India, is to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for ALL of us, who are citizens of India.
“Justice, social, economic and political”
In a society that has been deeply hierarchical and unequal and where recent economic choices have exacerbated those divisions, justice sometimes seems like a distant dream. And yet, no other signs of development or progress have meaning without it. The case for social and economic justice has been made in the discussion of socialism and equality.
The Preamble speaks, however, of political justice. What does justice mean in the political realm, I wonder?
Is it the justice that ensues when institutions are respected and allowed to function autonomously so that each is able to protect those processes and values that are in its charge? Is it the justice that ensues when the relationship between central and state governments are not repeatedly abused using constitutional means like Article 356 and unconstitutional means like shopping for MLAs? Is it the justice that ensues when all points of view are heard and policy and project decisions are made in consultation with those who will be affected by them?
Political justice, in my view, also points to the impunity with which men, including male politicians, male celebrities and agents of the state, get away with acts of violence—verbal, physical, emotional, economic and sexual—on a routine basis. A culture of impunity is inimical to democracy, good governance, justice and peace.
Political justice must mean to respect dissent and to make equal room in the national conversation on any topic for naysayers, questioners and challengers. It is unpleasant to feel constantly challenged but only if your sense of self and security depends on being unassailable rather than amenable to reflection and learning. Political justice follows when there is a great degree of comfort with a public reckoning on policies and politics—and when leaders are able to say, this is what we are thinking, tell me what you think, what you know. Shutting people up and locking them in jail for disagreeing with you, is not political justice.
This means that dialogue in conflict situations is also political justice. Instant action and vengeance work in the movies but in the real world, solutions are found through restraint, listening, talking, reconciliation and people to people interaction. Anything else is unfair to those who are caught in the crossfire and deprives them of the justice promised to them.
Finally, political justice lies in defining Indian citizenship and protecting equally the political rights of all Indians, regardless of how inconvenient it is to one’s vested electoral or economic interests.
“Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”
Elections do not make us democratic; liberty does. In Tagore’s poem, which we learn in school, the India he prays for has freedom of thought (“the mind is without fear”) and there are no strictures on learning (“where knowledge is free”). No one insists on rewriting history or dictating appropriate subjects for PhDs or reinventing science. There is neither fear of independent thought nor of learning. This is the India that the founders of this country meant us to have.
I cannot believe that I have been living in an India where people have been jailed for human rights advocacy and legal work. I cannot believe that I have been living in an India where people have been assassinated for the way they thought and the things they wrote.
I cannot believe that when something happens, more and more of us self-censor what we write. It is not that we lack conviction or courage. It is a strategic choice. Let me keep quiet for this; it is smaller than the other thing that is likely to happen next. Let me hold my fire now; I will need when the crisis comes closer. Let me wait; I don’t have the energy to argue with trolls. This is not Tagore’s “heaven of freedom.”
It is not even the country of my Constitution which guarantees me six fundamental freedoms and the right to defend them against the state. Yes, my freedoms are limited by the condition of the security of the state, but that, any citizen with a conscience will tell you is an extreme contingency and not one to be invoked like the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ just on a personal whim.
In this election, I will vote for the party I trust more to know that difference. I will vote to defend my freedom and your freedom to disagree with me. I will vote for a government that will allows us both room to say what we want but will not tolerate hate speech, mob violence or targeted assassinations. I want a government that will be proactive in defending my freedoms not in taking them away from me.
I just want to add here that we are very lucky to have a Constitution that gives primacy to the Right to Equality. The very first right listed in the Chapter on Fundamental Rights is equality. I want a government that recognises how essential equality and justice are, ahead of everything else including looking good in international business circles.
“India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage.” The opening words of the pledge printed in most of our textbooks underscore the ‘unity in diversity’ theme we grew up with.
Today, we are a country of siblings urged to fight with each other over issues as trivial as food and dress. We might still recite the words but we seem to be forgetting what they mean. We do not feel for each other, we judge each other, we are unable to put another’s need first. Or so it seems to me.
I want that other country back.
When farmers march across the country to say they have a problem, I want a government that feels shame that they had to march to be noticed, and that too, after media prodding. When women speak about violence, I want to belong to a country that will not second guess the timing of their revelation or speak ill of them, adding to their trauma. I want a government whose response is empathy and justice and not to lock up women and cover them head to toe. I want us to care about human rights violations in parts of the country we may never visit.
I want to vote this time for the party more likely to show empathy. I do not want a unidirectional broadcast of crocodile tears. I want someone to quietly act with common sense and compassion both. I want a government which seeks to unite India, not divide us.
If you look at the Preamble, it associates Fraternity with the ‘dignity of the individual’ and also with the ‘unity and integrity’ of India. These are not contradictory. I can feel for the young people who have lost their sight thanks to pellet-guns, I can lament the use of those guns and I can also wish—not that the government somehow holds on to Jammu and Kashmir but—that we can all find a way to reconciliation and peace, so that young people can worry about the things they should be thinking about at 18 and 20 and 22—studies, careers, romance, adventure, science and art—and not being dead, injured or left with a permanent disability. I can have my vision for that ‘unity and integrity’ even if it is different from yours. Our differences will not divide us, because we are bound to each other by another feeling…. or we should be.
I will vote for that integrative, inclusive vision of India.
On April 18, 2019, I will be voting for the Constitution of India and for its core values, spelt out clearly in its Preamble.
Written on March 26, 2019