Basic Business #2: Constitutional Rule

Original in Hindi here.

Let’s talk a bit more about our government. Our country is not only a democracy but also a republic. Being a republic means that the country’s sovereignty is not vested in any one individual, and it is also not hereditary.  In plain words, we don’t have any king to reckon with. Our sovereignty is vested in our citizens. The person whom we elect to be the country’s chief (the President) is not our master. They are only a symbol of our sovereignty. They can’t pass on the post to their descendants. They also can’t occupy it any longer than what they are elected for.

We are so used to the idea of India being a republic that we tend to take it for granted. But if you think for a moment, even our former masters – the British – do not have a republic. Their sovereignty is vested in their monarch and that position is hereditary. We also didn’t become a republic just with independence. After our independence, until we adopted the new constitution on 26th January 1951 and declared ourselves a republic, Queen Victoria – sitting in London – was still our queen.

Although it is difficult for a country to not be democratic, and still be a republic, it is entirely possible to have democracy without the country being a republic. The best way to understand this would be through examples rather than definitions. The British government is technically a constitutional monarchy. The word “constitutional” is important here. This means that although the monarch is the chief of the country, they can’t run the country on their whims. The country’s government runs according to the constitution. And that constitution doesn’t accord a whole lot of power to the monarchy. Most of the real state machinery is in the hands of a democratically elected government. And that elected government too must follow the constitution. Because the government is constitutional, it technically being a monarchy doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. The royal family can’t act on its whims and the country is in reality governed for the citizens and by the citizens through democratic means.

But constitutionality is important not just to regulate a monarchy. Our republic and democratic government are also constitutional. We elect our leaders in a constitutional manner. And after they are elected and become part of the state machinery, they can’t just start ruling whimsically. They must run the government in accordance with the constitution.

Let’s see why constitutionalism is important. It is important because it doesn’t matter how people running a state are selected for their jobs, they can’t always do everything right on their own. Whether the government democratic or not, the people who are a part of state machinery have certain powers. And when people get power, they invariably tend to misuse it. Constitutionality is a way to reduce the possibility of such misuse. Even if we have chosen the best person on the earth to be our ruler, they can still do something that is disastrous for people. Because they are humans and humans make mistakes. It happens to all of us that sometimes we make a decision or do something with the best of the intentions, but the results are disastrous. So, even the best person running the government, if they rule with only their judgment to rely on, can commit big blunders whose consequences may have to be borne by a large number of people. And if we have people in the machinery whose intentions were not right in the first place, then the situation is even worse. Hence, we need a constitutional government. It ensures that governance happens in accordance with constitutional principles and laws and is not a slave to someone’s whims.

We can discuss several aspects of the constitution and the state machinery, but let me stop for a moment and tell you why I have been delivering these Civic lessons here. I want to draw your attention to an important idea.

And that idea is this. In a constitutional democratic system, whether it is a republic or a monarchy, the state may have a lot of power, but it doesn’t mean that they are free to use that power in any manner they want. It also doesn’t mean that people powering the state machinery have some sort of divine knowledge of right and wrong. The relationship between the state and the people is not that of a parent and a child. It cannot be assumed that whatever the government thinks or does must be right for the citizens. (Some would say even a parent-child relationship should not be thought of like that, but we can discuss that some other time.) The relationship is also not that of a dictator and their subjects, where the ruler is the master and the subjects must obey them unconditionally. It is important to understand the relationship between the citizens and the state well. The government is not our parent. It is also not our master.

Because our culture fosters almost unbridled respect for elders and authority figures, people often think that they owe the same to their government or political leaders as well. They think that they shouldn’t be speaking against the government or shouldn’t be asking tough questions to their leaders. That’s not right. People In politics or government are also just humans. They have been given certain powers because some people must run the state machinery to keep the society running smoothly. They don’t have any divine rights to that power. They don’t get to dictate our lives. They are not there to lord over us. They are there, as our representatives, to run the government constitutionally.  They are not above the common citizen of this country. Even if they are the president of the country, or the prime minister, or a senior bureaucrat, a minister, an MP or an MLA, we don’t owe them any special respect. Those who really like their work, or just feel like it, are free to give them extra respect. Those who don’t feel like it don’t need to treat them any differently than the other fellow citizens. But because this is a democracy, and our constitution gives us the right, every citizen does have the right to ask them questions. And to exercise this right, we don’t need to fulfill any conditions set by them. We don’t need to vote for them, we don’t need to obey them, we don’t need to do anything to earn their favor. If we are the citizens, and they are a part of the government machinery, they owe us the answers. Period.

If we do not remember this and kowtow to the government or the people running the government as if they were our masters, if we tolerate their unconstitutional autocratic decisions and deeds, then we commit a grave blunder of ignoring and weakening the important rights we have earned after a long and hard fight.

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