People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 05

January 29, 2006

Defend Republican Values: Advance People’s Interests

Prakash Karat


AN important achievement of independent India was the adoption of the Republican Constitution in 1950. Fifty-six years ago, the Constitution declared India a democratic republic which gave its citizens equality, irrespective of race, religion, caste or sex. Looking back, the Constitution, which instituted the parliamentary democratic system with adult franchise, was a major achievement. It gave ordinary people, the scope for participation in politics, despite certain constraints and the limitations in the formulations and working of the Constitution. Framed as it was by a Constituent Assembly, whose representatives were not elected by adult franchise, originating in the British sponsored Government of India Act of 1935, the Constitution bears the hallmark of the ruling classes who acquired State power in 1947. Yet, it also carries forward aspects of the aspirations of the Indian people in their struggle for national emancipation.


The Directive Principles imbued some of these ideas and the fundamental rights spelt out some of the republican rights of the citizens. At the same time, the Directive Principles are not judicially enforceable. The living experience of the people is that many of the fundamental rights set out are violated in practice and are beyond their reach. The failure to fulfill the commitments made in the Constitution emanates from the basic nature of the Indian State – its bourgeois-landlord character. Political democracy and concentration of wealth and economic assets create these contradictory and conflicting features.


The Constitution provided the edifice for parliamentary democracy, which has functioned better here than in most other ex-colonies, which adopted this system. It also provided for political control over the bureaucracy, the armed forces and a degree of independence for the judiciary.


Despite the narrow base and constraints of running a democratic system in a developing capitalist system like India, it is creditable how parliamentary democracy has retained its vitality over the years. The prospects for democracy have not shrunk but have grown since independence. The participation of ordinary people in the elections at all levels is marked by sustained enthusiasm. India does not witness apathy or suspicion for the electoral process by the rural poor and the dispossessed. On the contrary, what is noteworthy is how the landlord/dominant caste forces seek to shut out the dalits and the poorest in the rural areas in many places from voting, by violent means. Finally, despite the failure of many political parties to institute internal democracy, this has not led to the breakdown of the party system. Political parties crop up and proliferate, testifying to the vitality of the party system. Those who had wishes to straightjacket politics into two-party system found their hopes belied.


To sum up, the Republican Constitution, despite its limitations has provided the basis for parliamentary democracy, which has been endowed with political legitimacy by popular mass participation. This is the positive feature of the political system, which has evolved since 1950.


This cannot however, conceal the serious defects and challenges faced by the democratic system. In the current phase of capitalist development marked by neo-liberal policies and rampant privatisation, political democracy has got further divorced from the class hierarchy of the economic structure. Dr Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution had recognised the problem correctly: "The second wrong ideology which has vitiated parliamentary democracy is the failure to realise that political democracy cannot succeed where there is no social and economic democracy." At no time in independent India has the economic divide between the haves and the have-nots been so wide. Economic growth of a particular type is celebrated despite obvious evidence that it excludes the vast number of people from its benefits. The State has increasingly retreated from its commitments to provide the right to work, to education, for the provision of a living wage for the working people, for free and compulsory education for children and so on which are enshrined in the Directive Principles of the Constitution.




The failure of the Republic to ensure even a semblance of social equality is stark. Dalits remain an oppressed community inspite of palliative measures such as reservations sanctioned by the Constitution. The 8.4 crore tribal people are subjected to ferocious exploitation by the feudal-moneylender-contractor nexus. On top of this they are now subject to the depredations of rampant liberalisation and privatisation, which is depriving them of their lands, livelihood and habitats. The Kalinganagar massacre symbolizes the heightened atrocities on the adivasis. Fifty-six years after the republican Constitution, leave alone free and compulsory education upto the age of 14, the State has been unable to ensure literacy for its citizens. Thirty-five per cent of the people are still illiterate.


The most basic failure has been in tackling mass poverty which still exists in India on a scale which is unparalleled among other countries of the world with all the attendant afflictions of hunger, malnutrition and disease.


The policies of liberalisation and privatisation pursued in the past decade and a half have pervaded the system with an anti-democratic and anti-working people attitude. Fresh assaults on democracy have emanated from within the system, which is a direct product of the liberalisation ethos which calls for disciplining the working class and the maintenance of stability at all costs. The rise of the BJP in the 1990s saw not only the ascendance of naked communal politics but also a marked shift to rightwing authoritarianism. It was not surprising that it was the BJP and its leader L K Advani who launched a campaign for the presidential form of government to replace the existing parliamentary system. Calls for restricting adult franchise, educational qualification for candidates who contest elections and a fixed tenure for parliament were bandied about. It will be a mistake to view these as emanating from some parties or individuals alone as they represent a wider anti-democratic ethos generated by the aggressive pursuit by big capital for greater capital accumulation and the demands of international finance capital.


The higher judiciary has reflected this ethos with its intolerance for the collective rights of the people. Bandhs and hartals are to be prohibited; limits are to be placed on the rights to assemble and protest; and student politics on the campus are to be proscribed. The illiberal approach to the working class has been displayed by a host of judgments in the Supreme Court. It is not only in economics and politics that rightwing ideas manifest themselves. Maintenance of the status quo, perpetuation of caste prejudices, glorification of all that is unscientific and irrational – are features of the current situation. This is far from the attitude of the bourgeois ruling circles fresh from the freedom struggle who talked of protecting the scientific temper and democratic principles. Under BJP rule, the communal ideology and social conservatism were introduced in all spheres and much of it remains yet to be undone.


Corruption at all levels has led to the degeneration of the institutions of the State. Increasingly, corruption is seen as an entitlement for a political party which comes to power based on a coalition of castes and communities which were earlier outside the power structure. The loot of public funds by holders of public office, top bureaucrats and bourgeois politicians is one of the main causes why State-sponsored policies for development and provision of benefits for the people have become infructuous.


All these negative features, however, do not undermine the importance of parliamentary democracy. Although a form of class rule of the bourgeoisie, the present parliamentary system also represents an advance for the people. It offers certain opportunities for them to defend their interests, intervene in the affairs of the State to a certain extent and mobilise to carry forward the struggle for democratic and social progress.




Another aspect which should be of serious concern is the erosion in the concept of the sovereignty of the Republic. For decades after the Republic was constituted, India’s foreign policy served broadly to heighten its sovereignty and its independent role. Since the advent of liberalisation in 1991, the argument for giving up non-alignment as a foreign policy principle has led to abandoning an independent foreign policy. This came out starkly during the six-year rule of the BJP government when becoming a natural ally of the United States was a cherished goal. The shift in economic policies and the growing influence of international finance capital and the United States on our economic policies have resulted in an accompanying shift in foreign policy. The UPA government which promised an independent foreign policy and promotion of multi-polarity in international relations is now conforming to the ruling class position that being a strategic ally of the United States is the way forward. The Indo-US Defence Framework Agreement and the joint statement during Prime Minister’s visit to Washington in July 2005 signal the continuing erosion of India’s independent foreign policy. The vote in the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear issue last September was an important landmark in this pro-US stance.


The United States has no hesitation whatsoever in demanding more and more say in matters which are the sovereign concern of India. The United States Ambassador can offer the FBI to investigate bomb blasts in the Northeast. He can accuse the Government of India of a breach of trust for not increasing FDI participation in the insurance sector and the United States can warn India not to proceed with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. Neither the BJP-led government nor the present UPA government sees anything wrong in becoming part of the US global enterprise to spread "democracy" which is nothing but a cover for its hegemonic interventions.


The CPI(M) has been a consistent force to fight against all anti-democratic trends manifesting in the political system. It has been consistent in protecting the Republican values which encompass secularism. Despite the significant contributions made by the CPI(M) and the Left in national politics, especially in the fight against the communal threat, the defence of national unity and for strengthening political democracy, there is still much ground to be covered to make the Left and democratic alternative realizable.


To strengthen the parliamentary democratic system, electoral reforms are essential. A basic reform to check money and muscle power is to introduce the proportional representation in elections on a partial list system. The law has to be tightened to include all forms of expenditure within the limits set for election expenses. State funding through supply of materials for the election campaign has to be instituted.


The nine-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in 1994 defined secularism as a basic feature of the Constitution and clarified that it means separation of religion and State. This should find clear expression in the Constitution.


At the present juncture, it is necessary for the CPI(M) and the Left to struggle against the harmful direction of economic policies. The basic class question of land reforms, wages, employment, defence of the public sector and fighting back the liberalisation offensive against the working people, all these have to be the basis for expanding mass movements and class struggles. The Left has to vigorously take up the question of equality of women, the emancipation of the dalits and the adivasis and defend the rights of the socially and economically oppressed. The efforts of the BJP-RSS combine to resuscitate the communal agenda must be resolutely rebuffed. An important place in the ongoing struggle will be to oppose the pro-US orientation in foreign policy and to assert that republican and sovereign interests requires an independent foreign policy.


All these tasks have to be taken up in the current political context where the UPA government has been in office for twenty months. The phase of developing all-round movements to compel the UPA government to undertake pro-people measures is now underway. The September 29 general strike signaled the determination to proceed on this path. The forthcoming visit of President Bush will be an occasion for the Left and democratic forces to assert that the Indian people will not allow their destiny to be determined by imperialism.