Three thoughts for the Republic

On defending democracy from populists, reminding the Supreme Court of its duty to protect liberty and on upholding representative democracy.

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Eternal nervousness might be the price of democracy

Should liberals relax when populists are democratically elected?
Supporters of liberal politicians and parties sometimes do engage in the dubious sport of blaming democracy for their electoral reverses. It would be appropriate to call out such behaviour as self-serving and hypocritical.

However, sometimes the sourness of the grapes is an early sign of bitter poisonousness. Communists, Fascists, Populists and authoritarians-sans-ideology can use democratic process to acquire power, and then systematically undermine the institutions and values that enabled them to do so. Like burning the ladder after you’ve climbed it, there are many instances in world history where this has occurred (even without invoking Godwin’s Law). The fear of “one man, one vote, one time” can be ignored at our peril. [Read the rest]

The Supreme Court must not hold in contempt what it is mandated to uphold

[In the case of the requiring cinemagoers to stand up for the national anthem] the Supreme Court dissed individual liberty.
The bench sneered at one of the pillars of the Indian Constitution. Troubling as it is, more than the ruling itself we should be concerned that India’s highest judges think this way, and think nothing of expressing it this way. The Supreme Court is, after all, the ultimate guardian of individual liberty. It gets this responsibility from no less an authority than the Constitution of India. Citizens will be justified in wondering if the Supreme Court can discharge this assigned responsibility if it harbours such cynicism or disdain for individual liberty. [Read the rest]

Why democratic governments must consult, but must neither be obliged to nor bound by the results

Ultimately, the government must have the discretion to make the decision. As Brexit has shown, doing what the majority wants does not necessarily benefit the public interest. If it comes to that, the government has the legitimate authority to decide against the most popular choice. It might have to incur political costs of doing this, but a constitutional government’s authority must be upheld. [Read the rest]

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on

On Republic Day 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

On Independence Day 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004;

Three thoughts for the Republic

On standing to reason, avoiding more moral panic and guarding against coercive majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Our Republic is founded on Reason

Of course, government and citizens must uphold the Constitution and live by its lights. That said, every law, every statute and every clause is and ought to be subject to public reasoning. For instance, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the existence of multiple personal laws, the low bar to what is considered sedition and indeed the advice against cow slaughter — to name a few contemporary issues from our penal code and Constitution — must be re-examined in the court of the latest knowledge and understanding of the world. They should stand only when they stand to reason. [The Hindu]

On not letting moral panics consume us

Moral panics in radically networked societies are likely to be intense, personal and, of course, transient. It is unclear how they will affect public policy: politicians and bureaucrats can overreact to what they see as popular demand, or contrarily, tend to ignore what they see as a temporary fad among the digitally connected population. Either way, there are risks. Politicians and parties need to keep their ear to the ground as well as have a finger on the pulse to function effectively. If they lose it, or are confused, the results are unpredictable.

Unfortunately, we know little about how to manage and defuse ordinary moral panics, less these social media-driven recursive ones. We have to grope our way out of the darkness. The stakes, especially for us in India, are high: it is not only about sustaining the conditions for economic growth and transformation. It is also about preserving our constitutional values: As Mr. Desai warns, albeit in another context, there is a risk of how “using the instrument of democracy, fear and divisiveness are likely to triumph over ideals and inclusiveness”. [The Hindu]

The risk from coercive majoritarianism

…we find ourselves in the midst of coercive majoritarianism and the backlash against it.

Yet, it would be dangerously wrong to believe that Hindu majoritarianism is the only game in the country. Like competitive intolerance, majorities everywhere are trying to assert themselves by pushing their agenda onto everyone in their space. We see this in many states: Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Maharashtra, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. It is also happening in villages, towns and urban neighbourhoods, although we do not see it because the national media do not cover it. Everywhere there are trends of a social consciousness that seeks to respond to diversity and pluralism by imposing a majoritarian order. Democracy is offered as justification for this. But India is a republic in addition to being a democracy. This means that there are certain basic values — like individual liberty and fundamental rights — that cannot be pushed over because the majority of the population so desire.

Coercive majoritarianism is a dangerous trend because, like intolerance, it is competitive. It comes at the cost of individual liberty. Conversely, only the relentless defence of individual liberty and constitutional values can counter coercive majoritarianism of the current time. Unfortunately, few political parties and leaders can relied upon to fight majoritarianism, for the simple reason that siding with it is a easier route to power. Perhaps that explains why parliament is discussing “intolerance” rather than the real problem—coercive majoritarianism. [On coercive majoritarianism]


The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on

On Republic Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Don’t worry about anti-nationals

India is not threatened by people with anti-national ideas

This blog is a votary of Indian nationalism—which it contends is essentially of a liberal, plural and non-supremacist nature. As a supporter of republicanism, it upholds the value of “dharmo rakshati rakshitah” (the law protects those who protect it). It is a strong advocate of constitutional methods.

That is why it is important to note that it is no crime to be “anti-national”.

An anti-national is a person who is opposed to nationalism—the idea that a group of people sharing some common bonds constitute a unique community—and therefore is also opposed to the idea of “national interest”. There are good intellectual foundations for denying the legitimacy and basis of nationhood, and good arguments critiquing the idea of national interest. However, this blog holds that the arguments against nationalism and national interest are inferior in the context of the real world.

That does not mean someone holding anti-national opinions is criminal, unpatriotic, seditious, treasonous. It is important not to conflate these terms.

According to Oxford Dictionaries:

anti-national: Opposed to national interests or nationalism
unpatriotic: Not having or expressing devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country
treasonous: The crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government
seditious: Inciting or causing people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch
[Oxford Dictionaries]

In the Indian republic today, sedition is a crime—although it ought not be be one in our constitutional order. Acts of treason are punishable under sections of the penal code and acts pertaining to national security. Being anti-national and unpatriotic, on the other hand, are not crimes per se.

Indeed, the Constitution protects the right to have anti-national and unpatriotic beliefs and opinions, and propagate them peacefully. These rights are subject to laws that impose “reasonable restrictions…in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

India’s liberal democratic order should permit and tolerate anti-national and unpatriotic ideas. The ideas that hold the Indian republic together are much stronger than them. Political and social orders held together by coercion, dogma and force need to fear sedition and free thought. A constitutional order built on reason and liberty need not worry about people’s beliefs.

Secular judges, religious matters and liberal values

Analysing policy issues concerning religion and the judiciary in the Indian republic is complicated

In today’s lead column in The Hindu I argue that India runs the risk of slipping into a “judiciopapist” order, wherein judges have power over matters of religion. In the context of a case before the Supreme Court concerning women’s right to enter traditionally puritanical male domain of Sabarimala temple in Kerala, I argue that “we should be wary of a judiciary that encroaches on more domains, even for causes we consider as desirable and good.” The article reasons that state intervention in religious norms not only create resistance and backlash, but weakens the incentives for endogenous reform to emerge from within religious communities.

“The caveats [circumscribing the domain of religion] are eating into the right [to freedom of religion]. More significant than the issue of whether women should be allowed entry into the Sabarimala temple is the question of whether secular judges ought to be the ones making that call.” [Reform, only left to the judiciary?]

From this, a few readers promptly arrived at the conclusion that I was in favour of rules keeping women out of the temple, and further—on the basis of an older tweet applauding a Supreme Court ruling against polygamy among Muslims—that I was chauvinistic right winger. Amusing as these labels are, an explanation will certainly help.

Is there a contradiction between my support for the Supreme Court rejecting polygamy and my concern over the Supreme Court deciding on Sabarimala entry rules? Well, only if you presume I oppose women’s entry into the Sabarimala. The value judgement on a decision is quite separate from the value judgement on the process by which the decision was taken. As I spell out in the article, it is better for social reform to emerge within society. The position is the same, whether it is temple, church or mosque entry; or whether it is temple elephant markings, polygamy or voluntary suicide.

However, if the Court is seized with a case, it is just as well that it upholds the constitutional values of liberty and equality. It would be a “good” decision if the court permits women entry into Sabarimala, just like it was a good decision to disallow polygamy. Even so, we should be worried that secular judges are making those religious calls.

Related Links: More this issue by Gautam Bhatia in The Hindu and IndConLawPhil blog; and a monograph by Ronojoy Sen on the Indian Supreme Court and secularism (pdf)

A democratic death knell for individual liberty

A referendum is a bad idea

Caught in a political tussle with the Union government that has administrative and “superuser rights”, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government has thrown up the idea of a referendum to decide whether the union territory should become fully a state. Since there is no scope for a referendum within India’s constitutional structure, everything about the proposal—from who are the voters, to who will conduct it to what does any result mean—is an open question.

Regardless, the proposal for a referendum is dangerous, poorly conceived and might destabilise India’s politics more than anyone has imagined. Not for the textual reason that the Constitution does not permit it, but for the deeper, conceptual reason as to why the Constitution does not permit it.

There are two broad arguments for representative democracy: first, the practical transaction costs of taking every issue to all the voters are massive for anything larger than a community of a few thousand people. It would be prohibitively expensive even for a small Indian state to decide every issue by asking voters directly. Technology reduces costs: it is possible that in the coming decades, the availability and adoption of technology will make referenda rather inexpensive to conduct.

So should human civilisation move ahead to direct democracy when transaction costs of referenda are lower than the transaction costs of representative democracy (all that money spent on parliament, legislators and so on)? Not quite. That is because the second argument for representative democracy–even with the quality of legislators that we often detest–is that direct democracy can lead to highly illiberal outcomes. It would be dangerous enough in a homogenous, egalitarian society. It would be extremely risky in a highly diverse society like India’s. Politics is often a contest for relative power among different communities, quite often expressed through imposition or prohibition of their mores. In India we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty?

That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. The Indian Constitution is a balance between a democracy that expresses the will of the majority, and the fundamental rights of the individual. Weaken this edifice and individual liberty will be the first against the wall.

Referenda are dangerous not merely because people in some states might choose to secede from the Indian Union, but really because rule-by-referenda will be the death knell for the rights of the individual. There is no safeguard for liberty in a referendum.

The AAP government in Delhi would do well not to stoke fires it cannot control. If it does want to assess public preferences–for administrative or political purposes–it can conduct large scale public consultations that ask thousands or hundreds of thousands of people for their opinion. Results of such a consultation will have no constitutional basis, but can go some way in bringing in popular sentiment into public policy.

Related Posts: Dogma, Reason & Democracy; and how to escape the tyranny of the ignorant.

On freedom of religion

The only restrictions to propagation of faith are force and fraud.

The last few months have seen the return of religion-related issues into the public discourse. While many of these issues have existed on the agenda of religious-political organisations for decades, their contemporary emergence might has been triggered by electoral calculations and a new public mood for them. It is understandable that many—including, at times, this blogger—have been exasperated by their acquiring centre-stage at a time when India’s growth priorities lie elsewhere.

However, the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda.

The rather clear constitutional position—laid out in Article 25 of the Constitution and elsewhere—was muddied by a confused 1977 Supreme Court judgement (Stanislaus v State of Madhya Pradesh) where a bench headed by Chief Justice A N Ray drew a specious distinction between a fundamental right to propagate (that he ruled is constitutional) against a ‘right to convert’ (that he ruled does not exist). He arrived at this conclusion because he reasoned that one’s right to convert violates another’s freedom of conscience, and therefore is untenable.

In his monumental three-volume Constitutional Law of India, H M Seervai argues that the “Supreme Court’s judgement is clearly wrong, is productive of the greatest public mischief and ought to be overruled.” Seervai’s contends that conversion due to force or fraud is clearly unconstitutional because “if A converts B by force or fraud, B is deprived of his freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.” So the only question relates to the constitutionality of conversion by persuasion. Chief Justice Ray, Seervai argues, “mistakenly believed that if A deliberately set out to convert B by propagating A’s religion, that would impinge on B’s “freedom of conscience”. But…the precise opposite is true: A’s propagation of his religion with a view to its being accepted by B, gives an opportunity for B to exercise his free choice of a religion.”

Seervai’s arguments were consistent with the intentions of the Constituent Assembly. He quotes K M Munshi’s speech on the background of Article 25(1) in the Assembly. Munshi states: “So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to be recognised. The word ‘propagate’ in this clause is nothing very much out of the way as some people think, nor is it fraught with dangerous consequences.”

Unfortunately, until a bigger bench of the Supreme Court revisits the 1977 judgement, we have to live with the ‘public mischief’ it has encouraged. There is no doubt that the framers of the Constitution intended to permit conversions as long as there was no force or fraud involved.

That indeed is the liberal position. In The Acorn‘s opinion, inducements and allurements cannot be distinguished from other forms of persuasion. A person ought to be—and is in India—free to convert to any faith for any reason, including financial ones. There is no reason why a citizen cannot sell her soul to the highest bidder, and no reason why she cannot repeat this auction every day. May the highest bidders win, day after day! (As an aside, it is likely that the reservation price for a soul will rise in tandem with per capita GDP.)

In a discussion some weeks ago, a thoughtful colleague noted that while this may be all right in case of individual conversions, large scale conversions change demographics and can be detrimental to national security and the very values in the Constitution that enable such conversions. This is a fair and valid point. Even so, like all other liberties, freedom of religion must be safeguarded without taking it away.

Amid all the heat and noise of partisanship and prejudice, the public discourse does not frame the question properly. The question is what is the proper the role of the state and the government in matters of conversion? The correct answer is that it has—or ought to have—no role, other than to prevent force and fraud, and punish those who engage in them.

Individuals and religious organisations have—and ought to have—the right to persuade people into converting to their faith. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu organisations should be free to organise “ghar wapsis“, “shuddhis“, re-conversions and indeed fresh conversions, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. The Church should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. Muslims should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. So too everyone else.

The government must remain agnostic (pun unintended) while people should be free to choose from the options available. As Seervai says, it is the existence and ability to exercise choice, that makes their freedom of conscience a reality.

None of this is the government’s business. To the extent that ghar wapsis and other conversions do not have implicit or explicit support of the state, use or connivance of the government machinery or wilful negligence to prevent force and fraud, there cannot be any objection to them.

Far from getting worked up over the VHP’s ghar wapsi campaign, the focus of the public discourse ought to be to examine the concerned government’s role. There have been cases, as in Y S Rajasekhar Reddy’s administration in Andhra Pradesh, where state government machinery was used to support and abet conversions. This is clearly wrong. If Christian missionaries conduct similar conversions without the government’s support (or opposition) then they are within their rights to do so. Those who think this is a problem can organise themselves and use persuasion to prevent and indeed, re-convert people that the missionaries have converted. They too are within their rights to do so.

Some have proposed a new law to ban all conversions. Such a law is not only deeply illiberal but positively untenable under the Constitution. If today all sorts of laws—from those proscribing conversions to those requiring changes of faith to be approved by government office—are in force, it is in no small measure due to the judiciary’s failure to interpret Article 25 as in its letter and spirit. We will have to await a more enlightened Supreme Court bench to reset the constitutional position to one where the 1977 judgement is overruled.

In the meantime, there is no doubt that persuasion is the only instrument any religious organisation can use to propagate its faith and win converts.

The liberal nationalist position on free speech

The problem is not so much the liberals, but a mass of the population which gives in to populist sentiments.

The weapon of the weak

Sowmya Rajaram of Bangalore Mirror interviewed me for her feature article on Sunday. Here is the complete exchange:

1. What, according to you, is freedom of expression (FoE)?

The idea of free speech & expression is to say (write, draw, sing, compose musically etc) what one feels without being deterred by government, politicians, social consensus or popular sentiments. The only exception is the “harm principle” where there is incitement to violence.

Of course some free speech can be defamatory, and those defamed can seek legal recourse for the damage caused to them. But there cannot be any prior restraints on free speech.

2. There are a few matters to consider when talking about FoE– one of them being that it isn’t equal for everyone. Often FoE is different when you’re a disadvantaged minority, and an ideal for the privileged majority. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the publications’s cartoons were often violent and deliberately provocative (even distasteful) in a country which did have a troubled relationship with its Muslim minority. So how does one negotiate that?

This is a specious argument — on the contrary, free speech is more meaningful for those who are in a minority, for their voices to be heard. It is more meaningful for those who are weaker, powerless, poor or disadvantaged. Only free speech allows the disadvantaged asymmetric power.

3. You have in the past said that censorship is tied up with issues of intolerance and competitive politics. That may be true, but isn’t censorship necessary in a large, diverse and often fractious state like ours? How does one balance the need for individual FoE with a collective responsibility to peace and freedom?

In ordinary circumstances, there is no case for censorship of any kind. Films could perhaps be classified so that children are protected from adult themes and audiences can know before-hand which films they might want to avoid. You only have to see our films to see how distorted censorship outcomes are: you have films with the most misogynistic themes, celebrating barbaric behaviour, all allowed without cuts. But kissing and nudity are censored!

The only point where censorship is justified is in emergencies — where there is a risk that information flows can impact national security, set off large-scale violence, rioting, stampedes etc.

Censorship to protect the sensitivities of adults is ridiculous, patronising and makes a mockery of our democracy where adults are considered sensible enough to vote, marry and produce children, but not sensible enough to watch a movie or read a book!

These questions turn up repeatedly because we have arrived at some kind of a consensus that something that is offensive ought to be banned. The contemporary roots of this arose with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which the Rajiv Gandhi government banned. India was the first country to ban the book! That opened the floodgates for everyone to claim to be offended and get the offending movie or book banned. Since India has hundreds of communities, it is normal for each of them to want to claim the same ‘privilege’ as others.

Showing thin-skinnedness is also a useful political tactic, as it allows a group to demonstrate their political strength.

Individuals identify with one or more communities, and are understandably more vocal in claiming their own ‘privileges’ than in defending others’ rights. So people will engage in whataboutery and yesbuttery. We can’t blame the people, because they are responding to the incentives our public environment has created.

The way out is simply to adhere to the view that nobody’s sensitivities are worthy of protection. I think many of the films, lyrics and songs are in very poor taste, and hence I avoid them. People have the right to change the channel! If people don’t turn up to watch Honey Singh’s shows, I’m sure he’ll change his tunes (or lyrics). People who are offended by Doniger, Rushdie or Socrates don’t have to read them.

4. Many of the ‘hate speech’ laws are a legacy of colonial times when it was deemed necessary to have them to control an essentially “esxcitable”, diverese race. How are these relevant today?

Yes, hate speech laws in the West derive from their colonial excesses, racism, slavery, and of course, the great crimes during the Second World War. We did not have these in India. Our problem is communal, caste and ethnic conflict which is not quite the same thing.

We need not control hate speech. But there is a case to punish incitement to violence based on hatred (or for that matter, any other reason).

5. How much merit is there to the movement for a complete libertarian state where speech is truly free? Is it even possible?

There cannot be a complete libertarian state, as that is an oxymoron. A state involves a social contract where some liberties are traded away for the privilege of enjoying the rest of them. So we give up the right to violence to the state, so that we may enjoy the right to life, property, free speech and so on.

A figure of merit, therefore, is how few of our liberties do we need to give up in order to enjoy the rest. North Koreans give up 90% of their liberties to enjoy the remaining 10%. North Americans give up 10% of their liberties to enjoy the 90%. I think India should aim to move towards the North American standard, rather than the North Korean standard.

6. FoE also becomes problematic when one weighs the consequences of utterances differently. For instance, liberals were up in arms about the ban on Wendy Doniger’s book, in the case of Charlie Hebdo and earlier, when Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition and jailed. But the very same people were also outraged when Honey Singh was to perform in India in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape in 2012, given his offensive, provocative lyrics that were derogatory to women. Could you talk a little bit about the conflict there?

Again this is a specious generalisation. I’m sure there were liberals who defended the rights of both. The problem is not so much the liberals, but a mass of the population which gives in to populist sentiments. So we’ll have people claiming “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” because it is popular, we’ll have people supporting the ban on pornography, because that is the right thing to be seen saying, and we’ll have people asking Honey Singh to be banned.

The masses have no obligation to be logically consistent, or principled. We, the people, are selective in our morality and our principles. That’s our problem.

7. It is a problematic subject with no easy answers — but is FoE a myth? Does it exist? What kind of approach can one take to the concept?

Of course it is real and it exists. The very fact that we are debating the limits of our free speech is a statement to its existence, its importance and its acceptance in our society. Our only problem is that we want it to be self-serving!

Good ideas, not just honest people

The politics of populism or misplaced notions of polity?

An interview with Sunday Guardian‘s Atul Dev on the Aam Aadmi Party’s government’s actions in Delhi.

The AAP’s dharna against the Delhi Police officers was termed unconstitutional by many. What is your view regarding this?

(Nitin Pai). Anyone going on a dharna is adopting non-constitutional methods. As Ambedkar says, there is no place for non-constitutional methods when constitutional methods are available. For a chief minister to go on a dharna is doubly disturbing because an official sworn to uphold the constitution is resorting to non-constitutional methods. It sets a bad example — if everyone who feels dissatisfied with the “system” decides to adopt non-constitutional methods, what is the yardstick by which society decides what to do? We will end up with the law of the jungle, and the strong will prevail over the weak.

Q. How do you react to Arvind Kejriwal being labelled an anarchist, and if you agree, how will it affect the political atmosphere of Delhi?

A. Mr Kejriwal might or might not be an anarchist, but the methods he adopted legitimise people breaking rules and due processes, based on their own assessment of right and wrong. This is a formula for anarchy, as in a diverse country like India, almost everyone has a grievance, almost everyone believes that his cause is right and almost everyone believes that they’ve waited too long for justice.

Q. Many wrote off Arvind Kejriwal as the Lokpal movement came to close. What do you think were the major factors responsible for him coming to power?

A. There is clearly a wide-open governance gap because the UPA government almost entirely lost the plot, and was unable to even persuade people that there is a coherent government in charge. There are also underlying factors: urbanisation, sizeable middle class, instruments like RTI and social media created the conditions for urban India to begin to find its political footing. These factors, plus some clever old-style populist political promises helped Mr Kejriwal win. Continue reading “Good ideas, not just honest people”

Robbery is not right

The ‘rights-based approach to development’ is immoral and illiberal

Why was there ideological collusion in the passage of a bill that promises ‘food security’ but is certain to severely undermine India’s development path? Several reasons can be adduced—from the electoral to the conspiratorial—but what gave both the terrible bill and the even more terrible scheme it seeks to implement the impression of inevitability was the underlying narrative of a “rights-based approach”. And, as Narayan Ramachandran writes, “[the] apostle of the rights-based approach in India is the National Advisory Council (NAC).”

Over the last decade, the NAC’s narrative of a “rights-based approach” to development has acquired dominance. It has pervaded government policy because Sonia Gandhi, its chief and Congress party president, in all likelihood, genuinely believes in it. The power of narratives is such that even if you replace Mrs Gandhi and her NAC with another political leader and his or her own clique, they will be compelled to persist with the same policies as before, or undertake the Hanumanian task of countering the rights-based narrative before rolling back or changing tack on the massive entitlement schemes. (See my previous post on this).

Narayan argues that the rights-based approach is the wrong development model for India. In fact, “rights-based approach” is a misnomer. It is a clever way to refloat the failed policies of socialism under a new, fashionable but dubious political philosophy. In essence, this ‘development model’ identifies an ever-growing list of life’s needs and necessities, declares that they are ‘rights’ and suggests that these be provided by the state.

A lot of well-meaning people are fooled by this sophistry. Since few good people will dispute that people need food, education, healthcare and jobs to live in this world, they become susceptible to the argument that such necessities are rights. Moreover, since a lot of famous people, including Nobel laureates and rock stars, advocate this approach, the notion that such things are rights acquires wings.

Yet for all the celebrity endorsement, warm fuzzy feelings it creates, the so-called rights-based approach is immoral and illiberal. The only true rights are those that do not come at anyone else’s cost. Preetam’s right to life, equality, freedom and property do not come at Palani’s cost, and vice versa. The state might have to incur a cost to protect these rights, but not to provide them. [Meet Preetam and Palani, in Redistribution as Theft]

The entitlements that the NAC-types call ‘rights’ are different. It costs someone something to provide them. If Preetam and Palani are the only two citizens in a hypothetical state, the cost of providing Palani’s right to food, education, healthcare and jobs must be borne by the state. If the state, in this example, is financed by Preetam’s tax payments, Palani’s entitlements come at the cost of further infringing on Preetam’s rights (in this case, the right to use his money as he pleases).

It is sometimes reasonable to argue that Preetam must be made to pay for Palani’s necessities in order to have a equitable society. Or because Palani might be contributing to Preetam’s welfare in other ways. What is wholly wrong, though, is to contend that food, education, healthcare, internet connections, jobs and suchlike are ‘rights’, in the same way as life, freedom and property are rights.

However desirable, however necessary, if it costs (someone else) to provide, it is not a right. It is an entitlement. Liberal democracies can agree to make some entitlements obligations of the state. But it is important to keep these obligations distinct from rights. The framers of the Indian Constitution made this distinction when they separated Fundamental Rights from Directive Principles. Unfortunately, their successors in parliament lacked the same moral clarity, and proceeded to undermine Rights even as they attempted to rightify the obligations that fall under the Directive Principles.

Because it violates (someone else’s) rights, the rights-based approach is universally immoral. India cannot afford the luxury of this ‘international development’ fashion. The cost of providing an ever-growing list of entitlements is prohibitively large, and will severely undermine India’s future. Right-minded people and political parties (no pun intended) should reject the rights-based approach.

1. The Two-Person Test to determine what is a right (also known as the Preetam & Palani Test). If it costs Preetam to provide Palani something (and vice versa), then, however desirable it might be, it is not a right.

2. If we accept the rights-based approach, then we urgently need to legislate the “Right to Richer Spouse.” If every citizen has an enforceable right to marry a richer person, then poverty will disappear fairly quickly. Such a right will take away some freedom from the richer persons, but that’s no different from the rights to food, education, jobs and suchlike. If you find the Right to Richer Spouse absurd or repugnant, just remember that it is based on the same logic as the right to food, education, healthcare, jobs, internet connections and so on…

3. A storified series of tweets on the topic.

Why the President of India must reject the Food Security ordinance

President Pranab Mukherjee must reject the Union Cabinet’s unjustified ordinance

The UPA government’s Food Security Bill (brief) is likely to cause severe damage to the Indian economy, while saddling future generations with an open-ended spending commitment that will be hard to wind down. The government’s own Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices and the Expert Committee (report) headed by the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (report) have argued against it. As Ravikiran Rao argues in Pragati, the scheme will not only widen India’s gaping fiscal deficit, but severely distort the national food supply chain.

But you do not have to agree with the bill’s critics to acknowledge that a bill on which there is no consensus even among the government’s top economic experts, which imposes a burden on future generations, at a time when the Indian economy is in doldrums and the investors—domestic and foreign—are wary about investing in India, should not be implemented in a hurry.

Yet that is exactly what the UPA government is attempting to do. After emotional blackmail—for which purpose Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was recruited—failed to persuade parliament in the previous session, the Union Cabinet has now decided to sneak it through an ordinance.

Under the Constitution, an ordinance is an emergency provision, equipping the Executive to implement measures when the Parliament is not in session. The ordinance must be approved by both houses of Parliament the next time they convene and “shall cease to operate at the expiration of six weeks from the reassembly of Parliament”. What is important to note is the debates in the Constituent Assembly, the wording of the Constitution and Supreme Court judgements are clear that issuing ordinances is an emergency provision to be used at extraordinary times. Chief Justice P N Bhagwati, heading a Constitution Bench in D C Wadhwa vs State of Bihar held that

“The power to promulgate an Ordinance is essentially a power to be used to meet an extraordinary situation and it cannot be allowed to be ‘perverted to serve political ends’. It is contrary to all democratic norms that the Executive should have the power to make a law.” [1987 AIR 579, 1987 SCR (1) 798/IndiaKanoon]

The Union Cabinet’s decision to implement the food security bill—that is still in Parliament—through an ordinance flies in the face of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Justice Bhagwati’s ruling is clear—an ordinance can only be used to meet an extraordinary situation, not perverted to serve political ends.

Where is the extraordinary situation? Where is the food emergency? Is there a famine in the country? Is a famine projected? If there is no extraordinary situation, then the Union Cabinet’s decision to wrap its political pet project in the garb of an emergency is against constitutional morality. It is perhaps unconstitutional as well.

There is no doubt that there many right-thinking Indians who believe that the food security bill is a good thing and that it will even provide food security as intended. However, it will be hard for any reasonable person to conclude that the situation in India is dire enough to bulldoze constitutional and democratic norms and present parliament with a fait accompli.

The argument that the ordinance is necessary because Opposition parties have not allowed Parliament to function does not wash. While the BJP has provided the Congress party with a seemingly plausible excuse, the Union Cabinet is bound by the Constitution. It is sworn to uphold the Constitution. It cannot refuse to perform this duty merely because the Opposition is not playing by the rules. If we are to buy the premise that two wrongs make a right, we are either in a jungle or in a banana republic.

President Pranab Mukherjee is perhaps sympathetic to Sonia Gandhi’s ideological persuasions. As a life-long Congressman, he might be inclined towards the party’s socialist leanings. Yet when the ordinance comes before him, the only question he must ask is “Is there an extraordinary situation that demands this ordinance?” Parliament convenes in a few weeks. Can this not wait until then?

The Indian Republic’s history is replete with presidents, who despite being lifelong Congressmen, have had the integrity, courage and statesmanship to question Congress-led governments. It is up to President Mukherjee to decide whether he wants to be a Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed or a Rajendra Prasad.