On Constitutional Morality – 1

Are we destined to oscillate between populism and constitutionalism?

Here’s an extended excerpt from Andre Beteille’s Dr B R Ambedkar Lecture, delivered at the Administrative Staff College of India, on February 25th, 2008, as published in EPW.

While independence was no doubt a watershed in the life of the nation, things have not stood still since it was attained. I have referred to those days as days of high expectations. Not surprisingly, many of those expectations could not be met. The people of India have gradually learnt that their own elected leaders can be as deaf to their pleas as the ones who came from outside. Sometimes they have shown themselves to be even more venal and self-serving than the British who ruled India. Or perhaps, because Indians had developed such high expectations of their own elected leaders, they lost patience with them more quickly and became more peremptory with their demands on them.

The strength or weakness of constitutional morality in contemporary India has to be understood in the light of a cycle of escalating demands from the people and the callous response of successive governments to those demands. In a parliamentary democracy, the obligations of constitutional morality are expected to be equally binding on the government and the opposition. In India, the same political party treats these obligations very differently when it is in office and when it is out of it. This has contributed greatly to the popular perception of our political system as being amoral.

In a political system in which the principal parties, whether in office or in opposition, have shown themselves to be venal and self-serving, it would be folly to close the door on civil disobedience. But civil disobedience, as no one understood better than Gandhi, is not a panacea, and it does not come without a price. Gandhi was unyielding in his view that civil disobedience had to be non-violent, and he was prepared to eat humble pie, and call it off when it took a violent turn. Continue reading On Constitutional Morality – 1