Expunging socialism from it should matter to all those who take the Constitution seriously
Whether it was Indira Gandhi, Joan Robinson or Shashi Tharoor who first came up with the aphorism, India’s highest constitutional authorities proved it right this week.
Refusing to entertain a petition that sought the deletion of the word “socialist” to describe the Indian republic, a bench of the Supreme Court—presided over by the chief justice of India—said, “Why do you take socialism in a narrow sense defined by Communists. In broader sense, it means welfare measures for the citizens. It is a facet of democracy.” The next day India was described as the “fastest growing free market democracy” by the president. Whatever you might say about India, and its opposite, it turns out, is equally true. (Also true, perhaps, is another aphorism: that the truth is somewhere in between.)
What the president says at NRI conferences is of little import. What the Supreme Court says matters a lot. So it is rather disappointing to see the Supreme Court’s decision and justification for not entertaining the petition to restore the Preamble to the Constitution to its original state. While the bench did admit (via Lex) a petition to review the requirement that all parties swear by Socialism in order to register with the Election Commission, this is as much about principle as it is about practical matters like election rules.
Socialism, the bench said, “hasn’t got any definite meaning. It gets different meaning in different times”. It is strange that the bench should think this justifies keeping the term. If it has no definite meaning, and can mean different things at different times, then it stands to reason that such terms should be kept out of an eternal document like the Constitution. Going by the bench’s logic, would it be justified to amend the Constitution again and declare India a “sovereign, socialist, secular, generous, benevolent, popular, liberal, political, equal, fair, reasonable, indefinite, nice, happy democratic republic”? This might sound flippant, but if there are grounds to keep words that lack definite meaning then why only socialist, why not these other fine adjectives that too broadly mean welfare measures for citizens?
Indeed, the Constituent Assembly debated—and discarded—the idea of including the word “socialist” in the Constitution. And the bench’s position squarely contradicts Ambedkar’s. Socialism, the chairman of the Constituent Assembly held “cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself”, because it amounts to “destroying democracy altogether”. The meaning of the word “Socialism” has not changed since Ambedkar’s time. The Supreme Court bench has failed to give this question the attention it deserves.
The preamble is the place where India describes itself. One would think that the adjectives used there mean something definite. If they don’t, then there’s no reason to keep them there.
Related Posts: Any party you like. As long as it’s socialist. (views, views & views; and the judicial challenge)