(This is the second of a two-part series on the Indian Constitution by Sudheendra Kulkarni. You can read part one here.)
The constitution of any nation is its supreme law. All laws flow from it, and also find their legitimacy and validation in it. The Constitution of India, however, is more than the Gangotri of the laws that frame its democratic system of governance.
Rather, it is the Holy Ganga itself, a reservoir of an ancient civilisation’s hopes, aspirations, goals and ideals. I have used the Ganga here in the Nehruvian sense, not as it exists today in its polluted state. In his inimitable ode to the river, contained in his will and testament, India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru described the Ganga as “a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilisation…the symbol of India's memorable past which has been flowing into the present and continues to flow towards the ocean of the future.”
Nehru: The Farsighted Statesman
Nehru was not an ordinary politician preoccupied with the concerns and gains of the here and now. As a farsighted statesman, India’s past and future mattered to him as much as the present. Therefore, while introducing the ‘Resolution on the Aims and Objects of the Constitution’ (which came to be known as the ‘Objective Resolution’) on 13 December 1946, he exhorted members of the august body.
The eyes of our entire past—the 5,000 years of India’s history—are upon us. Our past is witness to what we are doing here and though the future is still unborn, the future too somehow looks at us.Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
As India stood at the end of an era and embarked upon a new age, he urged them to remember that “our forebears and future generations are watching this undertaking of Constitution-making and possibly blessing it, if we moved aright.”
The ‘Objective Resolution’ speech by Nehru – he was already the prime minister of the interim government at the time, and hence India’s foremost leader after Mahatma Gandhi – spelt out the basic principles, values, ideals and goals that would guide the Constitution-making endeavour.
They were expressed in concise, crystallised and immensely inspiring words in the Preamble to the Constitution, as it was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949, and as it came into force on 26 January 1950, when India re-emerged in the family of nations as the ‘Republic of India’. The Preamble to the Constitution, the Supreme Court was to declare later, animates the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution.
Basic Structure of Constitution Can’t Be Violated
As the very phrase suggests, the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution cannot be questioned, repudiated or violated.
Sadly, this is what many people in our country, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters in the lead, have been doing lately. In particular, they have been questioning the words ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ in the Preamble. They regard ‘secularism’ to be anti-Hindu and ‘socialism’ as a failed foreign concept irrelevant to India’s ethos and needs.
To be fair to the BJP, while the Hindutva establishment is uncomfortable with ‘secularism’, many non-BJP intellectuals also reject ‘socialism’ as the preambular goal that should guide India’s socio-economic development.
Why BJP Argues Against ‘Secularism’ in the Preamble
The BJP supporters’ ire is contained in their argument that the words ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ were not present in the original Preamble to the Constitution in 1950, but were subsequently inserted into it in 1976 when India was under the Emergency Rule (1975-77) declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The original Preamble read: "We the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC....". After the 42nd amendment, it read: “WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC..."
The BJP supporters argue, with considerable justification, that this important amendment was passed in Parliament without any debate ─ almost all the opposition MPs had been imprisoned and those belonging to the ruling Congress party had become spineless.
The Congress paid the price for playing mischief with the Constitution during the Emergency. It was forced to end its draconian authoritarian rule in 1977 and, in the ensuing parliamentary elections, suffered a humiliating defeat. The Janata Party government, headed by Morarji Desai, repealed the anti-democratic amendments (39th and 42nd) that the Congress had introduced in the Constitution.
Vajpayee’s ‘Review’ of the Constitution
There was no further significant debate on the Constitution until the first National Democratic Alliance government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to begin a “review” of the working of the Constitution. A committee headed by former Chief Justice M N Venkatachalaiah prepared a report.
However, this effort came to naught due to fierce criticism from the opposition alleging that the Vajpayee government was trying to alter the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution, and also because the BJP lacked majority in Parliament.
The Hindutva voices became louder and shriller after the BJP and NDA under Narendra Modi won absolute majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Shiv Sena, a long-time ally of the BJP both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, demanded in 2015 that the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ be dropped from the Preamble.
Had it been the only party making the demand, the nation would not have paid much attention to it, especially since the Shiv Sena leaders are known for their outlandish statements. However, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior minister in the Narendra Modi government lent credibility to the Sena demand by stating that the government wanted a national debate on whether ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ should be in the Preamble.
Why Doesn’t BJP Remove ‘Socialism’ & ‘Secularism’ From Party Constitution?
Coming from one who is now India’s law minister (besides having the telecommunications portfolio), this call for a national debate had a ring of seriousness. However, it was also hollow and hypocritical. If at all a debate was needed, it should begin within the BJP itself, and about why the words ‘socialism’ and ‘secularism’ are still retained in the party’s own constitution.
Article II (‘Objective’) of the BJP’s ‘Constitution and Rules’, as is available on the party’s website, states: “The Party shall bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established and to the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy…”
This is further reinforced in Article IV (‘Commitments’), which states: “The Party shall be committed to “Gandhian Socialism” ─ namely, “Gandhian approach to socio-economic issues leading to the establishment of an egalitarian society from exploitation.” The BJP constitution also expresses its commitment to “Positive Secularism”, that is ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’; ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’ can be translated as “equal respect for all faiths”.
Thus, it is clear that the BJP has accepted the principles of ‘socialism’ and ‘secularism’ as they appear in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, even though it interprets these principles in its own way.
The question that arises is: if the BJP is uncomfortable with these principles in the Indian Constitution, the party should first remove them from its own constitution. At the very least, the fact that it has retained them shows that there is widespread confusion among party leaders on what to do with them.
Advani and Vajpayee Didn’t Want Removal
Another pertinent fact must find place in this discussion. Significantly, when the Janata Party repealed all the anti-democratic additions introduced into the Constitution during the Emergency, it did not press for the removal of ‘socialism’ and ‘secularism’ from the Preamble.
After all, the Janata Government had two stalwart ministers from the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh (which was later reborn as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980) ─ Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. Indeed, all the work of purging unwanted amendments from the Emergency-period Constitution was accomplished by Advani, who was the minister of information and broadcasting in Morarji Desai’s government.
If Vajpayee and Advani were really opposed to the inclusion of ‘socialism’ and ‘secularism’ from the Preamble, they certainly could have pressed for their exclusion. The fact that they did not, and further, the fact that they subsequently incorporated the very same principles in the BJP’s own constitution in 1980, conclusively proves that these stalwarts were in basic agreement with the relevance and necessity of these principles for the BJP and the nation.
Principle of Secularism Implicit in Constution
It also needs to be underscored here that, even though the Constitution-makers did not explicitly include ‘socialism’ and ‘secularism’ in the original Preamble, these principles were nevertheless implicitly present in the Constitution itself. Therefore, Indira Gandhi, much as we may criticise her for mutilating the Constitution during the Emergency, did not introduce some altogether alien principles into the Preamble.
For example, Nehru had stated in the Constituent Assembly:
I stand for socialism and I hope, India will stand for Socialism and that India will go towards the constitution of a socialist state, and I do believe that the whole world will go that way.
Similarly, in its 1994 judgement in the famous S R Bommai vs. Union of India case, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court observed that the concept of ‘secularism’ was very much embedded in our constitutional philosophy, and therefore what was implicit earlier had been made explicit by the 42nd amendment in 1976.
This being the case, the BJP under Narendra Modi – or the larger Sangh Parivar – should not rake up the issue of ‘secularism’ again and again. Others too should not question ‘socialism’ as the guiding Constitutional goal. Rather, all political parties, all institutions of the Indian State, and all sections of the Indian society should work cooperatively, and with complete commitment, for the realisation of the noble values and lofty ideals that underpin ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’.
(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. He is currently chairman of the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(This article was first published on 25 November 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to on the occasion of Republic Day.)