India & Constitution: Can Right to Dissent Not Be Mixed With Partisan Politics?

More apolitical offices like Governor's now bridge gaps with political ones to match the other for one-upmanship.

6 min read

In participative democracies like India, the citizenry has very limited control over the decisions made by the various branches of governance. To wait till the next elections to rectify or amend a contentious decision maybe too late.

The hallowed Constitution of India (Bharatiya Samvidhana) is the sole repository of ‘go-to’ invocation or referencing if anyone feels deprived of the promises of the ‘Idea of India’ — be it an individual, social group, region, political party, or, even bickering officials.

In a fractious and aggressively contested democracy, the fitment to the tenets of the Constitution ought to be the ultimate arbiter of conscience and intent between divergent opinions.

Do President and Governor Have Definitive Roles?

Indian Constitution is delicately layered with purpose, accountabilities, responsibilities, and suggested tenor for all its participants. Recognising that participative democracies could get excitable, ‘carried away’ and even partisan to an extent that it militates against the ‘Idea of India’, an effective means of checks and balances in terms of its guardians, have been conceptualised who are expected to rise above partisanship as the ‘conscience keepers’.

As the designated ‘First Citizens’, the constitutional offices of the President (Rashtrapati) and the Governor's/Lt Governor's (Rajyapal/UpRajyapal) are expected to behoove that larger purpose, albeit, with the mandated tenor of sobriety, dignity and measure with which the Constitution was drawn.

In hindsight, the brilliant framer of the Indian Constitution Dr BR Ambedkar had presciently accepted a drafting lacuna that could derail the spirit of Constitutionality in India, “We have inherited the idea that the governor must have no power at all, that he must be a rubber stamp. If a minister, however scoundrelly he may be, puts up a proposal before the governor, he has to approve it. That is the kind of conception about democracy which we have developed in this country."

With relatively limited text on presidential and gubernatorial roles, the bold experiment of Indian democracy evolved its own traditions, precedents, and evolutionary processes of checks and balances, failing occasionally like that in the Emergency of 1975, and asserting its mandated charter of ensuring Constitutionality in everyday governance.

Does India’s Political Culture Uphold Constitutional Values?

However, as is the case with most ‘institutions’ today, credible murmurs of the overall diminishment of cherished freedom with which each ‘institution’ operates, with taints of dangerously high politicisation of constitutional offices, have caught the concern of many.

Necessary instances of such ‘institutions’ checkmating or calling out the dispensation’s Constitutional suppression or impropriety are tellingly few if any. Unsurprisingly, India has slid into the global democracy indexes of almost all independent global bodies with the lowest score for ‘political culture’ eg, the EIU Democracy Index.

Concern on ‘political culture’ is counter-intuitive given the civilisational code of the ‘argumentative Indian’ that traditionally ensured much debate, dissent and still the inclusivity of the whole.

Today, there is strangely an alien spirit of exclusivism, majoritarianism and enforced conformity that rails against the celebration of ‘Unity in Diversity’. Like ‘Secularism’, ‘Liberalism’ and ‘Intellectualism’ (with shameful barbs like pseudo-secular, libtard and pseudo-intellectual) even ‘diversity’ which is inherent in the ‘Idea of India’ is sought to be templatised and uniformed towards majoritarian moorings.

In revisionist and reimagined times like now, to hear whispers about the Indian Constitution being an impediment or ‘needs change’ are not unusual. Importantly, even these changes sought are not progressive and evolutionary as a ‘living document’ like the Indian Constitution needs to incorporate, but one which is completely partisan, narrow, and illiberal. This situation begs the occupants of the magnificent residences on Raisina Hill, Maulana Azad Road, or in the Raj Bhawans/Niwas to intervene and course correct towards the spirit of Constitution. But do they?


The Rise of Partisan Politics in Indian States

The distinct difference in tenor that exemplified the decidedly louder and more political voice of the Prime or Chief Ministers vis-à-vis the traditionally restrained voice of the President or Governor is all but lost.

It is increasingly normal to see a free-for-all display (especially in states without a ‘double-engine’ government) of vitriol, slanging and partisanship as the argument shifts from the political offices to those of the ostensibly more apolitical offices like the Governor's— the traditional difference of tenor is sadly bridged as each matches the other for political one-upmanship.

In Delhi, the two offices routinely tweet inelegant barbs and accusations, in Kerala they don’t invite each other socially and simply overrule each other, in West Bengal ‘name-calling’ was the norm, and now in Tamil Nadu, the Governor simply refused to read parts of the customary address (specific omissions included references to secularism, Dravidian model and references to leaders like Periyar, BR Ambedkar, K Kamaraj etc) and walked out!

Does such grandstanding help the fragile federal arrangement (as indeed, South India’s cultural sensitivity and perceptions owing to the same)? Does it suggest an independent and apolitical insistence on part of gubernatorial appointees, or one of partisanship and beholden behaviour? It is not a new debate or phenomenon. All parties without exception have sought to have ‘safe’ incumbents albeit the extent and expression of reckless politicisation now, is simply unprecedented.

When Dissent Wasn’t Disruptive & Contrarian Views Respected

The expression of ‘dissent’ by the highest Constitutional offices was decidedly more subtle, gracious, and inoffensive – just enough to pass the message, but not shrill enough to suggest a breakdown. Even the earlier political dispensations (be it at the Centre or States), usually had more maturity and decency to sense the corrective measure and accordingly, align to the constitutional course. Indeed, sometimes, the Constitutional appointees did fall short of the required apolitical anchorage, but thankfully, it wasn’t as frequent, as blatant or as complete as now.

Illustrious sons of the soil like former President KR Narayanan had his own gentle (but effective) way of positing his insistences, and the UPA dispensation in his tenure, respected his contrarian message.

When ‘Working President’ Narayanan faced a peculiar pressure to review the Constitution as sought by the dispensation of the day, he went ahead and read the draft of the speech given to him by the government (he had to), but later on the occasion of the Republic Day he asked sagely, “Today when there is so much talk about revising the Constitution or even, writing a new Constitution, we have to consider whether it is the Constitution that has failed us or whether it is we who have failed the Constitution.”


His message was implicit, and the Government heeded and wisely buried the matter. Narayanan did the same by not responding to the Government’s proposal to confer Bharat Ratna to Savarkar, and the equally wise Vajpayee respected the intended caution.

He did so with the proposed imposition of President’s Rule in UP and Bihar, where he held a different view. KR Narayanan’s direct letters to the Prime Minister on matters like the Babri Masjid or 2002 riots are a masterclass and instructive in the exchange between the two offices that do not require theatrical postures and bitter words in public space.

During a reception for the incoming US President Bill Clinton, KR Narayanan had alluded to the global village that could not be left to a ‘village headman’ – the message to US President was singular and delivered in patented KR Narayanan style of substance and dignity. He added, “globalisation does not mean the end of history and geography and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world".

All of KR Narayanan’s disagreement or concerns inevitably met the standards of the ‘four corners of the constitution’, as he noted himself and spoke only when he felt that the constitutional spirit was getting shortchanged or tantamount to diminishing India’s moral standing. His disagreements and expressions were not politics-driven, but constitution-driven, and that was a fine test of accountability and responsibility in the highest offices.

Political/Partisan/Party offices are naturally louder and more voluble, especially if it comes from opposition parties or ‘single engine’ states. It is the nature of politics, the offices and its necessities, but those who have sworn to uphold the constitution singularly as the ‘conscience keepers’ must always be the bigger persons. But do they anymore?

Mahatma Gandhi’s prescient forewarning, ‘An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind’ is a perfectly suitable allegory to a dangerously blind situation and narrative if there is no difference of tenor between a political office and a constitutional office, whatever be the disagreement.

(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. 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.)

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