Union HRD minister Smriti Irani is in the news again. But as our chaiwallah-turned-prime minister unfurled the national flag from the Red Fort on August 15, it is relevant for critics to bear in mind that Indian democracy was designed to engineer the rise of the common man. Indian lawmakers who rise from humble origins may not possess college degrees and might not be intellectually equipped to answer brainy questions from journalists educated at the universities of Delhi and Yale.
Democracy rose through 5th-4th centuries BC when the Athenians revolted against their tyrants and established their own rule, but as a system of government it was soon lost. Through the 16th and 19th centuries, a movement of democratic ideas known as Enlightenment flourished in Europe, giving birth to the American and French revolutions. In his book Revolution of the Mind, Jonathan Israel observes that the Enlightenment was "quintessentially defined by its insistence on full freedom of thought, expression, and the Press, and by identifying democracy as the best form of government".
The architects of the Indian Republic — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar — were "greatly influenced by the ideas associated with the age of Enlightenment in Europe," noted the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, at Oxford in 2005. The architects wrote an array of rights and freedoms into the Constitution, which is birthing a new species of Indians; Smriti Irani is their type. It is the sheer beauty of democracy that Indians from below are rising. Smriti, who sold cosmetics at Janpath and whose mother was a housekeeper at the Taj Mansingh Hotel, spoke as a political scientist: "My message is that a girl selling cosmetics can become a Cabinet minister in this country."
If you studied politics, that sentence could have come from the 19th century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who grasped American democracy in profound ways. "We the people," the opening words of the Indian Constitution are borrowed from the US Constitution. When Ambedkar’s team wrote the Constitution, it created a new country out of the Enlightenment ideas. On May 20, Modi, arriving for the first time, bowed before Parliament and spoke: "It is the power of our Constitution that a poor person belonging to a poor and deprived family is standing here today. This is the power of our Constitution and hallmark of our democratic elections."
As democracy matures, it strikes at the hereditary sources of power. In future, Indian democracy will propel milkmen, drivers and mechanics to power frequently; they will make mistakes and might not differentiate a degree from a certificate. India’s tainted political class needs to treat them with humility and respect their life’s journeys through which they overcome inherited handicaps to become the wheels of the Republic. At the India Today Woman Summit 2014, Smriti reiterated her oath to uphold the Constitution. Birthed by Indian democracy, the former cosmetics girl is freedom’s daughter.
If Smriti erred in her affidavits, it was a legal mistake and can be dealt with by the courts — or by our large hearts. The media is haranguing her because she belongs to the opposite political camp, is telegenic and speaks fluent English. A debate centred on degrees obscures her achievements. The television series she acted in are worth PhDs in sociology. Her life’s trajectory through the rigours of politics is inspiring. It is time a British university handed her an honourary doctorate in recognition of her life’s experience as an actress and lawmaker.
India has entered a transformative moment: Its democracy is engendering multiple turning points in the life of the aam aadmi. Indian democracy’s first half century nurtured institutions of governance, the next half will cement the aam aadmi’s sovereignty over its political institutions.
Tufail Ahmad is director of the South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC
The views expressed by the author are personal