I frequently ask myself and get asked the question, especially around Republic Day and Independence Day: which is the single most important reason for India to have remained a true, functioning democracy with a vibrant Constitution despite years of colonial rule, when the neighbouring landscape is littered with the wrecks and ruins of constitutionalism and failed democracies? I have come to the conclusion that there are obviously several structural, historical, political and fortuitous reasons for this phenomenon. But if I was forced to choose the single most important reason, I would ascribe it to the personality and character of one man — Jawaharlal Nehru.
First, the validity of the premise — is India, in fact, an exception? It appears so. It is obvious that there is no other spot on earth, of comparable size, diversity and stage of economic development, which has remained a vibrant democracy after gaining independence in the last century. Going further, I can even add that there is no other country, even of smaller size, diversity or greater economic strength, which has emerged from the yoke of imperialism and managed to remain a vibrant constitutional democracy. Each of the other six Saarc countries prove my point. The ‘Asian tigers’ — Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia — both the Koreas and several other countries including China establish the same point. Most of Africa reinforces the same point. Large parts of South America underline the same point. They are all countries where there is either no democracy at all or there are only formal structures of democracy — the constitution or judiciary — but they are not really independent.
Second, India is one of the world’s most vibrant and dynamic democracies, comparable to the oldest or the most advanced the world can offer. We have a truly independent judiciary — too independent for some. We invented the basic structure theory under which even a constitutional amendment — used by dictators the world over to legitimise illegality — can be declared unconstitutional. We have an Election Commission that is outsourced to other countries to conduct their elections. We have a Comptroller and Auditor General who conducts the grand inquest of the nation. We have an army that is seen but not heard, and which has never tasted blood — except of the enemy during wartime. In a nutshell, we have created so many institutions and they have taken such deep roots that derailing democracy is not easy in India.
Undoubtedly, we owe our independence to Gandhi. Though he left us shortly after independence, his personality, his ethos, his philosophy, his thinking, his deeds and his sayings are responsible, in no insignificant measure, for our existence as a constitutional democracy and for our very identity. In that sense, Gandhi is a concept who transcends his lifetime and will remain India’s longest and most abiding influence.
But it is no exaggeration to suggest that if Gandhi got us our independence, his favourite disciple Nehru is responsible for keeping us a constitutional democracy wedded to the rule of law after having achieved the milestone of freedom. Let me make it clear that this is no critique or analysis of Nehru. Nor is it intended to suggest that Nehru made no mistakes. It is to comment on one and only one facet of India — viz. no other single figure or factor contributed so much towards India’s continuation as the world’s largest constitutional democracy with fully functional democratic institutions as did Nehru.
Nehru was steeped in the liberal, left-of-centre traditions of England. Not only was he a Fabian socialist but he was a rationalist who had trained himself to see or at least to allow the existence of free expression and the flowering of a contrary viewpoint. His entire being epitomised Voltaire’s creed — to disagree with one’s opponent vehemently but to defend to death that opponent’s right to disagree with oneself. His innately tolerant, democratic and free spirit is reflected in every page of his writings, be it Discovery of India or his letters to his daughter. Who else but Nehru could be so wary of and warn himself (and the nation) of the risks of autocracy by writing an anonymous article at the crest of his powers against the dangers of dictatorship? “He must be checked,” he wrote of himself. “We want no Caesers.”
He took care not to interfere with the judicial system; on the one occasion that he publicly criticised a judge at a press conference, he apologised the next day to the individual and wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India, regretting having spoken in this vein of the judiciary. Though he was powerful enough to be a (democratically elected) dictator, he frequently did not have his way. Rajendra Prasad as India’s first President was more Patel’s and less Nehru’s choice, since Nehru wanted Rajaji. PD Tandon, elected Congress President in 1950, was again more Patel’s than Nehru’s choice, the latter preferring Acharya Kripalani. He would be upset and would lose his temper in Parliament but never held any personal grudge against his opponent.
Look at the pillars of our vibrant democracy and you will realise Nehru’s unmistakable imprint — adult suffrage, a federal polity, the mixed economy, non-alignment in foreign policy, pluralism, the secular State, a free press, self-reliance in core sectors and products and so on.
It is easy to find points to criticise but India should never forget that it was singularly fortunate to have had Nehru in the formative years of its independent existence.
(Abhishek Singhvi is an MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and Senior Advocate, Supreme Court)