The dream of the Indian Republic

Published on Feb 10, 2021 06:50 AM IST

The first general elections in India to elect members to the first bicameral central legislature and provincial councils were held in 1920. Parliament in Delhi was opened by the Duke of Connaught on February 9, 1921. To mark the 100th anniversary of that day, India’s Vice President traces the journey of the Republic

Leaders at the signing of the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950. HT archive
Leaders at the signing of the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950. HT archive
ByM. Venkaiah Naidu

Every major landmark in the sands of time presents an occasion for reflection on the past, present and the future. One such landmark in the history of modern India is the completion of 100 years of representative democracy with the first direct elections held to the central and provincial legislatures in the winter of 1920. In a representative democracy, people participate in lawmaking and governance through their elected representatives. People are supreme in a Republic. India has completed a journey of 71 years as a Republic. How has it evolved to be a representative democracy and a Republic and what is its present status after such a long journey?

There were never times when human beings existed without some form of power or authority over them. This is because an individual or group power or authority is required to regulate and resolve the inherent conflicts incompatible with community life. Such systems of control either emerged spontaneously or sprang from a common sense of community and enforced by sanctions of social pressure, or acquired a definite institutional status and operated by means of legal mandates. This form of social control is what we call Government.

Government based on the consent of the people is the best form of government since a government without such consent is inconsistent with personal liberty, human dignity and equality. From the Western perspective, the Greeks were the first to give a democratic dimension to organized political institutions even though there are copious references to democratic and elective principles in the ancient Indian literature.

Representation in ancient India

‘Samiti’ and ‘Sabha’ existed as institutions associated with broader decision making, their execution, election of kings and controlling the administration, as referred to in the Rigveda, Atharvaveda and Chandogya Upanishad. Bala Kanda, Ramayana says that when king Sagara died the subjects elected the pious Amsuman as their king. Ayodhya Kanda, Ramayana mentions that king Dasharatha crowned Rama as the king with the approval of an assembly of people’s representatives. Rigveda exhorted people to form strong councils with distinguished persons from all sections of the society. Women could also be the members of the Sabha and Samiti.

Aitareya Brahmana, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the Ashokan Pillar inscriptions, and Buddhist and Jain texts speak of the existence of several ‘republics’ during the post-Vedic period, known as ‘Ganas’. During the Buddhist period, the Sangha (congregation), as mentioned in the Vinaya Pitaka was guided by detailed rules and procedures of majority, resolutions, censure, quorum etc. Some matters were delegated to the committees by the Sangha for deliberation. Indicating the existence of strong systems of Panchayats since ancient times, Manusmriti, Mahabharata and Arthashastra referred to the functioning of ‘Grama Sangha’. It is, hence, evident that India is not new to the principles of consultation, representation and democracy and modern Indian democracy is not entirely founded on Western principles.

Republics and monarchies including constitutional hereditary monarchies coexisted for long in India till they were challenged by expanding empires and foreign invasions. There were kings for long, but most of them were subject to the subjects.

Representation during colonial rule

John Stuart Mill said: “Political institutions are the work of men; owe their origin and their whole existence to human will. Men did not wake on a summer morning and found these sprung up.” The emergence of modern democratic institutions in India did not come about easily. It has a history of about 200 years before India became a Republic in 1950.

The East India Company and the British colonialists never thought that Indians were competent for self-rule and were stubbornly reluctant to involve Indians in lawmaking and administration for long. This premise served their unstated objective of exploiting the resources of India for their own good. However, with rising awakening and the demand for increased representation of Indians in the law making governance gaining momentum, the colonialists had to make concessions from time to time, accommodating Indians in the administration of the country. This happened through the Charter Acts of 1833, 1853, The Indian Councils Act of 1861, 1892 and 1909 and The Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935. Accordingly, India had to wait for about 200 years to become a Republic in 1950.

Under the Charter Act of 1833, Macaulay was nominated as the lone law member in the Governor General’s executive council to guide in matters of lawmaking. Six judges from the four provinces were inducted as six law members later under the Act of 1853, for the first time according representation to the provinces. Further to the first war of Indian independence in 1857, to win over the support of Indians, three landed aristocrats were nominated as law members. They were Maharaja Narendra Kumar of Patiala, Raja Dinkar Rao Raghunath of Gwalior and Raja Deo Narain Singh Bahadur of Banaras. In course of time, 45 Indians were so nominated of which, 25 were Zamindars and seven were rulers of princely states. All were supporters of the British.

Under the Act of 1892, a provision for indirect election of the non-official members was made while official majority was maintained both in the central and the provincial councils. Pherozeshah Mehta was the first to be so elected indirectly followed by Gopalakrishna Gokhle, Rash Behari Ghosh, Ashutosh Mukherjee, P. Anandacharulu, Saleemullah etc. The absence of direct elections and lack of association of Indians in the executive government led to an upsurge of resentment among the Indian leadership and people, forcing the Minto-Morley Reforms and the Indian Councils Act, 1909. With the spirit of nationalism strengthening, the colonial government was keen to enforce a divide-and-rule policy and provided for communal electorates with reservation of seats for Muslims under this Act. Surendranath Banerjee, Ratanji Dada Bhai Tata, Sachhidananda Sinha, Gopalakrishna Gokhle, Vithhalbhai Patel and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were among those elected. Thus far, the official majority was maintained in the central legislative council. Non-official majority was first allowed in the provinces under this Act.

The first direct elections

All along till 1920, there was no involvement of directly elected Indian representatives in lawmaking and the executive with the British only conceding incremental changes in response to the demands of the moderate leaders of freedom struggle for increased representation of Indians in governance. The return of Gandhi-ji to India and the resentment over India’s association with the first World War without consulting its local leaders forced a rethink on the British, resulting in the Government of India Act, 1919.

This Act for the first time provided for direct elections to the central legislature and provincial legislative councils with a majority being elected members in a bid to address the mounting resentment. Accordingly, the first direct elections were held during the winter of 1920 and the first central legislature was inaugurated on February 9, 1921 by the Duke of Connaught. Despite the Indian National Congress rejecting the Act, leaders such as Annie Besant, Bipin Chandra Pal, Tej Bahadur Sapru, Surendra Nath Banerjee supported the Act. Jinnah resigned from the Congress. The Act for the first time provided for a bicameral central legislature.

This Act was, however, further expanded and consolidated communal electorates, extending to it Sikhs, Christians and Mohammedan landlords. Sardar Patel condemned communal electorates as a “poison which had entered the body polity of the country” and later attributed to it the partition of India. The method of election and nomination under the Act of 1919 made the legislature a representative house of capitalists class, mercantile aristocrats, communal and other vested interests. The legislature consisted of more elected members than nominated but had no authority to overwrite the executive, which could overrule the legislature.

In the second general elections held in 1923 under the Act of 1919, leaders such as Madan Mohan Malviya, Bipin Chandra Pal, Hridaya Nath Kunzru, Jinnah etc. were elected and Vithalbhai Patel became the first Indian to become the President of the central legislative council. Five elections were held under this Act. Ghanshyam Das Birla was elected to the central legislature in the third election in 1926. Indian women became eligible to vote for the first time in 1934 in the fifth general election with severe restrictions on the eligibility. Out of the total registered women voters of 81,602, only 14,505 women voted.

The Government of India Act, 1935 provided for a federal assembly at the centre subject to the rulers of princely states joining the federation. But the federal provisions did not become operational.

With pressure mounting for setting up of a Constituent Assembly for drafting a Constitution, the provincial assemblies elected the Constituent Assembly in 1946. Jawaharlal Nehru was elected from the United Provinces for the first time. The Constituent Assembly was converted into a provisional Parliament and an interim government formed on September 2, 1946. India became a Republic with the Constitution coming into force on January 26, 1950 after a long and arduous struggle for self-rule.

The Republic of India

The electorate for the first direct elections in 1920 was only over 9 lakh of 250 million Indians. It later increased to only 12% of 300 million Indians for the elections held under the Act of 1935. Voting was then restricted based on the property held, payment of taxes etc. Women got to vote only in mid 1930s. Such was the nature of representative democracy in our country under the colonial rule. It all changed in one stroke with the Constitution conferring the voting right on all Indians in 1950. The Indian Republic has come a long way since then.

However, on the occasion of the Indian Republic completing 60 years, Nani A. Palkhiwala observed: “The pre-independence (years) represent the period when India rightly asserted that good government is no substitute for self government. In the last 60 years, thinking India became equally conscious that self governance is no substitute for self government.” He was clearly pointing out the republican deficit.

It is said that nothing works well in India other than successfully held periodic elections. People’s will is supreme in a Republic and consent is conveyed through their elected representatives. As a corollary, effective functioning of the legislatures holds the key to effective lawmaking and governance, required to enable the people to fulfill their aspirations. There is a wider concern about the democratic deficit in our country over the years with the world’s largest democracy being called a flawed one by some in the Western world. Such sweeping generalization is contestable given the success of our democracy and the Republic but the flaws need to be acknowledged and remedied.

Our democracy is vibrant, throwing up silent revolutions with the might of the ballot. However, there are some broader concerns such as rising money power in elections, growing number of legislators with reported criminal antecedents, suboptimal functioning of legislatures due to frequent disruptions, negative perception of elected representatives, poor representation of women in the central and State legislatures, considerations of caste, community, region and religion while voting, quality and processes of lawmaking, defections and delays in deciding on defection and election cases, voter apathy in urban areas, inadequate representation of young India in the legislatures etc.

These concerns are an index of the deficit to be addressed at the earliest so as to fulfill the dream of our Republic. A perfect correlation between the people’s consent expressed through regular elections and the norms of functioning of the Republic shall be ensured by addressing the palpable shortcomings.

We have been a Republic for 71 years during the last 100 years of direct elections. Do we give our Republic as many marks based on the present status of its functioning?

If you don’t agree, you need to think of what is to be done to make our Republic a near perfect one. Time is of essence.

(The writer is Vice President of India)

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