EXCLUSIVE: India’s socialist constitution? — Shubhankar Dam
Socialism, it would then appear, has had no meaning in the Indian Constitution. All along, it has been an empty vessel into which any content could be poured: it was a convenient alibi to rationalise the constitutionality of the economic policies of incumbent governments at various points
The people of India, the preamble to the Indian Constitution says, are “Sovereign, Socialist and Secular”. Sovereign and secular they may be. But socialist?
“Socialism”, incidentally, was not a part of the original text of the Constitution. Introduced in 1976 by a constitutional amendment, socialism, for many years, remained the official rhetoric for legitimising otherwise inefficient economic and social policies. But nearly two decades after a programme of liberalisation was formally inaugurated, the Supreme Court of India (SC) was finally called upon to consider the constitutionality of deleting “socialism” from the text of the preamble.
In a Public Interest Litigation filed this week, a Calcutta-based NGO, Good Governance India Foundation, challenged the inclusion of the word in the preamble to the Constitution. Fali Nariman, counsel for the petitioner, made three submissions before the SC.
“Introducing the word ‘socialist’ in the Preamble,” he said “breaches the basic structure of the Constitution.”
Secondly, he challenged the constitutionality of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RPA) which necessarily requires every political party to affirm their commitment to socialism. Such a commitment, Nariman argued, “binds the political parties to swear by socialism, and ends up making them hypocrites as in reality they might be following capitalism rather than socialism.”
And finally, the Election Commission, he said, should derecognise political parties deviating from the principles of socialism or annul the very law that makes them hypocrites.
The SC was only partially impressed. A three-judge bench headed by the CJI refused to consider the constitutionality of deleting socialism from the preamble. “Why do you take socialism in a narrow sense defined by the Communists?” the CJI asked.
“In broader sense, socialism means welfare measures for the citizens. It is a facet of democracy.” The CJI added: “It hasn’t got any definite meaning. It gets different meaning in different times.” However, the SC agreed to hear arguments on the point of the constitutionality of the law that makes it compulsory for every political party to abide by socialism.
The contradictions are hard to miss. If socialism means “welfare measures for the citizens”, how can it be that it “does not have any definite meaning”? And if it does not have any definite meaning, what makes the CJI believe that it means “welfare measures for the citizens”?
This verbal jugglery, I would argue, is the product of an internal dissonance the CJI personally experiences.
On one hand, socialism evokes some kind of a romantic appeal of a promised land that he is unable to forego. On the other hand, the pragmatics of India’s post-liberalisation policies requires the CJI to recognise the futility of harping on a socialist rhetoric. And this may partly explain why the he wants the word to exist in the text of the Constitution but not mean anything.
The omission of the word from the text of the original Constitution was not an accident: it was a deliberate choice the drafters had made. BR Ambedkar specifically opposed an amendment calling for the introduction of the word into the Constitution. The Constitution, he said, specified certain ends: strive to achieve welfare of the people, minimise inequalities of income and opportunities and provide people with an adequate standard of living. Socialism, Ambedkar thought, was a means to achieve the prescribed ends.
But it was only one of the possible means: the same ends could be achieved by other economic policies as well. Every government, he argued, should have the authority to choose its own economic policy. Specifying socialism in the text, he concluded, would stultify the choices available to any executive government to pursue its own policies in bringing about the prescribed ends.
Subsequently, the Constituent Assembly voted to disallow the amendment calling for the introduction of socialism into the text of Constitution. Unlike the CJI, the framers did believe in some meaning and they consciously chose to reject it.
However, empirically speaking, the CJI may have been correct in asserting that the word does not have any meaning. A look at some of the important decisions in the last four decades suggests that the SC has never steadfastly attributed any particular meaning to the word. In the 70s and 80s, aggressively socialist judges repeatedly invoked the rhetoric of socialism to uphold nationalisation and (incompetent) state intervention. In the late 90s, that meaning was conveniently forgotten as the SC chose to uphold deregulated policies of the “new economy”. Suddenly in the 90s, socialism reinvented itself: it now meant “welfare of the citizens”.
Socialism, it would then appear, has had no meaning in the Indian Constitution. All along, it has been an empty vessel into which any content could be poured: it was a convenient alibi to rationalise the constitutionality of the economic policies of incumbent governments at various points.
But no less baffling is the willingness of the SC to hear arguments about the constitutionality of the law that forces all political parties to swear by socialism. If “socialism” in the preamble to the Constitution means “welfare of the citizens”, why can it not mean the same in the RPA? If the CJI is to be believed, socialism not only means “different things at different times” but it also means different things in different places. Why else would the CJI refuse to consider the deletion of the word from the preamble but agree to hear arguments about its deletion from the text of the RPA?
This debate could not have occurred at a more opportune moment. India’s longest serving Marxist Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, recently acknowledged the inevitability of capital (and by corollary, the inevitability of capitalists) in pursuing economic development. And this observation comes days after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the current Marxist CM of West Bengal, expressed his deep reservations about socialism and its relevance in the new economy.
Even the Marxists have all but abandoned their socialist obsessions. Why hold on to this appalling relic whether in the text of the Constitution or otherwise? Let it go, Mr Chief Justice.
Shubhankar Dam is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. This is article is the first in a two-part series. The second article will appear tomorrow