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HomeOpinionsPolitical Line | Glories of our past — two notions that shape...

Political Line | Glories of our past — two notions that shape our present

(This is the latest edition of the Political Line newsletter curated by Varghese K. George. The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox.)

The demise of Fali S. Nariman, constitutional scholar and lawyer, at the age of 95 last week turned out to be an occasion for many observers of Indian politics to reflect upon the state of constitutional democracy in the country. A line in his autobiography was particularly the point of discussion in many tributes: “I have lived and flourished in a secular India. In the fullness of time, if God wills, I would also like to die in a secular India.”

The turmoil of our present is perceived through two views of our past. The first is reflected in the quote cited above of Nariman. This notion suggests that India flourished as a secular nation, and people of different faiths coexisted happily. This peaceful coexistence was disrupted by the rise of Hindu nationalism, which marked some major milestones by destroying the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, and inaugurating a Ram temple at that exact location in 2024. The secular, ideal India that existed earlier is facing an existential threat, and this is the anxiety that is expressed in Nariman’s thought. The present is understood as a progressive calamity that is dismantling our comforting past, in this view.

The other view of the present is that the current regime is setting the course of history right. India’s past is of Hindu pride and achievement, but secular politics ignored it. So, in this understanding of our past, there was an undefined past when everything was great, and that Ram Rajya is being restored, after dismantling the immediate past of secular deviance and corruption. Both views agree on the point that the immediate past of India, roughly from the point of the constitution of the modern Indian republic to 2014, when Narendra Modi came to power, is being dismantled.

A monolithic notion of a pristine past is an essential ingredient of all politics of the present. What did not exist is often invented, and what is often called tradition and assumed as eternally present is often of recent origins, as Eric Hobsbawm demonstrates. The glory of our past invoked by Hindutva is often beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals, and accessible only to the clairvoyant ones. But the glory of our recent past, recorded in languages that we still use, can be examined within the familiar framework of reason.

So, the question is how perfect was the secular past of our modern republic? A passage quoted from a book by the Supreme Court in its recent judgment, which declared electoral bonds as unconstitutional, gives some insights. “Gayatri Devi, the third Maharani consort of Jaipur, who was later set up as a candidate by the Swatantra Party, recalls in her autobiography that her team spent hours trying to persuade voters that they had to vote for the symbol Star (which was the symbol of the Swatantra Party) and not a symbol showing a horse and a rider because she also rode a horse,” the judgment said, and then went on to quote from the book.

“Since most of India is illiterate, at the polls people vote according to a visual symbol of their party. […] The Swatantra Party had a star. Baby, all my other helpers, and I spent endless frustrating hours trying to instruct the women about voting for the star. On the ballot sheet, we said, over and over again, this is where the Maharani’s name will appear and next to it will be a star. But it was not as simple as that. They noticed a symbol showing a horse and a rider, agreed with each other that the Maharani rides, so that must be her symbol. Repeatedly we said, “No, no, that’s not the right one.” Then they caught sight of the emblem of a flower. Ah, the flower of Jaipur – who else could it mean but the Maharani? “No, no, no, not the flower.” All right, the star. Yes, that seems appropriate for the Maharani, but look, here is the sun. If the Maharani is a star, then the sun must certainly mean the Maharaja. We’ll vote for both. Immediately, the vote would have been invalidated. Even up to the final day, Baby and I were far from sure that we had managed to get our point across.”

This passage is a window to the real nature of democratic politics in many parts of India in the past. The victories or defeats of parties and candidates during those periods have had many reasons. Today, it is easy to denounce people for voting according to their caste, religion or language. People are much more literate and informed than they were decades ago. So, is it a case that their world view narrowed today compared with the times described in the above passage? Constant lamentations of a lost past of secular glory cannot be the basis of any alternative vision for the future; a truthful introspection of its weak foundations might be helpful.

Federalism Tract – Notes on Indian Diversity

Assam govt. tables Bill to ban magical healing, calls for scientific temper

The BJP government in Assam has tabled a Bill in the Assembly to ban “magical healing” despite opposition from Christian organisations in the State. While tabling the Bill, Minister Pijush Hazarika called for instilling scientific temper among the people, linking it with the proposed ban on magical healing. 

Understanding fiscal federalism

Several Opposition-ruled States in south India have voiced concern over not receiving a fair share in tax devolution from the Centre. Their key argument is that the tax revenue they receive is less compared with their tax contribution. Amid the political slugfest, it is pertinent to understand the constitutional process under which financial devolution takes place. Here’s an explainer.

Kerala and the Centre – Is there a meeting point?

Inaugurating the valedictory session of the State Local-Self Government Day celebrations, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan accused the BJP-led Centre of “sabotaging” federalism. Vijayan said the Centre was encroaching on the state subject and undermining the financial security of States. His comments came at a time talks between the Centre and the Kerala government on financial disputes and “discrimination in tax devolution to the State” failed to yield results.

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