Role of Constitutional Institutions in the persistence of Indian Democracy

by Shohan

Indian democracy has often baffled scholars and academicians, just by merely surviving. It was seen as a feat in itself by the west, particularly when democracy was considered a western concept. The Indian Constitution is often attributed to be one of the major factors contributing to the success of Indian democracy, forming a long and well-drawn backbone for its institutions to lean on.

Ashutosh Varshney starts his article India Defies the Odds, with exclamation, that scholars share regarding the success of democracy in India, which has endured through the different phases of the polity and challenges, otherwise inhospitable for a functioning democracy. In this regard, Madhav Khosla (2020) argues how a unique political apparatus was necessary that could effectuate the transition for India into the path of self-governance. The importance of this institutionalisation is even shared by Mitra (2017) in his book Politics in India: Structure, Process and Policy, where he takes this process to be “one of the major challenges that changing societies face in their efforts to achieve political stability”. This takes the form of the Constitution of India which explicates the creation and conduct of such institutions that form the state and further its democratic standing, together. Therefore, to look at the astonishing feat that is Indian democracy, we look at institutions that form the core of the democratic structure, their evolution and conduct through the seven decades which have sustained a functioning democracy in India.

The Constitution of India, while creating different institutions for democratic governance of the state, does a fine job at broad separation of powers and functions between the different branches of the government. It does so by defining the function of each branch and further having a system of check and balance between the organs such that no one institution gets omni-powerful. As a glimpse, we see this in place as the parliament’s laws are subject to judicial review (Article 13 & basic structure); the judiciary (Supreme Court and High Court Judges) being subject to removal from office by impeachment by the parliament (Article 124(4)); and the executive (i.e., the Prime Minister and the Cabinet) being accountable to the parliament. Jayal & Mehta remarked this to be important as “the concentration of power in any one organ may… by upsetting that fine balance between the three organs, destroy the fundamental premises of a democratic government”.

The democratic practices can be traced back to the end of the colonial era. It was when a lot of the Indian leaders and people in general had been acquainted with the British model of governance through their participation in the several elections and councils formed under the various Indian Councils Acts and subsequent Government of India Acts of 1919 & 1935. Hence, it was not surprising that the Indian constitution adopted a lot of its structure from the lines of the British. And at the core of the ‘Westminster model’ is the parliament, which in India has tried to assert its dominance and supremacy from time to time. Parliament’s supremacy over the executive can be seen in the form of power it holds when it comes to Presidential proclamations and ordinances, which need to be passed by the parliament after a specified time, or they get invalidated. It gets its claim to supremacy and legitimacy from the principle of diverse representation, i.e., its representativeness of society as a whole, its ability to mirror wider social diversity. The constitution has made provisions to ensure the representativeness of the parliament through the reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha (Article 330) for Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, which are seen to be as marginalised groups. Further with the coalitional politics gaining traction in the union government, and regional parties coming in power in states (and hence getting into Rajya Sabha), this takes the political diversity to a greater degree. Hence, the Indian parliament could pass the hurdle of the question of legitimacy over such a diverse population through this assertion of diverse representation.

Though this model of parliamentary democracy has shown its fitness in the Indian polity, the same does create a clash when it comes to separation of powers. As we discussed, the executive is also a part of the legislature in our parliamentary system, which reduces the form of check and balance nature of both the branches, as the executive (mostly) always commands the majority of the legislature. Hence, it makes it even more pertinent to have a strong third branch, that is the judiciary. The Indian constitution creates several safeguards for the judiciary to use for preserving constitutional liberty, and expanding and protecting human rights … to keep the executive in check, and to adapt and respond to the demands placed on it as a consequence of the inaction or ineffectiveness of other wings of government. The High Courts and the Supreme Court already had the powers under the constitution to have the final say when it came to interpretation of the constitution, while also having the power to issue various ‘writs’ to preserve and protect the fundamental rights of the citizens. We had seen how courts have the power of judicial review, but over time courts, especially the Supreme Court, have further diversified the powers and jurisdiction of the judiciary. Starting with the principle of ‘basic structure’ of the constitution to balance between ‘parliamentary supremacy’ and ‘constitutional supremacy’, to the now prevalent norm of judicial activism through the introduction of Public Interest Litigations.

These institutions helped in the working of one of the greatest experiments that started in the 20th century, the Indian democracy, which everyone betted on to fail sooner than later due to the circumstances under which the practice of democracy was taking place. Therefore, the Indian constitution, which is the longest constitution, is not only superior quantitatively, but also in eminence. Having given the responsibilities of governance to different institutions, it created the path towards democracy, whose success would baffle the world. The representative legitimacy of parliament in such a diverse country, and at the same time the judicial balance of constitution vs. development, show the strength and endurance of the Indian democratic institutions. Though we do see occasions of tussle between the institutions themselves, particularly as discussed through parliamentary and constitutional supremacy, show that even with fractures the institutions kept on in the democratic path. Through all its mix and matches, the Constitution of India has created very fine institutions that protect and preserve the democracy which they together create.

Shohan is an undergraduate student of Political Science and International Relations in Ashoka University, Sonipat.

Image Credit- iStock

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