The Constitution of India is a formidable document by any standards. In terms of size, it has nearly 400 articles and an ever-increasing number of amendments that has crossed the century mark. It puts in place a complex architecture that creates democratic institutions and seeks to distribute power among them with internal checks and balances. It enumerates rights and envisions goals for the state. It is prolix on many counts and wisely silent on some.
An introduction to such a founding document may normally entail an overview of its Articles and an explication of the principles on which these provisions rest. However, Madhav Khosla has chosen, instead, to introduce the subject by lining up and explaining the issues and concerns that lie at the heart of the Indian constitution. It avoids the usual provision-by-provision survey but grapples straightaway with the nature of the roles and functions of institutions, the nature of the government model adopted by India, the inter se relations between these institutions and how the courts have interpreted the relevant provisions. At the same time, it seamlessly integrates key provisions that spell out these roles and functions.
An impressive aspect of the book is it brings out core principles and even controversies without burdening the reader with complex details. For instance, many of us know, but rarely remember or realise, the asymmetric federalism that keeps this country together. Often, debates on federalism think of the country’s structure as consisting merely of state and centre, but seldom take into account the multiple forms of government — the Union territory, special provisions such as Article 370, and Councils and other units of governance that address identities and regional aspirations.
While introducing the institutions of parliamentary democracy, the author reminds the reader that power has been distributed not merely among delicately separated institutions such as the executive, legislature and judiciary; the Constitution confers extraordinary autonomy to the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General, although they strictly perform executive functions.
There are also discussions on the interpretive role of the judiciary, a spirited defence of some decisions and critiques of others. The issues arising out of the Supreme Court’s power to invalidate laws and Constitution amendments are also flagged. And the manner in which rights are understood and protected.
It would, however, be a mistake to treat this as a guidebook or basic introduction to the subject; rather, it presumes a basic understanding on the part of the reader of issues and concerns relating to constitutions in general.