The Constitution, a surprise entrant in poll battlefield

The fact that the ordinary Indian is worried about the Constitution is of far greater political significance than the question of who wins the election.

Updated - May 29, 2024 10:24 am IST

Published - May 29, 2024 12:16 am IST

At an election rally, in New Delhi

At an election rally, in New Delhi | Photo Credit: PTI

The Chakkipat neighbourhood of Agra in Uttar Pradesh was adorned with flags of B.R. Ambedkar with the tagline kalam ka badshah (master of the pen), an allusion to the seminal role of Ambedkar in drafting the Constitution of India. We spoke to a group of young Jatav men, once a core vote bank of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). As the BSP’s graph has trended downward, these men had voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general election, but they will not support the BJP this time. The reason, the Constitution — “Dr. Ambedkar means everything to us. We don’t think it’s too easy to change the Constitution, but we believe the BJP wants to change the Constitution.”

The rhetoric of electoral dominance

Why has the Constitution emerged as an explicit site of contestation in this election? The proximate trigger was the BJP’s declaration of “400 paar” (a reference to its assertion of winning 400 seats) and remarks, by some leaders, early in the campaign, that total electoral domination in this election would empower the BJP to change the Constitution. Opposition leaders were quick to mobilise. BSP leader Mayawati’s nephew and former BSP national coordinator Akash Anand gave rousing speeches. Indeed, days after Ms. Mayawati sacked Akash Anand, the Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav took to X (formerly Twitter) to publicly remark that even traditional voters of the BSP are voting for the INDIA bloc to save the Constitution. The Congress’s Rahul Gandhi has taken to symbolically waving a copy of the Constitution at his campaign rallies. The Opposition has declared this election to be a battle for “saving the constitution” and it is having resonance on the ground.

Scholars make an important distinction between constitutional principles and ordinary laws. Constitutional principles frame fundamental rights and are of a “higher order” that every citizen must obey. Ordinary laws, on the other hand, are rules, often guided by constitutional principles, that govern society. Ordinary laws, in India, regularly police our spaces. They discriminate and are used coercively by the state in ways that undermine freedoms and disempower citizens. Laws that police who you can marry, whether you can use the Internet and what you can eat are some illustrations of this. However, these laws can also be challenged and changed. Constitutional values provide the basis for challenging discriminatory law.

Historian Rohit De’s book, A People’s Constitution, offers a powerful account of how ordinary citizens have mobilised around constitutional principles throughout independent India’s history to secure rights. Challenging social and economic deprivation and preserving equality of status are at the heart of India’s constitutional project. As former Chief Justice of India Y.V. Chandrachud powerfully notes, in the Minerva Mills case, the Constitution provides us “the obligation of securing to the people liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity and the assurance that the dignity of the individual will at all costs be preserved”. It is when these very constitutional values are challenged that the Constitution rather than law enters the domain of mass politics.

A young BJP supporter from the Pasi community makes this clear. “I am happy with Narendra Modi….. But I absolutely don’t want a Hindu rashtra.” When we ask him what Hindu rashtra means, he responds in one word: bhedbhav (discrimination). A young Yadav farmer on the outskirts of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh concurs, “The constitution matters because it protects us... it gave us reservations. Humein Samvidhaan bachana hai (the Constitution must be protected).”

An interplay in north India

The interplay between the Constitution and political mobilisation has fundamentally shaped the trajectory of democratic politics in North India. Reservations found place in the Constitution primarily as compensatory provisions to redress historical disadvantage emerging in the 1990s as the primary mobilisational tool for asserting representational claims of lower caste groups in the 1990s. The Modi juggernaut, with its ability to forge a cross-caste coalition, appeared to have shifted the arc by forging a cross-caste, Hindu coalition. For much of this decade, the logic of caste-based mobilisation seemed to have receded in the background, allowing the BJP, to introduce and pass the 103rd Amendment to the Constitution mandating 10% reservations for economically weaker sections (EWS) amongst unreserved (read upper caste) categories, to muted opposition.

The reemergence of the grammar of the Constitution, rights and reservation in the 2024 election must not be misread as harking back to the Mandal politics of yore. There is something far more significant at play here. The rhetoric of “changing the Constitution” challenges the very principles upon which this country was founded. And it is this that is causing dissonance among voters with the BJP’s logic of cross-caste political mobilisation. The Yadav voter we spoke to articulated this clearly: “The Constitution protects our fundamental rights. It ensures equality between castes and communities.”

The fact that the ordinary Indian is worried about the Constitution is of far greater political significance than the question of who wins the election. Against the backdrop of total dominance that the BJP projected at the start of the electoral campaign, the concerns over the Constitution, expressed by the ordinary voters, are constitutive of growing anxieties over democratic erosion. And it constrains the democratic legitimacy of the government even if the BJP comes to power again, as projected.

A mirror to contradictions

But the constitutional discourse, as it is emerging, also mirrors the deep contradictions that have shaped contemporary politics in India. It is instructive that even as Dalit voters speak of the Constitution and rights, the constitutional principle of “secularism” and religious equality was a concern expressed primarily by Muslim voters, who spoke repeatedly against “Hindu-Muslim” politics. Secularism, via the Constitution, found voice during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act back in early 2020, but only among Muslims.

Arguably, the heightened polarised rhetoric adopted by the Prime Minister in recent weeks is a response to the re-emergence of caste coalitions with the Constitution as the centre-piece. Hindu voters are not blind to the communal nature of this rhetoric. However, this is not their primary concern. Their preoccupation is primarily with caste-based discrimination and reservations. The silence around the constitutional aspiration of secularism remains conspicuous against the backdrop of the deeply poisonous and divisive Hindu-Muslim rhetoric that has dominated this election.

If the 2024 election is indeed a battle for the Constitution, then the silences tell us as much about the critical fault lines that our polity has to confront, as it does of the possibilities of a more substantive politics of rights and equality.

Yamini Aiyar is a public policy scholar; Neelanjan Sircar is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

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