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All the noise on Indian democracy hides the silence on idea of republic. It’s unhealthy

We analyse Indian democracy a lot but not India’s republic. It is because elections are entertaining like cricket where citizens aren't the stars.

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The Republic Day parade this year will be surrounded by rubble, boarded out of view. Construction progresses for what the Narendra Modi government regards as the real celebrations of the 75th anniversary of independent nationhood in August. These relative priorities may force us to ask exactly what it is that we celebrate on Republic Day. What is the Indian republic?

Much ink has been spilt in analysing Indian democracy in the seventy-five years since its independence and scholars have studied Indian democracy’s intellectual origins, its institutional structures and, above all, its elections and their results. A quick bibliographic search on ‘Indian democracy’ yields hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles, three quarters of which are exclusively devoted to elections.

In contrast, very little attention has been paid to India’s credentials as a republic and in theorising its characteristics. Why is this so? After all, in January 1950, India was declared a ‘sovereign, democratic, republic’, so why the emphasis on one more than the other? Would paying greater attention to India’s republic make a difference to India’s democracy?


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Citizens of republic vs citizens of democracy

Originally, the term republic was intended to describe India’s newfound ability to choose her own leaders through democratic means, rather than be ruled by the Crown via the colonial government. Democracy was therefore subsumed within the term republic, which indicated both its anti-monarchical stance and a political form of representation. But republicanism also encoded a notion of citizenship that existed not only between State and citizens but between citizens.

The term ‘democracy’, therefore, indicated political democracy and the word ‘republic’ indicated a new kind of society that had a democratic culture. Such a society was largely aspirational in 1947 in India, divided as it was so deeply by caste, religion and class, and so the constitutional goals of fraternity and dignity were thus germane to this newly imagined citizenship.

The word republic was a reminder that fraternity and democratic culture could not be achieved without energetic engagement by the people who had to be active citizens in a political democracy with responsibilities towards each other.

The role of citizens in a ‘democracy’ is thus different from their role in a ‘republic’. In the former, they are rights-bearing citizens who become intensely visible mainly at elections as ‘voters’. In a republic by contrast, citizens need to be constantly vigilant, take initiative, be public spirited, create solidarity with other citizens beyond their own social group, care for their institutions and remain attentive to the sort of society they are creating. As Aristotle put it, “One citizen differs from another, but the salvation of the community is the common business of them all.” In a republic, citizens are vigilant but not vigilantes.


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Neglecting republic, its consequences

Why then do we spend so much more energy on writing about India’s democracy and less on India’s republic? Is it because elections are entertaining like cricket — a number cruncher’s paradise reliant on figures, graphs and trends? Elections throw up statistics and data, allowing comparisons with previous contests and test the memory of connoisseurs, creating a world of records, surprise entries, margins and personal bests, bringing with them the glamour and excitement just like that of cricket.

But in such accounts, ordinary citizens are not the players, they are the crowds who are largely passive except to cheer and boo.

In a republic, however, citizens are the stars and therefore studying the republic requires different skills — one that looks at society, communities, divisions and attempts at creating solidarities, away from the high-octane drama of elections. Such studies of India’s democratic culture exist but are rarely acknowledged as the study of democracy. We have conceded that ground to elections.

There are at least three serious consequences of such neglect of the republic. First, recognising that our study of the republic, society and citizens is also a study of democracy, disallows a reduction of democracy to elections. In the current context, when India is increasingly an electoral authoritarian democracy and elections have become an end in itself for some, this is particularly important to do.

Second, attention on the republic would serve as a reminder that institutions (such as the Election Commission without which there would not be even the most basic political democracy) and their integrity need to be watched and protected by vigilant citizens.

And finally, by studying both democracy and republic, we expand our definition of what is political by recognising that politics is not only about competition and winning, but also about creating and preserving. A citizens’ group has, therefore, argued that ‘Reclaiming the Republic’ is important for reclaiming democracy itself.

The construction site around this year’s Republic Day parade should serve as a reminder that democracy and the republic are fragile constructions that need continual vigilance and maintenance, for they can easily be ruined and even destroyed by malign interventions.

Mukulika Banerjee teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her new book Cultivating Democracy: Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India has just been published by OUP. She tweets @MukulikaB. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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