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India’s first republic is all but dead. We the people need to shape the second one

What we face today is not merely the result of an unscrupulous political force that has hijacked India. We are not victims of a bad accident.

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This Republic Day, let us face a harsh truth: India’s first republic is over. The republic that was inaugurated on 26 January 1950, whose shadow we celebrate today, is all but dead. It is time to acknowledge that what we have lost over the last eight years is not just democracy, federalism or secularism; we have lost our republic. The razing of Delhi’s Boat Club to make way for the new Central Vista, extinguishing of the Amar Jawan Jyoti, and dropping of the tune Abide With Me from the Beating Retreat are but tiny hints of a tectonic shift. We are indeed entering a new India.

This Republic Day, let us acknowledge that our republic has been undone by the public. What we face today is not merely the result of an unscrupulous political force that has hijacked our country. We are not victims of a bad accident. This democratic capture was made possible by a disconnect between our constitutional values and the political values upheld by the public. Republic is not merely a form of government; it is above all a political community bound together by a shared vision. It would be a lie to say that we had a shared vision on 26 January 1950, but we had the promise of a vision. Today, that promise lies in tatters. The ideas that could shape a republican political community have worn out.

As our democracy gives way to electoral authoritarianism, secularism to naked Hindu majoritarianism, federalism to centralisation, we have no one else to blame except We the People. The tragedy is not that one idea of India we favour is being replaced by another we dislike. The tragedy is that the only idea that could have sustained the Indian republic lies discredited today

This Republic Day let’s trace this loss of vision to its roots in the death of modern Indian political thought. The republic of India was nourished by more than 100 years of a living tradition of vibrant political thinking. This intellectual tradition began with ‘Bengal Renaissance’ and shaped India’s encounter with colonial modernity. It produced India’s very own modernity. It gave rise to Indian nationalism. It laid the foundations of our Constitution, our democracy. This intellectual stream suddenly dried up in the 1960s. With the departure of BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ram Manohar Lohia, the age of great leaders-cum-thinkers came to an end. The task of political theorising was left to academics and media commentators. That proved to be a disaster. The sudden death of modern Indian political thought is responsible for the mutilation of the idea of India.

This Republic Day, let us “re-vision” the Republic. We cannot revive the first republic, but we can reclaim it for our times.

Also read: Indians have put their republic on a pedestal, forgotten to practise it each day

20th-century legacy

How do we go about this revision? Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. The corpus of ideas left by modern Indian political thought is readymade repository of new visions, theories and concepts. Provided, of course, we know how to make this legacy speak to us, provided we can tell what is living from what is dead in this heritage. Over the next year, this column will take up different ideological traditions, one at a time, and suggest how each of these can be used for imagining a second republic.

We must draw upon two parallel streams of thought in 20th century India. Both these streams were radical in that they developed in opposition to domination and sought to build a future on alternative principles. By the end of the 20th century, both streams had reached a dead-end, politically as well as intellectually, though they continue to inform the language of everyday politics. The challenge of re-imagining radical politics in the 21st century requires a synthesis of these two currents of thought that never spoke to each other.

The first stream, the egalitarian tradition, is easier to identify and name. It revolves around the idea of equality and justice. The various sub-streams of this tradition differed in their emphasis of different aspects of equality. The socialist sub-stream, including the Communists and the Naxalites, privileged class-based economic inequalities, social justice movements foregrounded caste-based inequalities and feminists brought gender-based inequalities to the fore. Drawn largely from the intellectual resources of Western radicalism, the egalitarian current tended to view Indian intellectual traditions with suspicion. They tended to share the Western take on Indian society as inherently odd and conservative.

The second stream, the indigenous tradition, is harder to trace, for it did not result in an identifiable “ism” or a singular political expression. Yet from the beginning of the 20th century, or even earlier in figures like Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, political opposition to colonial rule began to take the form of a deeper critique of the civilisational, cultural and epistemic domination of the modern West. Inspired broadly by the value of swaraj or autonomy, this critique sometimes took the form of narrow nationalism that implied a defence of the Indian, or sometimes Hindu, social order as it existed. The monstrosity that calls itself Hindutva in today’s politics is a distorted version of this sub-stream. At the other end of the spectrum stood the Gandhian critique of modern civilisation from the vantage point of an alternative universality. A focus on the cultural domain and the somewhat defensive posture that often characterised this stream meant a reluctance to confront the social and economic inequalities that marked Indian society.

Both these streams have remained indifferent, if not antagonistic, to each other.

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

21st century needs

The challenge is to make these traditions speak to each other. Occasionally, you get a glimpse of synthesis in the 19th and the 20th century. You can discern its seed in Swami Vivekananda and Bankim Chattopadhyay. The radical moment of Gandhi shows a fusion of the indigenous with an egalitarian streak. The very special Indian brand of socialism, especially in Ram Manohar Lohia and its follow up in Kishen Pattnayak, can be interpreted as a synthesis of these two intellectual currents. What we need today is a conscious ideological integration.

Yet we cannot stop at that. We must integrate newer issues and ideological currents. The ideology for the 21st century must respond to the challenge of climate change and intellectual resources of environmentalism. It must take into account the challenge of globalisation and the new face of global capitalism. It must respond to the challenge of knowledge in a “post-truth” society.

Historians tell us that nations are imagined communities. This Republic Day let us resolve to reimagine this political community called India.

This article is part of the ‘Re-vision’ series by Yogendra Yadav on the ‘isms’ of 20th-century India and their relevance today. Read all the articles here.

Yogendra Yadav is among the founder of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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