A strange case of constitutional rectitude has come to my attention, which I want to share with my readers. This concerns, to begin with, an old-time political organisation called the Swatantra Party and its current relevance. It came to my notice while reading the monthly journal, ‘Freedom First’ (June 2014) that has provided the background. The Swatantra Party, which the younger generation may not be aware of, was founded 55 years ago on August 1, 1955, by C Rajagopalachariar, or Rajaji, as he was better known, to fight the vision propounded by Jawaharlal Nehru, on the one hand of depriving farmers in rural India and herding them into collective farms and, on the other, opposing private enterprise by forcing the thesis of the state occupying the commanding heights of the economy in the name of socialism.
That met the fashion of those times. The Swatantra Party did not last long. Though in a short span of fifteen years (1959-1974) it did remarkably well in some states – Rajaji had passed away in 1972 – it suffered a resounding defeat in the 1971 elections, spreading panic among its supporters. At a national Convention of the party, it was decided to close it. But the party’s Maharashtrian Branch (along with four other branches) decided to stay alive and in 1990, when it became mandatory for political parties to register with the Election Commission of India, it received a shock. This is what happened: In December 1976, Indira Gandhi rammed through the 42nd amendment of the Constitution of India, converting India from a ‘Sovereign Democratic Republic’ into a ‘Sovereign, Secular, Socialist Democratic Republic.’ According to ‘Freedom First’, from which I am quoting, it was laid down that a party could not be registered in India unless it swore by socialism. Reportedly a new Section 29 (A) had been added, which stipulated among other things “that a political party seeking registration should swear in writing its allegiance to the principle of Secularism, Socialism and Democracy.”
As ‘Freedom First’ saw it, “this effectually bare political parties who do not subscribe to Socialism from registering and participating in elections unless they are prepared to lie.” This, the Swatantra Party, Maharashtra, is not prepared to do, because all its life it has been opposed to Socialism. It would seem that the Party filed a writ petition in protest in December 1994 in the Bombay High Court. The petition was admitted, but as the journal put it, “it is yet to be heard even though 20 years have passed.” As of March 12, 2014, one learns 1,616 parties are registered, of which six are national parties, 47 state parties and 1,563 unregistered ones. The Swatantra Party is obviously not opposed to secularism, though one suspects what it means in practice. It would seem the term ‘Socialism’ has not been defined in the Constitution of India, nor is it opposed to the right of a non-socialist citizen to hold his personal views. Says ‘Freedom First’, “Based on the amended Preamble, the Congress government passed in 1989 an amendment to the Representation of the Peoples Act introducing the concept of registration only to those political parties that swore by socialism.
“A new Section 29(A) was added to make that clear. All that the Swatantra Party wants to see is the striking down of Sub-Section 5 of Section 29(A) of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1951 as being ultra vires of the Constitution of India to the extent it requires the Memorandum of Rules and Regulations of the association or body desiring registration to contain a specific that such an association and body should bear true faith and allegiance to the principles of socialism.”
Several questions arise in this connection. Should the Constitution lay down that Socialism is the ultimate vision of the country? And what, pray, is socialism? How does one define it? Where does it begin and where does it end? Can’t citizens form an anti-socialist party and fight to the bitter end? What about Human Rights? Why should a party “swear” to uphold socialism in order to get registration? The Swatantra Party’s writ petition has raised several points. For one thing, it states that “the term socialism has not been defined in the Constitution of India or in the said Act and the requirement to declare allegiance to a tenet so shrouded in vagueness can serve no possible purpose.”
And then there is the problem of what constitutes ‘secularism.’ Writing in ‘Bharatiya Pragna’ (May 2014), S Gurumurthy raised the point that when Narendra Modi performed ‘Ganga Aarti’ on his return to Varanasi to thank the voters who had elected him, some ‘secular’ intellectuals began making whether Modi’s aarti was in tune with secular politics.
Asked Gurumurthy: “Given the drift of the Indian secular discourse, they might not have asked this question if Modi had carried a chaddar to Ajmer Dargah, a ritual in Ajmer. The Indian secular discourse, forged as a vote-catching device has always become increasingly perverse. It is likely to intensify even after the electorate massively voted and elected Modi.”
Hasn’t the time come when ideas such as socialism and secularism are widely debated on a national scale to clear the air? And to think that Modi was banned from doing the aarti before the elections: What have we come to?
The words ‘socialism’ and ‘secularism’ have lost all meaning and it is time we accept that as truth. And the time is now.
M V Kamath