IN THE WORKINGS of any representative democracy with a written constitution that prescribes a system of checks and balances, there is always a tug of war between majoritarian demands and constitutional safeguards. Since independence, these checks have worked well enough in India for us to forget the overwhelming threat of the tyranny of the majority—something that has enabled the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government to make a divisive issue of minority appeasement, and make the very intention of the constitution into a negative feature of our democracy. Born of the majoritarian impulse, this regime—the first BJP government to command a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, and to rule more states than any other party—now seeks to institutionalise it.
Over the last year, the noise generated by constituents of the Hindu right—from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to elements within the ruling BJP itself, such as the member of parliament Giriraj Singh—has often been dismissed as a distraction from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s real agenda. But this spin, frequently echoed on India’s editorial pages, does not take into account that a number of legislative and administrative changes have indeed taken place around India that give primacy to the RSS’s idea of what this country ought to be—one contrary to the vision of the republic set down in the Indian constitution.
In this, the present government is unique. It is not as if the Congress has never been prey to the majoritarian impulse, but the overwhelming presence of Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that the constitutional spirit took root, and in large part prevailed, over the first two decades of the republic. The Congress’s worst departures from this spirit, such as the organised massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, have subverted the law rather than taking refuge in it.