There are plenty of good quotes (and jokes) about socialism. Winston Churchill offered,The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries. Cecil Palmers is better. Socialism is workable only in heaven where it isnt needed,and in hell where theyve got it. Socialism is a deliciously vague expression and different people mean different things when they use it. Reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty,the word means just what the user chooses it to mean,neither more nor less.
If socialism is about equity concerns,no one will object,though there can be debates about whether that equity should be on inputs (access to health,education,credit and so on) or outcomes (incomes). But if socialism is interpreted as public ownership of means of production,as it often is,there is every reason to object. Economists typically classify means of production as land (natural resources is a broader concept),labour,capital and entrepreneurship. While there is no reason to equate public ownership with state ownership,de facto,that equation is the norm. Both theoretically and empirically,public ownership of means of production like land,labour and capital is inefficient,especially if combined with monopoly. And no one has yet figured out how the state can be entrepreneurial.
Todays Constitution is not the one we inherited in 1950. The Constitution is a living document,there is no reason for it to be cast in stone. There is a process for amending the Constitution. But that doesnt necessarily mean every amendment to the Constitution has been desirable. The Ninth Schedule is a case in point. Political expediency and existence of numbers required may push an amendment through,with costs borne subsequently. For several amendments,in an era of market-driven reforms,we would have been better off with the 1950 Constitution. At the level of a sweeping generalisation,the judiciary upheld personal rights then. The executive handled the impasse by amending the Constitution and the Constitution swung to the left.
Since 1991,the executive has often moved to the right. But the judiciary and the left-leaning Constitution stand in the way. Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal confronted a similar problem in 1937,but one shouldnt digress. We did have a National Commission to Review the Constitution,which submitted a report in 2002. However,it ducked the problem. In many instances,it should have said,lets go back to 1950. It never said this in dramatic terms. And in instances where it made such recommendations,they werent implemented.
The Preamble to the Constitution now makes India a sovereign,socialist,secular,democratic republic. That wasnt the original Preamble. Socialist and secular were added through the 42nd Amendment in 1976. Lets focus on the socialist part. First,every constitutional expert says since 1973 (Kesavananda Bharati case) the basic structure cant be changed. But isnt this a change in basic structure? Second,one might argue the Preamble isnt really law,it isnt enforceable in a court. Therefore,it doesnt change the basic structure. However,thats only half true. In that same case (Kesavananda Bharati),the Supreme Court held the Preamble is important in interpreting law. Third,if the Preamble was unimportant,what was the need to amend it? There are several other provisions in the Constitution (including Directive Principles) to drive goals of equity.
Fourth,it is not that framers of the Constitution were unfamiliar with the concept of socialism. It was consciously kept out,for very cogent reasons. In Constituent Assembly debates,Dr Ambedkar was prescient in opposing such an amendment (to the draft): If you state in the Constitution that the social organisation of the state shall take a particular form,you are,in my judgment,taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organisation in which they wish to live. It is perfectly possible today,for the majority people to hold that the Socialist organisation of society is better than the Capitalist organisation of society. But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form of social organisation which might be better than the socialist organisation of today or of tomorrow… What I would like to ask Professor Shah is this: If these directive principles to which I have drawn attention are not socialistic in their direction and in their content,I fail to understand what more socialism can be. Therefore my submission is that these socialist principles are already embodied in our Constitution and it is unnecessary to accept this amendment. Fifth,from late-60s to mid-70s,several undesirable changes were introduced in economic policy and laws. The 42nd Amendment is part of that. If we are changing other elements,why not the Preamble?
But for the Preamble,we wouldnt have had Section 29-A of Representation of the People Act,1951,inserted in 1989,specifically Clause (5),requiring the political party to abide by principles of socialism. This would have been understandable in 1976. In 1989,the year in which the Berlin Wall collapsed (effectively,so did the Soviet system),this socialism bit in Clause (5) probably got inserted without a great deal of thought,because of the other elements of Section 29-A. Hence,a political party has to be socialist for it to be registered.
The NGO Good Governance Foundation rightly challenged this that is,challenged both amended Preamble and Section 29-A(5). In 2008,the Supreme Court ducked. It allowed the challenge to Section 29-A(5),but not the Preamble. Now,on the challenge to Section 29-A(5),the Supreme Court has ducked again,calling the issue academic and hypothetical. Why is it academic and hypothetical? Because no registered political party has refused to swear allegiance to socialism? And because the Election Commission (EC) hasnt so far refused registration to a proposed political party on grounds of non-adherence to socialism. Let that situation crop up,and then we (the Supreme Court) shall see.
Sharad Joshi (Shetkari Sangathana) once told me he refused to register a proper political party because of this offensive clause. Therefore,we do have a problem,except that the Supreme Court will not take cognisance until Good Governance Foundation,or something like it,proposes to float a political party. Meanwhile,we continue to avoid the issue. To quote George Orwell now,As with the Christian religion,the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents. Though Orwell didnt intend it that way,this includes political parties too.
The writer is a Delhi-based economist
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