The Preamble mattershttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-preamble-matters/

The Preamble matters

Modi’s uncomfortable silence on secularism will derail his developmental agenda.

Barack Obama in India, Narendra Modi, Republic Day
Prime Minister Narendra Modi

A Freudian slip is an error in communication that involuntarily reveals what is hidden in the unconscious. A case in point is the unintended consequence of a divisive debate on the preambular principles of secularism and socialism in the Constitution, caused by a routine Republic Day advertisement released by the BJP government. An advertisement is meant to communicate what is in it, not what is hidden from it. However, the ministry of information and broadcasting’s (I&B) ad has succeeded spectacularly in advertising what is widely suspected to be the hidden agenda of the Sangh Parivar, of which the ruling party is a member.

The ad carried Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s welcome and incontrovertible message: “Democracy cannot succeed without people’s participation.” What was controversial was the use of an image of the unamended Preamble of the Constitution as it was adopted in 1950, which is no longer valid. The relevant Preamble, after its amendment in 1976, contains two other words, “secular” and “socialist”, to describe the Indian republic. These two missing words, especially the former, have inadvertently adverted to the Sangh Parivar’s extreme discomfort with the secular core of the constitutionally endorsed idea of India.

Most probably, the use of the 1950 Preamble was due to inattention on the part of those who designed the ad. Instead of owning up to the mistake and reaffirming the government’s commitment to the Constitution as it stands today, the I&B minister of state, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, defended the use of the old Preamble. Further, he stated that even an ad released by the UPA government had done so. His defence does not hold water. The UPA government’s ad that he referred to was in the context of paying tribute to B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the Constitution’s drafting committee. Using the original Preamble in that context is both logical and appropriate. It is illogical and untenable to do so when the BJP government uses it alongside Modi’s message on Republic Day because, in the absence of
an admission of error, it unmistakably gives the impression that the ruling establishment does not accept the amended Preamble of
the Constitution.

Some might say all this is unnecessary quibbling over words. It is not. There are genuine grounds for doubt and concern about the real intentions of the ruling party. First, the BJP manifesto for the 2014 parliamentary elections does not contain the word “secularism” at all. This is not surprising since Modi, as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in an interview given to Shahid Siddiqui before the elections, had explicitly shown his disapproval of the word. Answering a pointed question, “Will you keep secularism as a part of the Constitution or remove it?”, he had described secularism as an “imported” word.

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Secularism, understood as a non-theocratic state that shows equal respect for all faiths, is by no means an imported concept. If it is, isn’t parliamentary democracy also imported from the West? It’s high time Modi stopped this needless debate and, instead, turned his government’s attention to putting the kernel of secularism and socialism into practice.

In this context, BJP leaders need to be reminded of two important home truths. First, even though many anti-democratic changes in the Constitution introduced during the Emergency by Indira Gandhi’s government were annulled by subsequent amendments, the addition
of secularism and socialism in the Preamble was not repealed by the Janata Party government (in which both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were senior ministers). Second, and more to the point, the BJP itself, when it was founded in 1980, adopted a constitution that explicitly affirmed its allegiance to secularism and socialism. Even though the party has amended its constitution several times since then, it has not deemed it wise to purge these two words so far.

Will Modi get his party to remove these two words from its own constitution? Even if it does, its leaders are intelligent enough to know that these cannot be removed from the Preamble to the Constitution since they form part of its “basic structure”. The Supreme Court has clearly, and wisely, curtailed Parliament’s powers, under Article 368, to amend the Constitution when such amendment seeks to alter its very heart and soul.

The prime minister’s displeasure over “secularism” has helped create an intellectual atmosphere in which many of his supporters have taken to secularism-bashing. For example, social media is awash with the pejorative term “sickular” to describe the secular constituency. Now, an MP of the Shiv Sena, an important ally of the BJP, has openly demanded that secularism be permanently deleted from the Constitution. Why? Because, according to him, India is a Hindu nation.

He is by no means alone in voicing this toxic demand. In open defiance of the spirit and text of the Constitution, leaders of the RSS have been saying more vociferously than ever that India should be declared a Hindu rashtra. The prime minister has so far not made his mind known on this important issue. His silence has created ambiguity, which is bound to create problems for him, as also for his stated agenda of development and governance as time progresses.

In a welcome response, Venkaiah Naidu, a senior minister, has stated that the government has no intention of excising “secularism” from the Preamble. However, the prime minister himself needs to air his views emphatically. It is in Modi’s own interest — and also in the nation’s — that he leaves no scope whatsoever for religion-linked divisive issues to derail progress. Our astute president, Pranab Mukherjee, has cautioned, in his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, against making religion a cause for conflict. And
did Indians and India’s leaders need US President Barack Obama to exhort us that our nation’s success depends on our resolve
and ability not to let it “splinter on religious lines”?

I must add here that Modi, in the same pre-election interview, had also spoken these reassuring words: “There is only one holy book for the Indian government, and that is the Constitution. I respect everything that the Constitution says.” He is therefore duty-bound, and also bound by his own solemn assurance, to swear his allegiance to secularism and socialism. In practical and policy terms, this obliges him and his government to treat all religions and religious communities equally, without discrimination. Also, and this is a point that combines the essence of both secularism and socialism, his government must take effective steps to remove the growing disparities in stakes and opportunities for followers of all faiths, and sections within each community, in India’s social, economic, political and cultural progress. In short, the prerequisite for Modi to deliver on his promise of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” is his unwavering allegiance to the Constitution’s amended Preamble, and all else in the “holy book”.

The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee