The truth is all that bothered Ambedkar about our Constitution never came out in the open.
Only three years after our Constitution was adopted, its chief architect, BR Ambedkar, publicly disowned it in Parliament. In an astonishing admission in 1953, he blurted out in the Rajya Sabha:
Sir, my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody.
Ambedkar was advocating that the Constitution be changed to give governors the power of oversight over state governments.
Four years earlier, in May 1949, he had argued the opposite inside the Constituent Assembly that “the coexistence of a governor elected by the people and a chief minister responsible to the legislature might lead to friction.”
But now, he was telling the Rajya Sabha:
We have inherited the idea that the governor must have no power at all, that he must be a rubber stamp. If a minister, however scoundrelly he may be… puts up a proposal before the governor, he has to approve it. That is the kind of conception about democracy which we have developed in this country.BR Ambedkar
“But you defended it,” said a member.
Ambedkar snapped back, “We lawyers defend many things. People always keep on saying to me, ‘Oh! you are the maker of the Constitution.’ My answer is I was a hack. What I was asked to do, I did much against my will.”
Members were on their feet. One asked, “Why did you serve your masters like that?”
Ambedkar replied angrily, “You want to accuse me for your blemishes? — typically, I might add.” As the House was brought to order, Ambedkar’s proposal to give governors a power of veto was denied.
The truth was Ambedkar was past his heydays, and all that bothered him about the Constitution never came out in the open. He had already resigned from the Cabinet over disagreements about the Hindu Code Bill, and was then defeated twice, in 1952 and 1954, in his bid to become a Lok Sabha MP. Although, outside Parliament Ambedkar persisted in his criticism.
In a 1953 interview, he told the BBC: “Democracy will not work (in India), for the simple reason we have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy.”
He passed away in 1956.
What troubled Ambedkar about the Constitution India had adopted was its inherent majoritarianism. For a permanent Hindu majority nation, he didn’t think a system of majority-only government was well suited. In fact, he had proposed to the Constituent Assembly an entirely different set up for India’s Constitution than the one it adopted based on the parliamentary system.
Ambedkar’s United States of India
Ambedkar labeled his scheme the “United States of India (USI).” It was submitted to the Assembly’s subcommittee on Fundamental Rights only seven months before he began work as chairman of the Drafting Committee.
Ambedkar’s USI proposal was similar in many ways to the US’ system of government. It was a genuine federation, giving states a much higher degree of independence. This is why Ambedkar wished governors had discretionary powers. The USI’s executive power was to be elected by the entire legislature, not just by the majority party, and for a fixed term in office. The judicial power was vested in a totally independent Supreme Court. And the list of fundamental rights was similar to America’s Bill of Rights. Even Ambedkar’s language was reminiscent of America’s Declaration of Independence: “the British type of executive will be full of menace to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the minorities,” he wrote.
The executive power — a Cabinet run by a majority party leader as prime minister or chief minister — was Ambedkar’s chief concern. Its structure was crucial, he argued, for not just safeguarding minorities but also for providing stability in governments.
“It was clear,” he noted, “that if the British system was copied it would result in permanently vesting executive power in a communal majority.” And as for stability, he feared that “in view of the clashes of castes and creeds there is bound to be a plethora of parties. If this happens it is possible, nay certain, that under the system of parliamentary executive India may suffer from instability.”
This is not the first time Ambedkar had proposed these ideas for India’s Constitution. In a 1945 speech on India’s fundamental problems, he had declared: “Majority rule is untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice.”
He outlined the principles on which India’s government should be based: a) “Executive power assumes far greater importance than legislative power”; b) “Executive should cease to be a committee of the majority party”; and c) “Executive should be non-parliamentary in the sense that it shall not be removable.”
Ambedkar even took these suggestions to the British. He went to the extraordinary extent of preferring British rule over Independence, if all freedom was to bring was majority-only governments.
In a secret meeting with the British Viceroy, Ambedkar declared categorically that “the parliamentary system would not do in India.” The Viceroy asked him whether he would say that in public, to which he replied he would be ready to do so “with the utmost emphasis.”
Given all this, the puzzling question is why inside the Constituent Assembly Ambedkar supported a parliamentary type system of majority-only governments. After all, he sat with Nehru on the most important committees of the Constitution making body, and it was his draft that was finally adopted.
It’s all conjecture, but people have alluded to three reasons why Ambedkar switched from his long-standing opposition to parliamentary governments and became its chief proponent.
One, he was admitted to the Assembly only due to the support of the Congress party. He felt duty bound to push Congress’ proposals inside the house. Two, he was offered by Nehru the Cabinet position of Law Minister. He figured this would allow him to continue to serve his nation and his causes. And three, Ambedkar wished to keep his arch-rival Gandhi’s influence away from the Constitution. Gandhi’s ideas about keeping villages at the foundation of India’s government were half-baked and too experimental.
After 70 years of poor governance and rising caste and communal tensions, it is safe to say that Ambedkar’s criticisms of our current Constitution were valid. Now, us Indians, have to decide whether we continue to pretend to be his followers to gain votes, or do we truly follow his advice.
[The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal Group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija ]
A version of this article was first published on The Quint on 14 April 2018.