India should be the home of an exceptional political creed, a unique ideology that may be called Indian Exceptionalism.
By Bhanu Dhamija
India is an exceptional nation. Its glorious past and profound diversity make it unique. It is a special country, as proponents of Vishwa Guru (World Guru) often remind us, citing our pluralistic Dharma (Innate Law), Universalism, Environmentalism, Yoga, Ayurveda, etc. It is time that India take advantage of these strengths, and establish visionary new principles which could inspire other democracies. India should be the home of an exceptional political creed, a unique ideology that may be called Indian Exceptionalism.
In examining American Exceptionalism, we can break down their unique ideology into the following principles: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, secularism, republicanism, democracy, federalism, and laissez-faire economics. These principles, enshrined in the country’s Constitution in 1787, differentiated America from other nations, especially Europe and Russia. Most European states weren’t republics or federations, nor did they guarantee individual freedoms, equal rights, or free markets. Today, Americans take tremendous pride in these principles and many are willing to defend them with their lives.
Our Constitution subscribes to almost the same principles. The Preamble includes Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (“assuring the dignity of the individual”) and declares the country Democratic, Republic, and Secular.
However, there are three big differences between the two countries’ ideology.
The US subscribes to non-interventionist capitalism, while India declares itself Socialist and engages in centralized planning. In America’s federalism, state governments are autonomous, but in India they can be controlled and dissolved by the Centre. And with secularism, the US separates state from religion, while India allows governments to engage in religious activities. It is these differences that offer India an opportunity to formulate an exceptional new political creed.
Hindu nationalists have even grander ambitions for Indian Exceptionalism. As described by the BJP’s chief ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in his philosophy of Integral Humanism, Hindu nationalists would make Dharma India’s new political creed. They want to jettison secularism. They also want community or family to be the basic foundation of India’s Constitution, and to make citizen’s duties as important as citizen’s rights. They disagree with India’s current federalism and want Bharat to be a unitary state. This approach is not practical, as we shall see later.
But these ideas and differences from the West can be at the core of Indian Exceptionalism, in three main principles: multiculturalism, communitarianism, and pro-federalism.
A New Way for a Multi-ethnic World
Democracies the world over are struggling to meet the demands of multi-ethnic societies. It would be a grand accomplishment if India could show the way. Our country is exceedingly diverse and thus uniquely placed to devise a new principle for multiculturalism.
Our options are these: Continue today’s secularism; adopt the US approach; install a Dharma Rajya; or develop something new. India’s current state of affairs, where governments get freely involved in ethnic activities, is clearly not working.
It has led to special treatment, vote-bank politics, and resentment all around. But Dharma Rajya is not the answer either. That would only enhance communal tensions, and place India in the league of theocratic states, such as Pakistan and Iran. Moreover it is impractical to codify dharma, which is different for each individual, even according to Upadhyaya himself.
Dharma Rajya proponents should study Israel. That country is 76 percent Jewish (India is 80 percent Hindu) and in the 70 years since independence, hasn’t been able to adopt a constitution that makes it both Jewish and Democratic. Israel has settled on a provisional system of government, just so it can function as a nation. But this isn’t a hopeful vision for a democracy.
US-type secularism is nondiscriminatory and allows full expression of ethnicity, but it denies government any role in reforming harmful ethnic practices or uplifting society’s morals. Since religion is forever intertwined with politics, denying government a role in such matters allows communal tensions to fester and erupt violently.
India could develop a multicultural system that allows government a role, yet restricts the religious majority from tyrannizing minorities. It would have the following elements:
- Universal laws, such as freedom of religion, mutual respect, ethnic and caste equality, all codified in the Constitution.
- Governments could engage in ethnic activities, but only with the backing of specific legislation. These laws would first be passed by a special Council of Parliament, where all religions have equal representation.
- Local governments would have autonomy in handling ethnic issues, but with the above two caveats.
Balance Rights with Duties
All democracies want their citizens to fulfill their responsibilities toward family and community. India’s traditions of joint family and village panchayats make it ideally suited to devise precepts that balance the community’s common good with individual autonomy and rights. This ideology is known as communitarianism.
Communitarianism is tough, because it fails whenever it’s taken too far in any direction. When everything is run as a community (as with communism) it kills individual enterprise. When governments run industries and welfare schemes for “the common good” (as with India’s current Socialism) it dampens people’s initiative and invites corruption. But when government becomes exclusively responsible for the common good while individuals only sacrifice rights (as with the Social Contract idea of western democracies) families and communities disintegrate.
India can show a new way by adopting some type of Soft Communitarianism, making family and civil society co-agents of social control and reform. This would involve the following elements:
- Local communities are responsible for running their own affairs. For example, locally elected school boards manage schools; NGOs and nonprofits manage water resources; volunteer groups run ambulance or fire services, and so on.
- Individuals are required by law to provide basic services for their minor children and aged parents. If property rights can be justiciable, so can these duties.
National Unity And Regional Autonomy
Ethnic populations live together for practical or historical reasons, but all democracies fear too much regional autonomy. Self-governance is usually seen as a precursor to self-determination. Once again, India’s diversity provides a unique opportunity to find the right balance between autonomy and sovereignty.
An ideal could be called pro-federalism, to differentiate from con-federalism, where states retain total sovereignty.
Even Hindu nationalists agree that a unitary state, where a strong Centre governs the entire land, is impractical. Decentralization is essential for good governance. Also, centralized controls are contrary to principles of self-rule. But nations also need safeguards against a region’s self-rule turning into a separatist movement.
India could devise such a political system, where regions have autonomy but not sovereignty. It would have the following elements:
- States are not given any monetary or military powers
- All inter-state and international affairs are in the purview of the Centre
- All local issues, including elections, are state responsibilities
- States use and teach the national language in addition to local languages
- State symbols are displayed below those of the nation
- States pledge allegiance to the national Constitution.
Indian Exceptionalism could change the path of history. We must endeavor to develop a practical and superior new political creed if we want to make Bharat a truly exceptional nation.
[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 21 June 2018.