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If a ‘New India’ Is Here, What Happens to the ‘Old India’?

It is safe to say that a Second Republic is already here. While the First Republic was defined by the values of the Indian freedom struggle, the Second Republic is defined by the Hindu religious identity. Is India then beyond redemption? Ultimately, the people must decide which republic they want to live in.

Terms like ‘New India’ and ‘Vishwaguru Bharat’ have found their way into our political vocabulary in recent years. They do not merely represent commercialised political slogans, but are also emblematic of a break from the past; an altered idea of India.

Amidst the meteoric rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the cult of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the conflation of nationalism with ideological allegiance, and widespread economic anxieties, it is hard to dispute that the very basis of the Indian republic lies in tatters. There is now a most intriguing debate over a ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Republic. What is this curious dichotomy and is it valid?

The First Indian Republic refers to the foundational Indian republic and the values underpinning its existence — the values of our freedom struggle. The ‘Second Republic’ is a term used to signify a break from those ideas; a redefinition of the values that make up Indian nationalism.

The Indian constitution codifies the persuasions and convictions of the First Republic. The constitution was undoubtedly an imposition of liberal values on an illiberal people. The chairman of the Drafting Committee, BR Ambedkar, had himself said so in the Constituent Assembly: “Indian democracy is a top-dressing on Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Madhav Khosla has argued that it was a pedagogical tool: People were supposed to imbibe a democratic temper by seeing democracy at work in front of them. The goal, therefore, was nothing short of building a new civic culture.

Another important (and in this case, disenchanting) aspect of the ideas underpinning the First Republic was that it, at times, ended up downplaying the more unsavoury aspects of Indian history.

Kapil Komireddi explains it best in his book, Malevolent Republic. “The secular establishment squandered a rare opening in the early decades of the republic to heal the wound caused by the encounter between the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism and the richest and most varied polytheism by supplying Indians a forthright accounting of their history,” he wrote. “Had India been honest about its past — about the atrocities that were perpetrated and the heritage that was ravaged — it might have desiccated the appeal of Hindu supremacism.” 

Even if the intentions were lofty, the First Republic’s reading of Indian history ended up creating resentment towards what is now seen as elitist gatekeeping of the past. 

India hence provided a political opportunity to a chauvinistic movement that craftily wove a narrative of Hindu victimhood. Alas, Indian history was to prove that nations do not escape their history by simply making a break from it, no matter how democratic and inclusive their vision is.

Fighting to Define India’s Identity

This brings us to what is referred to as the “New India” — the Second Republic. 

The Second Republic has been characterised by the fourth party system and the nourishment of a national identity defined by the Hindu religion. This has been built on the belief that the First Republic distorted India’s civilisational destiny by adopting a Nehruvian ethic (secular and hence antagonistic to an exclusively religious identity).

While the national freedom movement’s reinvention of history aimed to assert that the people of the subcontinent shared a civilisational bond, Hindutva’s attempt to reimagine the past seeks to imbue the Indian imagination with a certain degree of guilt — a call to action against the ‘other’ (in this case, the non-Hindu, i.e. Muslim, Christian etc).

It is hence safe to say that a Second Republic is already here. Slowly but surely, it is altering the fundamental assumptions on which the First Republic thrived. The symbolism of the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista and the systematic deterioration of democratic institutions are manifestations of this change. If so, is India beyond redemption? 

Let us have a holistic look. There are obviously some who gleam with happiness at this new formulation of the republic. Too long have they been spoken down to; they welcome the Second Republic and have indeed voted for it. The belligerence of the Hindutva movement has attracted many who feel that they have not been given a forthright accounting of the past; they shun the political misuse of secularism and want a newer vocabulary of cultural belonging. For them, the Second Republic isn’t just a reality; it is the only reality they want. 

Then, there are those who have argued for reclaiming the original idea of India. They believe that discrediting the First Republic means discrediting the only idea that can sustain democracy in India. They point out that the conscious choice of a plural Indian identity was meant to accommodate India’s diversity, as opposed to an exclusively religious one. According to them, even if the idea is discredited, it is the only one that works. Some go further and argue that the prime minister knows this as well and that his recent railings over the relative balance of rights and duties are but the “ramblings of a nervous monarch”. 

Distinct from these two perspectives is another stream of thought — articulated more recently by Yogendra Yadav — which accepts that a new Republic is now inevitable and that it is the result of a discrepancy between constitutional values and the political values upheld by the public. Yet, this perspective does not necessarily warn against the risks posed by the Second Republic’s sweeping redefinition. The solution, according to this view, is to accept that a new culture of political functioning and democracy is here to stay and needs a renewed political imagination. 

Yogendra Yadav advocates a conscious ideological integration of what he calls the “egalitarian stream” (rallying around social justice and equality) and the “indigenous stream” (perceptions of swaraj or autonomy) of Indian political thought to re-work the underpinnings of the Republic in keeping with changing political dynamics. The idea is to make two significant yet estranged traditions speak to each other and redefine India’s political consciousness in a mutually acceptable manner.

Must We Compromise on Democracy?

Yogendra Yadav’s approach emerges from exhaustion with the conventional debate between the liberals (who want to protect the First Republic) and the Hindutva revisionists (who champion the Second Republic). But even if this integrationist view sounds the most pragmatic, it requires revising the very basis of our political community. Are we comfortable giving up something we have clung to tenaciously? Isn’t proclaiming the death of the First Republic itself a token of legitimacy to the distortion of our foundational values? 

This new theorisation carries with it an immense risk and it will certainly not be nearly as broad-based as the idea of the foundational Indian republic. Any attempt at defining a new basis of our political community hence cannot come merely from academia —it must come from the people.

We must remember that Indian democracy has curiously had people come to its aid when it most needed it — from student protests during the Emergency to the farmer’s movement and the anti-CAA stir. Reform and evolution require both a top-down and a bottom-up formulation; that is why the battle against caste oppression needed both a Gandhi and an Ambedkar.

The same people who have given preference to their religion as the primary marker of identity must also make the choice of how much democracy they desire. The choice between democracy and a compromised version of it couldn’t be clearer. The political class can goad them towards one side or another, but it is ultimately the people who will make the republic. This redefinition too must come with roots in civil society. Otherwise, it just won’t survive.

Armaan Mathur is pursuing Political Science Honours at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. He has previously written for the Student Edition of the Hindustan Times and is passionate about history, political science, literature and international relations.