The social question and the absolutism of politics


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IN her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt claimed ‘…every attempt to solve the social question by political means leads to terror.’1 By the social question she meant issues of material destitution and inequality. For Arendt the calamity of the French Revolution, on account of which it led to terror and constitutional instability, was that it professed to address questions of destitution and social inequality solely within a political framework. In contrast, in the American founding, by substantially ignoring the social questions of the day, the constitution was able to limit the ambit of political power, and hence secure the domain of public freedom – which, for Arendt, was the only appropriate domain of power.

Arendt admitted that the question of slavery, the plight of the poor and the treatment of Native Americans, were all largely ignored at the constitutional founding of the United States. Nevertheless, for her this was a judicious choice because only by not intermingling social issues with political institutions could power be limited, autonomous and focused on securing the condition of public freedom. Indeed, she even saw the reference to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence as an embryonic form of this intermingling, with the potential to compromise an autonomous political domain. Despite this, for Arendt the American Constitution served as an ideal in which political power was limited, public freedom secure, and national unity anchored in the broad structures of political institutions – and all this was possible only because social questions were kept at bay.

But it was the French example that served as the much more influential model for revolutions and constitutional governments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here the authorization of political power was constitutionally braided with issues of social uplift and French national unity was grounded on the material destitution of the French peasant. Citizenship was thus from the very outset a response to a social predicament and the power of the state was a promissory rejoinder to redress that predicament.


Constitutions are often conceived when the pressure of surrounding circumstances cannot be resisted, and when those circumstances are liable to substantially determine the content of the constitution. The irony of this is that as documents that set up, among other things, the deliberative framework of a country’s political institutions, constitutions themselves are often not the product of extended deliberation. This was not true in the Indian case where the Constituent Assembly sat for over three years during which it reflected with great seriousness on the future of the country. But in many other ways the Indian Constitution had a mould even prior to its actual conception in which the role of social inequities was very considerable. What has been the legacy of the determinative fact that the Constitution, like others that were adumbrated in the 20th century had to, or at any rate did from the very outset, concern itself with questions of social uplift, equality and social identity?

In the voluminous writings, debates and speeches that inform constitutional reflections in India during the late-forties and onwards, three issues have an unmistakable salience. First is an overriding concern with national unity; second, a deep and anxious preoccupation with issues such as a poverty, illiteracy, economic development, and many other similar foes; and finally, there is an intense concern with India’s standing in the world and with foreign affairs more generally. These three concerns also constitute the template for much of the subsequent politics of the country; in fact it seems fair to say that they characterize the general contours of the politics of many newly independent countries in the second half of the 20th century.

In the Indian case each of these concerns had obvious exigent reasons that explain their prominence. It is plain that a country on the verge of independence, marked by dizzying, often fractious, and potentially centrifugal diversity – not to mention a diversity that had long been used to justify imperial subjection and one in which the prospect and then the reality of partition had loomed for many years – would be vigilant, indeed, obsessed with national unity. Similarly, under extant conditions of near ubiquitous social despair, illiteracy and many other forms of destitution, and that too unequally experienced by different groups, the concern with such matters could hardly have been anything other than anxious and urgent.


And finally, given the long history during which national identity had been denied, distorted and disparaged, and the struggle for independence during which it had been asserted as having a historical and objective warrant, it is only to be expected that a pressing and guiding feature of national idealism would have it alloyed with the question of recognition and standing in the international arena.

The three issues thus drew on urgencies that were both historical and contemporaneous. They had an obvious conceptual and material logic. But there is an irony in the emphasis that these issues assumed and retain. Following independence, the nation was now a project; its freedom could only be a projection into the future. The irony is that the successful culmination to free oneself from imperial subjection led almost immediately to freedom itself becoming a subsidiary concern – subsidiary to national unity, social uplift and a concern with recognition. Freedom did not stand alone as something secured through independence itself.

In a manner recalling de Tocqueville’s distinction between Europe where people became equal, and America where they were born equal, the nation, like its members, was not free, but rather always in the process of becoming so. As Nehru claimed in his inaugural speech on 14 August 1947, an age had come to an end and it was ‘the future [that] beckons us.’ In such a view, freedom is never in the moment, because it cannot be tangential to the national and collective purposes with which it is braided.


Freedom existed as a future prospect, as the distant culmination of a plan.2 It becomes freighted with the seriousness and responsibility of pursuing an arduous collective journey. This is evident in Nehru’s speeches from the period shortly prior to and following independence. In their tone and content they are like a solemn dirge to the exacting burdens that India’s independence imposes on her. They are unremittingly weighed by a sense of necessity and foreboding. 3 


My point is that the vision that the Constitution articulates is not illuminated by the idea of an extant domain of public freedom, which comes into being through the dispatching of imperial governors. In the context of the times it meant very little to say that the Constitution would secure a domain of freedom and limit political power to that end. The pithy remark by the American Founder Patrick Henry, ‘give me liberty, or give me death’, which in the popular American imagination still captures something of the informing ideal of their constitution, has no correspondingly popular resonance in our constitutional tradition. One must, therefore, ask how should one conceive of that specific and very distinctive energy that marks constitutional reflection in India from the forties onward? What are the implications of the ‘social questions’ serving as a caption for a broader national endeavour, in a way in which the securing of public freedom had served as the caption for American constitutionalism in the 18th century?4 

Unity and social uplift, I want to suggest, are the terms through which a specifically political national vision gets articulated and other forms of power and authority get eclipsed. Politics becomes the ground for national unity and the redressing of social issues, the central venue through which this ground and unity are constantly reaffirmed. The point may seem obvious, indeed trite. One might wonder what else other than politics could be the ground of national unity and purposefulness? But the thought deserves more attention precisely because the Constitution itself was doing something more novel and radical.


Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, reflected on this question in light of the social diversity and sectarianism that had characterized England during the 16th and 17th century, and which had led to the Civil War. His diagnosis was that to avoid war and such conflict, power had to be unitary. In a word, power, and the authority that sanctioned it, had to be political. The diversity and complexity that had marked the social and religious landscape of England had to be brought to heal under the unified superintendence of a distinctly political power. This was a hugely influential thought; so influential that we can scarcely imagine a state of affairs prior to ways in which it has moulded the modern world. It was also a thought, which the architects of our constitution shared.

The Indian Constitution authorizes a distinctive, one might even say revolutionary, type of power because of the way it conceptualizes national unity and its relationship with existing forms of social order and authority. Its deep concern with the social is part of a piece with an equally deep worry regarding the inherent and historical diversity of the social. Gandhi championed the social and its diversity and saw it as having a viability that would not necessarily (as with Hobbes) assume a violent or fractious form. It did not require being displaced by the distinctly political power of the state. He identified the social with the terms in which people conceived of their lives – religion, caste, location, profession, and so on. These were the quotidian references by which people navigated their everyday lives and through which they tried (or did not try) to live more or less ethical lives, with more or less self-control and confidence.

For Gandhi the social supplied the template of the ethical and it did not require being supplemented, let alone being supplanted, by the political. This is what made Gandhi a conservative, or at any rate a very pragmatic, thinker, because with the exception of untouchability, which he fervently sought to abolish, he generally accepted life in the terms in which it was already given.


In contrast, the Constitution had a very different and distinctly political vision. Here was a document which granted universal adult franchise in a country that was overwhelmingly illiterate; where the conditionality of acquiring citizenship made no reference to race, caste, religion or creed; which committed the state to being secular in a land that was by any reckoning deeply religious; which evacuated as a matter of law every prescriptive form of hierarchy under conditions that were marked by a plethora of entrenched hierarchies; and that granted a raft of fundamental individual rights in the face of virtual total absence of such rights.

In its Preamble it committed the state to the most capacious conception of justice, including thereby ‘social, economic and political’ justice, ‘liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship’, equality understood to include that of ‘status and opportunity’, and in which under the heading of ‘fraternity’ it professed to insure ‘the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.’

Most importantly, the Constitution created a federal democracy with all the juridical and political instruments of federal, provincial and local self-governance where the nearest experience had been of imperial and princely authority. When one considers for example, the Directive Principles of the Constitution, or the ‘strivings’ of the state, they include matters of health, education, individual and communal safety, equality and prosperity. One cannot but be awed by the extent and reach of such a vision and agenda. It has no outside to it. This constitutionally enshrined vision authorized a state that was to be responsible for the eradication of poverty, undoing the stigmas of casteism, improving public health and education, building large industry, facilitating communication, and fostering national unity. Not surprisingly the Indian state has never had any difficulty justifying extending the ambit of its power.


This concern with social issues, which is such a conspicuous feature of the Constituent Assembly debates and the Constitution, relates to what I have called the political vision of the country for two broad reasons. First, issues such mass poverty, illiteracy and near ubiquitous destitution belong to the realm of necessity because they put human beings under the pressing dictates of their bodies. To the extent that political power concerns itself with the basic fact of sustaining life – and under modern conditions this is indeed a central aspect of politics, which has had a long genealogical link with medicine – political power itself becomes subject to this necessity. It can only represent freedom as something prospective. Its immediate ambit is dictated by the intensity of ‘mere life’.


Under such conditions power is transformed from a traditional concern with establishing the conditions for freedom to a concern with sustaining life and its necessities. The power of the state is thus underwritten by an elemental imperative to sustain life – the corporeal life of the citizen and the unitary and corporate life of the nation. And thus, in the face of pressing social urgencies, the idea that there are fundamental limits on the power of the state survives only through a rhetorical courtesy to certain liberal pieties.

Ambedkar for one was too clear-headed to abide the fiction of such pieties. He made this clear on several occasions, for example in a statement to the Constituent Assembly on 4 November 1948, while speaking of nothing less than the matter of fundamental rights, he said ‘…fundamental rights are the gifts of the law. Because fundamental rights are the gift of the State it does not follow that the State cannot qualify them.’5 Ambedkar was voicing what every follower of Hobbes has known that if there are limits on the power of the state, it is the state’s prerogative to determine, and if it so desires, to abrogate those limits.

The second aspect of the social, which explains its prominence, relates to its fundamental diversity in the Indian context. The diversity of India – of its religions, languages, castes, mores and ‘minor’ traditions – had been the leitmotif of colonial and nationalist ethnography and historiography dating back to Sir William Jones. It supported the view of India’s cultural and civilizational richness, her history of confederation, her sabhas, samitis and panchayats and the traditions of decentralized accountability. But this very diversity was also taken to be the ground of India’s political backwardness, her lack of national coherence, her easy resort to internecine conflict and her fundamentally anti-modern orientation.

India, as both Gandhi and Nehru concurred, lived in her villages and her villages in being worlds unto themselves, tended to live in a benign isolation from the rest of the world. For Gandhi, village India furnished the basic social integuments of life and for resisting the lure of a technologised modernity. For Nehru, as a general matter, villages entrenched practices that were archaic, anti-rational and sectarian in their prejudices. They represented everything to which his vision of the democratic nation and state offered a redemptive redress.


The constitutional vision saw in the social diversity of India a profound challenge. It was variously coded as a resistance to the professed unity of the nation and as supporting the sectarian and inegalitarian norms that sustained and promoted the social tapestry of the country. But most importantly, the social represented a resistance to the political vision, which the Constitution attempted to put in place. Rajendra Prasad’s words to the Constituent Assembly are tellingly suggestive. They have all the familiar contrasts and binaries. On one side stands the Constitution, the unified nation, the men of honest character and integrity, the interests of the country, the ability to control and guide it; and on the other side, the diverse languages, castes, communal differences, prejudices and the ‘various elements of life’ with their ‘fissiparous tendency’.

After all, a constitution like machine is a lifeless thing. It acquires life because men who control it and operate it, and India needs today nothing more than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before them. There is fissiparous tendency arising out of various elements in our life. We have communal differences, caste differences, language difference, provincial differences and so forth. It requires men of strong character, men of vision, men who will not sacrifice the interests of the country at large for the sake of smaller groups and areas and who will rise over the prejudices which are born of these differences.6 


This is a casting of India in the very terms that Hobbes had viewed English history in the 17th century in his study of English Civil War. The social domain was divisive; the political was unifying. The constitutional vision was meant to eviscerate or, at a minimum, trump these social and fissiparous tendencies by fixing them in a unified political frame. In fact for Ambedkar even the idea of India being a federation was troubling because that term suggested the existence of parts or states that had, as in the American case, come to an ‘agreement’ to form a federation. But for Ambedkar the constitutional vision was one in which the ‘Union’ was not at the mercy of any such agreement with its constituent parts:

The federation is a Union because it is indestructible. Though the country and the people may be divided into different States for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source.7 

Not surprisingly the text of the Constitution never uses the terms federal or federation.


Arendt was clearly wrong to identify political power that concerns itself with social issues as necessarily leading to terror. But Arendt’s error was one of exaggeration and not of a lack of insight, because her trenchant statement does flag a powerful tendency in the functioning of political power when such power is obligated to primarily concern itself with social questions. The prophecy regarding terror has not been borne out in India. Constitutionalism, especially when it is democratic, clearly checks tyranny and many aspects of absolutism. But the commitment to redress historical injustices, alleviate the sufferings of the body, create social equality, or a unified nation, in the manner envisioned by the Constitution, has produced a form of political absolutism. Constitutionalism in India has not led to a legacy that limits the power of the state or constrains its reach.

In this sense our constitutionalism is very much in the tradition of Hobbes, where there was never a suspicion of power, because power was identified as the condition of life. Similarly the absolutism of politics and the state has, perhaps, also contributed to a culture in which the prestige of power in all segments of the population is inordinately high. Our constitutionalism constitutes power and increases and celebrates its ambit. It is only through politics and the specific kind of power it sanctions that the nation can be imagined, administered and made just. But, it must be added, in that vision, freedom is consigned to a distant prospect and the tendency for political power to operate without limits deeply ingrained, even if it is not always acted on.



1. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution. Penguin Books, London, 1990, page 112.

2. ‘For a long time we have been having various plans for a free India in our minds, but now, when we are beginning the actual work, I hope, you will be one with me when I say, that we should present a clear picture of this plan to ourselves, to the people of India and the world at large. The resolution that I am placing before you defines our aims, describes an outline of the plan and points the way which are going to tread.’ Jawaharlal Nehru, CAD, page 57.

3. ‘…India after being dominated for a long period has emerged as a free sovereign democratic independent country, and that is a fact that changes and is changing history… That is a tremendous responsibility. Freedom brings responsibility; of course, there is no such thing as freedom without responsibility… Therefore, we have to be conscious of this tremendous burden of this responsibility which freedom has brought: the discipline of freedom and the organized way of working freedom.’ Jawaharlal Nehru, CAD, Book 2, volume vii, page 319-20.

4. See Judith N. Shklar, Redeeming American Political Thought. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, especially chapter 11.

5. CAD, viii, page 40.

6. CAD.

7. CAD, ii, page 42.