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Republic Day Thoughts on Reading the Constitution

January 26th, 2015 is the 66th “Republic Day” of India: the Constitution of India came into force on this day in 1950 as the supreme law of the land, replacing the Government of India Act of 1935. I doubt that very many Indians actually know what the Republic Day has to do with the constitution. If you doubt that, ask a few Indians what’s celebrated.

To most, it is just a holiday with parades, patriotic songs and the same old politicians pontificating on television. Constitution? Well, we don’t worry about that. But we need to because the constitution matters. In a very strict sense, it is the most important institution that determines the fortunes of the state. It does so by constraining what laws politicians can enact, and therefore constrains public policies. Public policies matter in determining strongly national prosperity. A bad constitution guarantees a dysfunctional state. It’s time for people to read the constitution, understand it, and ponder whether it has lived up to its frequently advertised greatness.

One of my favorite hobby horses is my claim that, to a first approximation, nobody in India has actually read the Indian constitution. I base this on a sample of around 10,000 people I have asked over the last decade. It was not a random sample: these people were quite adequately educated, they were interested in India’s economic growth and development, and were interested in and followed Indian politics. If this bunch has not read the constitution, it is a fair bet that a vanishingly small number have read the constitution cover to cover.

A very small number admitted that they had read bits and pieces of it because it was required for some school course work. A few attempted to read it but gave up when it became clear that it was basically unreadable. It is written in legalese. It is incomprehensible to the general public. My education has not been too shabby — and I admit that I failed in my sincere attempt to read it.

The Indian Constitution is verbose. India has the world’s largest constitution, containing 117,369 words. (Did you know that only three modern countries in the world don’t have written constitutions: UK, New Zealand and Israel. BBC.) That’s around 500 pages. Little wonder that no one has read it.

What worries me is this: the constitution is the foundation document of the republic. A republic is a form of popular government. That means people are the ultimate rulers and their elected representative govern the state on behalf of the people according to the law of the land. The law of the land is the constitution. Now if the people don’t know what’s in the constitution, at best they are blindly guessing what the law of the land is. But let’s put aside the people for a moment. What about the legislators of the land, the elected politicians? Do they know the law of the land?

I don’t know too many politicians but the handful that I do know have readily and without shame baldly stated that they have not read the constitution. These people were not the illiterate, uneducated variety either. So if they had not read it, I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that not a single politician in India has read the constitution.

If that is so, I don’t understand what business they have to go about making laws when they don’t know what the constitution says.

Here’s an idea that Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi could consider. Require that all legislators read the constitution. Every member of the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha, the state legislators — every last one of them. And to ensure that there’s no shirking, I propose that the constitution should be read out to them. In just 20 hours, it can be read aloud. And at the end of it all, they will have to appear for test, the results of which would be on public record.

This will have one important effect: these people will fully understand that the constitution is unreadable and incomprehensible. It might provoke public debate about what needs to be done about it. I am on record calling for the replacement of the constitution of India. No, not amendments but an actual re-writing of the constitution.

This proposal of mine will of course not be adopted — it’s too rational and simple. We don’t do the rational thing and simplicity is for simpletons. We are really smart. We must be: haven’t you seen the kind of unparalleled prosperity we enjoy?

Seriously though, we need to demand sanity from the politicians. Politicians drafted the constitution and like they usually do, they make laws that are incomprehensible. We need to make them suffer for them to recognize that India must have a decent, comprehensible constitution.

I had been turning over this idea in my head for a while. To my delight, I came across a related idea in a Jan 15th blog post by Dan Bunting, “A British version of a ‘Read the Bills’ statute.” As Dan notes, “Read the Bill Act” is promoted by Rand Paul “that every member of Congress who votes on a bill has to sign a sworn declaration that they have read it.” In the blog post, Dan posted this tweet by Matthew Bolt:

Dan writes:

It’s genius. Imagine if no MP or peer could vote on a Bill unless they had lodged a handwritten (in their own writing) copy of the entire Bill with the Clerk of the House?

That piece of legislation that looked so good, and so just vital for the country, in the early morning light of a press release, may not look quite so hot at two in the morning as you are bent over a desk, hand cramped, as you write out Clause 94? Any lawyer can tell you that it is almost impossible to keep on top of the outpouring of laws from Westminster.

Well, that’s it. Require that every Indian legislator sit through a reading of the constitution, and at the end of it pass a written test administered by an independent agency. And post the results for the public to see how well their law makers know the law.

Have a Happy Republic Day!

PS: You may wish to read my “Constitution” related posts.

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