Celebrating the will of the people


THERE is nothing unusual in celebrating the will of the people in a democracy. It is the source of legitimacy of both power and authority and it is on this principle that democracy shows itself superior to, and better than, other types of political regimes. There is a history behind this celebration which started in the aftermath of the bourgeois revolutions of the18th century in the West when a new political category called the people was born. Later on, this new political category travelled to other parts of the world and entered in to the political-constitutional discourse of many societies when they embarked on the democratic path.

With the growing popularity of democratic ideals in modern times, when more and more country embraced liberal constitutionalism, the practice of invoking the will of the people in politics and the constitutional designs gained further momentum. This practically turned a disparate population into a common ‘we’, and ‘We, the people’ became a sine qua non of liberal constitutionalism and the foundation of the modern republic and popular sovereignty.

India is no exception to this pattern and followed the same trajectory when the anti-colonial movement along with the new ascendant ideology of nationalism were growing in the late 19th and the early 20th century, and the seeds of a new genre of politics were being sown. Later on when it gained independence and declared itself a democratic republic, it followed the practice of making ‘we, the people’ the author and source of the new constitution on the pattern of post-revolutionary societies like the USA and France where a bourgeois revolution had taken place.

But in the process not only was a modern democratic politics around a new political imagery called the people born, but fierce political competition ensued among various political groups and ideologies over their contending claims to represent its will more truthfully and authentically. Hence, multiverses of politics around the will of the people developed in the early 20th century by assigning it different meanings. Subsequently, this politics assumed multiple forms, with some uncritically celebrating the will of the people, while others were more circumspect and operated within the liberal democratic frame. For those who indulged in an uncritical veneration of the unmediated will, it became an infallible category. Whatever was popular with the people became progressive for them too. In other words, the distinction between the progressive and popular in politics was completely erased.

This trend in politics that people’s will is always virtuous and incorruptible in the belief that whatever people do is always right and rational has slowly acquired salience in Indian politics posing a serious threat to the liberal democratic institutions and its cardinal values conceived at the founding moments of the republic. It also looks ominous for the future of the democratic project itself – all the more so when we find that the agencies of liberal democracy themselves are being projected in a villainous role today for dispossessing the innocent and virtuous people from all sites of power and authority, despite a republican polity swearing in their name on the very first page of the Constitution. It is alleged that the people of the republic have been short-changed on the altar of institutional niceties and legal-constitutional paraphernalia.

An interesting distinction is also emerging today between two types of people, the republican people, seen as virtuous in a popular sense and demos pleasing in the majoritarian sense, and the liberal democratic people, which are conceived as procedurally mediated and institutionally grounded. And they are presented in an antagonistic relationship as if they were sitting at each other’s throats. The populist leaders and the demagogues often highlight this chasm to win the trust of the people for electoral benefit. Addressing the people over the head of political institutions and processes, some of them use this purported fault line to convey that the people of liberal democratic discourse are running away with title deeds of the people of republican discourse, and portray themselves as the true saviour of their interests.

This paper1 discusses some of these issues in three sections: (a) the advent of the people in modern times through the bourgeois revolutions; (b) arrival of the people in Indian political discourse in the early 20th century and its invocation in the Indian Constitution despite a missing bourgeois revolution; and (c) the multiple usages of the people in Indian politics over the years, including an uncritical celebration of its will in both political and social movements.

The people as political imagery is a modern construct. It emerged in the aftermath of the bourgeois revolution in the USA (1776), France (1789), and the Sonderband war (1847) in Switzerland. Though the protagonists of these revolutions were the bourgeoisie, they disguised their identity as ‘the people’ when it came to the post-revolutionary political arrangement in these societies. They made the people writer and owners of the new republican constitution and the polity. The United States of America was the first republican state in modern times to use this new political category at its Philadelphia convention when it invoked ‘We, the people’ in its constitution. Though the French revolution popularized the concept of popular sovereignty, the French experiment with republicanism and popular sovereignty was short-lived as it ended in political tragedy due to its authoritarian slide under Bonapartism.

The prefix bourgeois in the bourgeois revolution was due to the role played by an emerging class of capitalists in  the foundation of the new order. But, interestingly, when it came to the creation of a political order based on constitutional government after the revolution, the framers of the constitution did not declare the bourgeoisie as the author and the constituent subject. Instead, they preferred anonymity and shunned associating the identity of the new constitution and the polity with any particular class the way the socialist revolution in Russia did later by openly christening the constitution as the proletarian constitution! But in these countries, the constitution was presented in the name of an amorphous category the ‘people’. In one stroke the ‘disparate population’ was transmuted and forged into a homogenous ‘we’, and turned into a new entity called the people.2

Thus, the invocation of the people as ‘We, the people’ gradually became the sine qua non of modern constitutionalism, and liberal democratic countries started replicating this standard norm. This practice, however, only tells about the new author of the modern constitution and the location of political sovereignty in society. But it does not shed much light on how the newly conjured up category of the people would rule. And this job has been done by a whole host of liberal thinkers starting with Locke, Montesquieu to the authors of The Federalist (1787)  in the USA. Therefore, the engagement between the republican thought based on popular sovereignty and the liberal discourse espousing institutional-procedural democracy is quite intimate.

After the French fiasco, when the republican popular will became a menace, the USA gradually emerged as an ideal model in the liberal democratic world as it hemmed in the will of the people from all sides, and also balanced republican popular sovereignty with liberal democratic features like separation of power, federalism and judicial review. Subsequently, it would go a long way to inspire many nations of the world, particularly the Commonwealth countries like India.

The people made an entry into the political discourse of the Indian nation much before India became free and a Constitution was framed in the name of ‘We, the people’ and the country embarked on the path of its democratic-electoral journey. The militant nationalist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal, and Aurobindo Ghosh were the first ones at the break of the 20th century, to begin the modern politics of imagining a nation based on popular will. In their new imagined idea of the nation, the people as a cultural community constituted its core and was seen as the true bearer of rights, deserving selfhood and nationhood. The militant communitarian turn in Indian nationalism around that time was marked by mass mobilization around the new imagery of the people anchored in culture, tradition, and civilizational moorings.

Later, Gandhi picked up the thread left by the cultural nationalists and took their Swarajist discourse to a more nuanced articulation in the service of Indian nationalism. Though draped in tradition and culture the way cultural nationalists had constructed, the new category of the people in Gandhi’s hands became more refined. He not only tried to insulate mass politics from the grip of the modernist imagery of the West to which the cultural nationalists had tied, but also purged it of many obscurantist symbols of the cultural nationalists.

Breaking from this tradition, he not only indulged in a more radical critique of modernity, but also discarded the tendency which was so common at that time to uncritically glorify Indian tradition, Indian culture, and the ideas and practices associated with the people. He cast the very category of the people in a different frame altogether by drafting it in his campaign for social reform in which the people were made both the subject and the object of politics. And this was a far cry from what the cultural nationalists had imagined earlier. By doing this, Gandhi in fact synthesized the two polar trends in nationalist politics of the time – the politics of the moderates and the politics of the cultural nationalists. If he borrowed the category of the people and mass politics rooted in culture and tradition from the cultural nationalists, he also drew on the reformist tradition bequeathed by the moderates.

The Gandhian discourse framed people as essentially duty-centric. In fact, through his discourse of ‘Antodyaya’, Gandhi even tried to unpack the category of the people by delimiting its social location, which western liberal discourse had deliberately evaded! And this is significant if analysed in the context of his politics of nationalism, where he forged a larger, undifferentiated and expansive idea of the people; a rainbow coalition of classes, castes, and communities in order to broaden the social base of the Indian nation. The people in Gandhi was a social being, having a close resemblance with the people in the republican discourse of the West, though with a difference that Gandhi never shied away from criticizing the people for their failings and short comings.

Around the time when Gandhi was drafting the people in his political campaign, another version of modern politics was maturing in India based on a demographic calculus. This was the politics of majority and minority championed primarily by the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. The notion of the people in this discourse was based on religious identity and considered stratified, lacking a singular common will to forge one political community as a common ‘we’ against colonial rule.

Ironically the Dalit discourse also got articulated in the language of minority politics for securing political and legal safeguards. And due to its minority complex, it was as apprehensive of the popular will turning majoritarian as some other minority groups of the time. This apprehension of the group continued even in the Constituent Assembly, and Ambedkar’s speeches and writings in the assembly bear testimony to this fact. He was quite chary in submitting to the popular will without adequate constitutional checks.3 This minority complex of the Dalits, however, was to change later with the advent of Kanshi Ram and his Bahujan Samaj discourse.

The convening of the Constituent Assembly was another important moment in the political journey of the people of India when it solemnly pledged in its name in the Preamble of the Constitution. Though the Constituent Assembly debate presents a mixed image as far as the founding fathers dealing with the popular will is concerned. On the one hand, it celebrates it by making ‘We, the people’ the author of the Constitution. But, on the other, it unceremoniously shunts it out from the Constitution after the initial invocation. It is a riddle as to why the people, in whose name the Constitution is framed, vanish to the background, and its will as a sovereign master in a republican democracy only makes an episodic and occasional appearance in the actual working of the political system. It appears only in periodic popular elections, and in no other way such as a referendum, initiative in law-making, or recall of elected representatives.

If we look at the Constituent Assembly Debates, the word revolution occurs often, reminding one of American and French constitutional history. But it is mostly used in the context of a future revolution projected to happen with the help of the very text which was being drafted. Nehru’s words made it amply clear when he said: ‘I should like this house to consider that we are on the eve of revolutionary changes, revolutionary in every sense of the word.’4

Hence, what happened in India was not a bourgeois revolution but a mere transfer of power from the colonial masters to the Indian political class. The defiant and valiant promulgation of the sovereignty of the people and its free will by Jawaharlal Nehru, on the pattern of the revolutionary tradition set by the French revolutionaries, in his speech in the Constituent Assembly, does not nullify the fact that the framers of the Indian Constitution were meeting and working under the legal umbrella of the British Cabinet Mission Plan and the assembly was indirectly elected on a limited franchise with 28.5% Indians having voting rights.

Although in his much famous ‘Objectives Resolution’ speech in 1946, Nehru had invoked the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ promulgated by members of the French Third Estate in 1789, when they had taken ‘an oath not to disperse until they had established a constitution.’5 And, in full imitation of the French Revolutionary tradition, Nehru in this speech declared the people to be sovereign, irrespective of the approval of the British monarch.

Not only this, the only political movement, which had catapulted the masses to the centre stage of nationalist politics was the Gandhian movement. But the Constituent Assembly’s cold-shouldering of Gandhian Swarajist ideas is too well known to elaborate. In fact, Ambedkar proffered fulsome praise on the assembly for discarding archaic Gandhian ideas and institutions and turning its back to all the vestiges of Swarajist politics, which he called a ‘grammar of anarchy’.6

Hence the advent of the people and the popular will in Indian political discourse has been fairly chequered, marked by intense contestations, and the founding fathers’ vacillations and reservations on popular will should be seen in this backdrop.

Though, it was M.N. Roy, who through his ‘non-party political process’, offered an important political imagination about the people in post-independent India. But the Sarvoday-Bhoodan Movement of Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan made the people salient in the political lexicon of Indian democracy. Jayaprakash Narayan in particular popularized the celebration of the popular will in the Gandhian mould. He made it the pivot of his so-called Total Revolution through which he sought to build the foundation for a post-colonial democracy in India on Swarajist lines.7

There have been few other traditions in Indian politics that are significant for the usage of the people. Nehru articulated the popular will in the true republican sense. Beginning with his historic speech at the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress in 1929, Nehru relentlessly pursued republican ideas and practices. As the first prime minister of India, Nehru drafted the people in his nation-building and democracy-building projects. He even interpreted the icon of ‘Bharat Mata’, which had seen many semantic mutations in the course of its evolution as a totem of the Indian nation, as constitutive of the people, and thereby attempted to distance it from the religious-cultural frame to which it had been put since the 19th century.8

Be it his Community Development Programme, or the local self-government and the Cooperative Movement, Nehru accorded utmost importance to people’s active participation in policy implementation. Though, his critiques often point out that he did not provide the people with the kind of agency that they deserve in democracy. It is also alleged that Nehru infantilized the people.9 But  no one can deny that Nehru was one of the most vocal exponents of republican thought against colonialism in India which he also carried in the Constituent Assembly. His critics, however, point out that during his premiership, the republican discourse had become statist.10 It is true that Nehru moderated his republican thought to a great extent in later years and turned it into a synthesis of popular sovereignty and constitutionalism, manifesting through parliamentary-federal democracy in India.

Interestingly, the political usage of the people has also entered the discourse of the Communist movement since the 1960s, particularly on account of the influence of the Maoist tradition which made a switch to the rhetoric of the ‘Peoples’ Republic in place of the ‘proletarian’ state. As a result, there has been a proliferation of left political outfits under the rubric of People –People’s Front, New People’s Democracy, etc –with the justification that the people would capture inter-sectionality, multi-class and multi-identity social reality of India which the earlier usage of the class had failed
to do.
11 But this definitely marked a populist turn in left Communist politics.

The other important usage of the people has been through the New Social Movements in contemporary times. Though these movements swear by the Gandhian ideology, in their engagement with the people they strike a different note. They treat people as a holy entity suspended either above criticism or below it.12 They are rarely subjected to scrutiny and auditing the way Gandhian discourse did. The New Social Movements associated with the Chipko Movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and others, have taken up the issue of development-driven displacement and environmental destruction, and engaged the people outside the electoral arena in Gandhian style for creating an alternative political and social order.

Like the Gandhian discourse, these New Social Movements also construct an undifferentiated people with a singular will for democratizing society and the state. But these movements raise the people to such a level of reverence that they go beyond criticism. Hence, due to an uncritical celebration of the people’s will they succumb to the populist syndrome in politics.

The neoliberal discourse, which arrived in India in the 1990s, also gave the usage of the people in politics a new twist. The market discourse of neoliberalism tried to dissolve the people into the category of consumers and sellers in an attempt to shift the gravity of action from the electoral domain to the market place and civil society. Subsequently, the anti-corruption campaign, riding on the tide of anger against the state and public institutions, led by Anna Hazare under the India Against Corruption Movement, cashing in on the neoliberal agenda, began a new phase of populist politics by glorifying civil society as the only loci of singular popular will.

Later, when a political party was born out of its womb in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party, it made some semantic permutations and repackaged the people into a new binary called ‘Aam Aadmi-Khaas Aadmi’.13 With this, an anti-elite and anti-establishment politics, which is a sign-post of populism in the neoliberal era, entered Indian politics. The anti-elite and anti-establishment stance got
more effective articulation in the hands of Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 general election, and has now become the trademark of his politics.

But if we go back a little in the political history of post-Independence India, we would find that it was Indira Gandhi who brought populism to the centre stage of electoral politics in the 1960s. She made a serious bid to legitimize her actions through direct reference to the popular will. But, her populist rhetoric was often couched in the idioms of the left, unlike Narendra Modi who has aligned it primarily with right wing politics, centring around ethno-religious nationalism. Though some of Modi’s idioms are seemingly from the left wing armoury, like branding himself as a ‘chaiwallah’, or his diatribe against the rich during the demonetization drive. Hence, some scholars argue that his politics is different from the playbook understanding of right wing populism and call it the ‘New Welfarism of Right’.14

Narendra Modi is today seen as the high point of populist politics in India. The success of Narendra Modi’s populist politics is being attributed to a new ‘Politics of Vishwas’.15 Modi’s oft-repeated reference to his ‘Niyat’ in his public speeches, while delinking it from his ‘Niti’, could also be a by-product of this politics of Vishwas. Modi often tells to the people that his ‘Niti’ (policy) might have gone wrong but his ‘Niyat’ (intention) is always clean and singularly dedicated to the service of the people. The way he addresses 125 crore Indians leaves little space for mediation by the political party and political institutions.

An unmediated popular will does not augur well for the rights and liberties of the people. An undifferentiated and unstratified people is a political fiction that only camouflages our social and political reality. The uncritical celebration of the will of the people may eventually sound the death knell to the entire edifice of a liberal democracy.


1. This is a revised paper published earlier: Satish K Jha, ‘“We, the People”: Interrogating the Authorial Identity of Indian Constitution’, Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences 27(1), Summer 2020.

2. Sandipto Dasgupta, ‘Democratic Origins I: India’s Constitution and the Missing Revolution’, in Alf Gunvald Nilsen et al. (eds.), Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations. Pluto Press, London, 2019, p. 14.

3. Ambedkar was indecisive when the debate on judicial review and parliamentary supremacy took place in the Constituent Assembly. He was quite suspicious of the popular will manifesting through parliamentary supremacy. He summed up his dilemma in these words: ‘it is rather a case where a man has to sail between Charybdis and Scylla. I would therefore not say anything. I would leave it to the house to decide as it likes.’ Constituent Assembly Debates: Official Report, Vol. VII. Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi, 1999 Reprint, p.1000. But when the judgement on the 9th schedule was pronounced by the Supreme Court in 2007, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, openly asked for a referendum on the issue signalling a change in approach of the Dalit-Bahujan on the popular will.

4. Cited in Sarbani Sen, The Constitution of India: Popular Sovereignty and Democratic Transformations. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, p. 83.

5. Manjeet Ramgotra, ‘India’s Republican Moment’, in Udit Bhatia (ed.), The Indian Constituent Assembly: Deliberations on Democracy. Routledge, New York, 2018, p. 210.

6. Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. XI. op. cit. pp. 972-981.

7. Jayaprakash Narayan, A Plea for Reconstruction of Indian Polity. Akhil Bharat Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan,Wardha, 1959.

8. Purshotam Agrawal, Who is Bharat Mata? Speaking Tiger, Delhi, 2019.

9. Sudipta Kaviraj, Trajectories of the Indian State. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2010; Hilal Ahmed, ‘Mourn Idea of India, But Don’t Forget That the Idea of People is Changing Too’, The Print, 26August 2020.theprint.in/opinion/mourn-idea-of-india-but-dont-forget-idea-of-people/488884/, accessed 10 December 2020.

10. Hilal Ahmed, ibid.

11. Manoranjan Mohanty and Partha Nath Mukherji (eds.), People’s Rights: Social Movements and the State in the Third World. Sage Publication, Delhi, 1998.

12. Ibid.

13. Hilal Ahmed, 2020, op. cit.

14. Abhishek Anand, et al, ‘New Welfarism of India’s Right’, The Indian Express, 22 December 2020, p. 11.

15. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘Simply Vishwas’, The Indian Express, 26 August 2020, p. 10.