India’s Third Constitutional Retrogression

The current retrogressive phase marks the 3rd substantial challenge the Indian Constitution has faced. The first arose in the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi’s government used the Emergency powers under the Constitution to suspend fundamental rights and sought to entrench its powers through an Amendment. The second threat came in the late 1990s, when Vajpayee’s government set up a constitutional review commission, whose primary goal was to water down parliamentary democracy.

The current challenge to the Constitution is subtler than the two previous attempts. It is characterized by a callous disregard for long-established customs and conventions of constitutional propriety, even as the government (just about) stays on the right side of law. To be sure, the law has been pushed to its limits too. But extra-legal constraints—enforced by a sense of decency, decorum and shame—are being disregarded at an unprecedented scale and frequency in order to entrench executive power.