Leadership in times of crisis: What we can learn from the making of the Indian Constitution

Date : Mar 25 , 2020 | Opinion

The 70-year-old document and how it was created hold important lessons for those aspiring to build nations, communities or organisations, says Vinita Singh, Managing Trustee at We, The People Abhiyan.

December 9. 1946. 11am. This date and time mark the start of a monumental social transformation of India. That was when the Constituent Assembly held its first session to embark on the making of the Indian Constitution. From then until November 26, 1949, when the Constitution was finally adopted, the Constituent Assembly witnessed intense debate, turmoil and angst. During these crucial three years, the nation itself was born through a process of upheaval and torment.

What can today’s leaders learn from the Indian Constitution and the process by which it was made? Many things, in fact. Especially, lessons on how we can shape ourselves and our societies.

We learn hope. That even when all the chips are down, we must focus on what is possible. The three years that the Constituent Assembly worked on the document were suffused with grief. Freedom had come but with it came Partition. From the original number of 389, the membership of the Assembly itself fell to 299. The rest had moved to Pakistan.

Those who remained could have been devastated by the loss of a fourth of their colleagues – many of whom were close friends too. But they focused on what they had – the 299.  And with this strength they went on to create the most powerful instrument of development for the country. The Constitution reflects this hope: it gives the structure and guarantee of rights to each citizen. One historian gave an apt analysis of this endeavour by saying, “Fundamental rights were to be framed amidst the carnage of fundamental wrongs.”

Too often, we are seduced by the negative. Things are bad, very bad. But nothing close to what they were in 1949.

Can we use this learning to create the narrative of a hopeful society? A hopeful me and you? Too often, we are seduced by the negative. Things are bad, very bad. But nothing close to what they were in 1949. When I am in a classroom about half full of girls and we discuss the many challenges that women face, I think back of the 15 women who were part of the Constituent Assembly: 15 out of 389, which is less than 4%! Yet, they showed up. And today with vastly increasing number of women who show up – in schools, colleges, factories, companies – we are firm on the path of a promise.

We learn respectful collaboration. That each one of us can lead and, at the same time, collaborate with other leaders. The Assembly had stalwarts such as Patel, Nehru, Prasad, Mookerjee and Hansa Mehta. But each of the members took equal leadership. They came prepared, presented alternative points of view, debated, and set and worked towards a common goal.

Can we then create a narrative of being big? A big you and me? Of growing together? Too often, we fall for the myth of the single, strong leader, for whom we must give up our own leadership.  Worse, these ‘strong’ leaders fall for the trap that others must not grow, that their own growth is threatened by the growth of more leaders. And as a society we shrink. We become small and petty.

While the Constitution is itself thought of as only Babasaheb Ambedkar’s product, the fact is that it was the product of the efforts of nearly 300 people – intelligent, thoughtful leaders in their own right.

Today, it is critical that we abandon the narrative of hero worship and instead take personal leadership in our lives and communities.

Today, it is critical that we abandon the narrative of hero worship and instead take personal leadership in our lives and communities. This is also what is expected of us as one of the constitutional duties exhorts us to “strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity”. Excellence can only be achieved if all of us take individual leadership. 

We learn the value of dissent. That for communities and organisations to grow, we must encourage dissent by inviting very diverse people on the table. The Assembly itself was made up of highly diverse people from all parts of the land. They differed in their physical appearance, their language, their education, their politics and their views. And they disagreed with each other, noisily and vehemently.

The carefully recorded proceedings of the Assembly available online show the extent of disagreement. The master of dissent was Ambedkar himself, with his strongly non-Congress views. Yet, he led the work of the Drafting Committee with extraordinary commitment and genius. The Constitution also makes this clear expectation from all people with this fundamental duty: “To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

Too often, we surround ourselves with like-minded people – those who agree with us.

Can we create a narrative of welcoming dissent? A dissenting you and me? Too often, we surround ourselves with like-minded people – those who agree with us. And we disintegrate into small groups of people who like each other but cannot stand the others. For organisations – and the nation itself — to grow, we must nurture dissent at every level, and certainly in the organisations we lead and govern.

We learn the centrality of humanist values. That values of equality, liberty, justice and fraternity are at the core of human life. That even if we behave unequally and unfairly oftentimes, we all crave equality and fairness. That is reason why the Assembly, even when faced with abject poverty, acute injustice, terrible inequality and divisiveness, chose to enshrine human values in the vision and working of the Constitution.

It is time that leaders awaken, enable and protect core human values, empower the deep human spirit. Wherever we are and in whatever leadership role we take, let us give to ourselves, the spirit of the Constitution of India.   

Vinita Singh is Managing Trustee at We, The People Abhiyan (www.wethepeople.ooo). She has worked extensively in the areas of livelihoods, citizens’ rights and civics education, focusing mainly on building people’s capacities to empower themselves with skills, knowledge and attitudes to take charge of their own lives. She has been involved in setting up a number of organisations, including International Resources for Fairer Trade, Satark Nagrik Sangathan and National Homeworkers Group. She speaks extensively on the causes she is passionate about – democracy, active citizenship and the Constitution of India.

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