India: In Distrust We Trust

Last Updated: 26 October 2016
Article by Somasekhar Sundaresan

Economists say that the length of the Constitution of a country is inversely proportional to the level of mutual trust in society and unfortunately India has the world's longest Constitution.

India has the world's longest Constitution (78,255 words, with 395 articles and 98 amendments), which represents the lowest level of mutual trust in society, according to two economists studying constitutional length and distrust among citizens.

Christian Bjornskov and Stefan Voigt, in a paper titled Constitutional Verbosity and Social Trust, have measured the length of 110 nations' Constitutions and argue that the length of the founding charter is inversely proportional to the level of trust (measured in terms of a survey) that citizens have in one another.

Nations with long constitutions and low trust levels included Kenya, at 74,789 words and Brazil, at 42,472 words. On the other hand, the US with 4,542 words is above average in social mutual trust while nations like Norway and Denmark have high trust levels. Scandinavian nations seem to fare well with brevity of charters: Iceland's constitution has just 4,115 words.

These are not the first economists to seek deeper meaning from shallow criteria such as word length of a constitution. Other economists have attempted to correlate the length of a nation's constitution with GDP data to argue that the longer a nation's constitution, the lower its economic growth rate - hinting at how social distrust imposes higher transaction costs and thereby slows down economic progress.

Yet others have argued that the greater the length of a Constitution, the more difficult it is to amend. It has also been argued that contrary to length, a greater number of amendments are sought when constitutions are longer, since the political system would continue to remain dissatisfied and distrustful of the detail imposed by the long constitution, adding to the length.

In arriving at conclusions on correlation between two factors under study, an economic theory necessarily has to adopt the ubiquitous assumption of "other things being equal". Yet, social reality is that other things are indeed not equal. And factors that can never be equal could pretty much render such economic research practically meaningless. For example, a nation like the United States with an above-average social trust in terms of the survey used is regarded as having a libertarian constitution, and yet something as indefensible as slavery thrived under it with legitimacy for really long. For a Dummies' Guide to Slavery, see Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave. For more insight, read the books Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girlby Harriet Jacobs.

On the other hand, founders of younger republics like India or Pakistan (and more recently, monarchies-turning-republics like Nepal and some Arab states) that are born amidst social turmoil may seek to write their constitutions hoping to pre-empt social unrest in future. Behavioural science is known to often trip up seemingly apparent economic theory. Such nations also seek to learn from experience of the older republics and would therefore tend to draft more verbose safeguards hoping to protect against history repeating itself. Likewise, the founders of nations with largely mono-racial and homogenous people would not have as much to worry about as nations with complex diversity among its people.

The key question may well become whether a nation's founders are right in harbouring distrust of future subversion, thereby letting their insecurities lead to longer constitutional drafts. The attitude of inheritors of a constitution towards preserving values also plays a major role in its success. For example, Pakistan was envisioned as a secular state in which Muslims would be in a majority, and therefore feel less insecure than how they would feel in India. It is the inheritors of that constitution who failed that secular foundation, with religious politics wreaking long-term damage. Tidbit: the national anthem of Pakistan was authored by a Hindu.

Many in India quarrel with the idea of India being a 'secular' one, if that term means being sensitive to minority faith, with a conscious indifference to the majority faith. India does risk going the Pakistani way, something the founders seemed to suspect and fear. The Indian judiciary too has protected the constitution by ruling that no amendment could alter the 'basic features'. So have the Indian armed forces by not being tempted to emulate the generals across the border to overthrow civilian authority by military force.

Therefore, distrust in a constitution is not necessarily a bad feature. Indeed, Yugoslavia had more provisions in her constitution (406), perhaps evidencing deeper distrust, and the nation is no more. Yet, a shorter constitution and high economic growth too need not mean a healthier political situation. A prosperous nation like Switzerland in which linguistic diversity has thrived, failed the test of religious diversity, sowing the seeds of being a future Yugoslavia by legitimately enabling a ban on constructing minarets.

A constitution is the law that governs how laws are made by a nation. It aims to protect a nation from the law to be able to give protection of the law. A high level of distrust would be an inherent feature. The magazine Foreign Policy rightly asks of this study, whether Egypt's new post militarycoup constitution at a concise 20,000-word length, reinforcing martial control can prove a strong sense of social trust. In the political economy, other things are never equal.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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