Long live the people

There wouldn’t be much of a rupture between our republican present and monarchical past if sovereignty doesn’t reside in the citizens

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 26 January, 2018

For a book I’m working on, I’ve had to think a fair amount about what it was like to live under old, monarchical regimes. How did subjects — they weren’t citizens — experience the power of kings? How did rulers make their sovereignty known to the people?

In Islamic realms like the Ottoman empire, for instance, the sultan would have his name and symbols stamped on coins. Friday sermons would be spoken in his name. He would attend Friday prayers at the major mosque and, while there, members of the public might try to come to him with both written and oral petitions. In earlier periods, Ottoman sultans dressed fairly simply with a deliberate austerity. One sultan was in the habit of walking to the public baths with just two companions, where he often wasn’t recognised (if he was recognised, however, it was forbidden for anybody to approach him). As the empire grew in size and prosperity, imperial processions became more elaborate and choreographed, the sultan and the ranks of his ministers and officials were distinguished by the size and shape of their turbans, the colour of their robes, the order in which they would come and go.

Likewise in Christian Europe, people would flock to the rutted paths to see the public processions on holy days, when a king or queen left their palace to visit a particular church or monastery. Often, these were highly ceremonial affairs, with the simple act of going from one place to another made into an occasion to express the fullness of the ruler’s authority. Shivering in the rain and fog, people would stand for hours to see the representatives of power pass by, royal hunt-masters, chamberlains, stewards, lesser nobles, greater nobles, friars and bishops, men carrying the relics of venerated saints and the banners of specific offices, and then eventually the monarch, who often wouldn’t be visible at all but would just rumble past in his ornate carriage.

These sorts of displays were frequently the only times when ordinary people caught a glimpse of their sovereigns. Otherwise, people could live their lives indifferent to the vagaries of sultans and kings. Of course, the power of the sovereign was experienced in other ways, in the form of tax and toll collectors, in the occasional gangs that would go through a village and seize men for public construction projects and for war. But most people only had sporadic interactions with “the state”. They lived in rural communities that were fixed to the rhythms of cultivation and the seasons. News travelled only as fast as a human being. The main roads dribbled into rough tracks that then might disappear altogether.

People couldn’t be blamed if they felt their rulers existed in another world. The monarch’s authority over their lives might be arbitrary and lack any popular basis of consent, but it was also remote. Sultans and kings knew this as well. For much of human history, the greatest fear of rulers was not the threat of rival kingdoms or barbarian invaders, but rather that their own subjects might get fed up and simply leave the land.

We are no longer subjects, but citizens. In a republic, sovereignty derives not from god or a divinely-ordained ruler, but from the collective of the governed, the people. In the grand scheme, the modern republic seems like such a humble experiment. Our imperfect parliaments and assemblies shrink beneath the looming centuries of feudal, monarchical, and imperial rule. To belong to a republic is to each claim our little shares of sovereignty. The Indian Constitution marked a new era for India, but it also broke decisively with the United Kingdom, whose unwritten Constitution and conventions still all hinge on the mystical figure of the Queen.

It would be naïve, however, to see too much of a rupture between our republican present and monarchical past. First, in democratic republics all over the world, birth and ancestry remain strong forces in political life; just look at the persistence of dynasty in parliament or, indeed, the prominent politicians who descend from erstwhile royal families. Second, the workings of national and state capitals can still feel terribly remote to people, or if not remote, opaque and inaccessible. Elections allow us to choose legislators, but in between those cycles, republican political systems don’t always encourage serious civic participation. For both a farmer in rural Tamil Nadu and an inner city resident of the Bronx, changes in government can happen distantly with little impression on their lives.

We should be grateful for the rights, recourses and redresses we have as citizens of republics. But it would foolish to be too self-congratulatory. The absolute power of an ancient tyrant was never really absolute because he simply couldn’t impose himself absolutely.

While it is still the case that power can feel remote to many people, it is increasingly impossible for people to be remote from power. The state’s capacity to count and know us has grown immeasurably in the last century. The rise of the “database state” everywhere (as with the Aadhaar card in India) offers certain benefits, but poses a test as well of the principle of the republic. Subjects of monarchies could flee to the hills when they got tired of an oppressive regime. Citizens can’t disappear from the power of the state. It is up to them to ensure that the exercise of sovereignty in their name isn’t abstract, that sovereignty isn’t just derived from them, but that it resides in the people.

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