The Constitution was adopted in an atmosphere of expectation and idealism. The members of the Constituent Assembly had led the constitutional project with a commitment to the future of a nascent nation.

“India’s founding fathers and mothers”, Granville Austin observes, “established in the Constitution both the nation’s ideals and the institutions and processes for achieving them”.[1] These ideals were “national unity and integrity and democratic and equitable society”- . The Constitution was designed “to break the shackles of traditional social hierarchies and to usher in a new era of freedom, equality, and justice”- . All this was to be achieved through a democratic spirit using constitutional and democratic institutions.

Democracy is not limited to electing governments. It generates aspirations and inspires passions. Democracy is based on “the recognition that there is no natural source of authority that can exercise power over individuals”.– When India attained independence, it faced a major dilemma. Democracy as an ideal had developed in the course of the nationalist struggle against colonial rule. Democratic political institutions were still to develop, at any rate fully:

“Democracy emerged in India out of a confrontation with a power imposed from outside rather than an engagement with the contradictions inherent in Indian society … In the West, the democratic and industrial revolutions emerged together, reinforcing each other and slowly and steadily transforming the whole of society. The economic and social preconditions for the success of democracy grew along with, and sometimes in advance of, the political institutions of democracy.

In India, the political argument for democracy was adopted by the leaders of the nationalist movement from their colonial rulers and adapted to their immediate objective which was freedom from colonial rule. The building of new political institutions took second place, and the creation of the economic and social conditions for the successful operation of those institutions, such as education, health care, and other social services, lagged well behind.”[2]

The framers of the Constitution were aware of the challenges which the newly instituted democracy could face. In his address to the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar stated:

Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic”.

To tackle these challenges, the Constitution envisaged the existence of a responsible and representative government. Provisions regarding administration of democracy were incorporated, in detail, into the Constitution by the members of the Constituent Assembly. Dr Ambedkar made an impassioned plea that the core values of Indian democracy, to be protected and sustained, ought to be guided by the presence of constitutional morality.

While moving the Draft Constitution in the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, Dr Ambedkar quoted the Greek historian, Grote:

“By constitutional morality, Grote meant… a paramount reverence for the forms of the constitution, enforcing obedience to authority and acting under and within these forms, yet combined with the habit of open speech, of action subject only to definite legal control, and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to all their public acts combined, too with a perfect confidence in the bosom of every citizen amidst the bitterness of party contest that the forms of constitution will not be less sacred in the eyes of his opponents than his own.”

Dr Ambedkar made it clear that constitutional morality was to be cultivated and learned. Constitutional morality was not a “natural sentiment” and its diffusion could not be presumed. While highlighting that the diffusion of constitutional morality is indispensable for “the peaceful working of the democratic constitution”, Dr Ambedkar observed that the form of the Constitution had to be in harmony with the form of its administration:

“One is that the form of administration must be appropriate to and in the same sense as the form of the Constitution. The other is that it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form by merely changing its form of administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution.”

If the moral values of our Constitution were not upheld at every stage, the text of the Constitution may not be enough to protect its democratic values. In order to truly understand what constitutional morality reflects, it is necessary to answer “what it is that the Constitution is trying to say” and to identify “the broadest possible range… to fix the meaning of the text”. Bhargava’s work titled “Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution” focuses on the necessity to identify the moral values of the Constitution:

“There is… a pressing need to excavate the moral values embedded in the Constitution, to bring out their connections, and to identify the coherent or not-so-coherent ethical worldviews within it. It is not implausible to believe that these values are simply out there, holding their breath and waiting to be discovered. The Constitution is a socially constructed object, and therefore it does not possess the hard objectivity of natural objects. This element of the Constitution is the ground for contesting interpretations. It is high time we identified these interpretations and debated their moral adequacy.”

Constitutional morality does not mean only allegiance to the substantive provisions and principles of the Constitution. It signifies a constitutional culture which each individual in a democracy must imbibe.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta identifies certain features of constitutional morality- chief amongst them being liberal values- which governed the making of India’s Constitution and created expectations from the polity:

“The Constitution was made possible by a constitutional morality that was liberal at its core. Not liberal in the eviscerated ideological sense, but in the deeper virtues from which it sprang: an ability to combine individuality with mutual regard, intellectualism with a democratic sensibility, conviction with a sense of fallibility, deliberation with decision, ambition with a commitment to institutions, and hope for a future with due regard for the past and present.”[3]

One of the essential features of constitutional morality, thus, is the ability and commitment to arrive at decisions on important issues consensually. It requires that “despite all differences we are part of a common deliberative enterprise.”– It envisages partnership and coordination between various institutions created by the Constitution. Mehta has underlined the importance of constitutional partnerships by referring to the working of the Constituent Assembly:

“The ability to work with difference was augmented by another quality that is rarer still: the ability to acknowledge true value. This may be attributed to the sheer intellectualism of so many of the members. Their collective philosophical depth, historical knowledge, legal and forensic acumen and sheer command over language is enviable. It ensured that the grounds of discussion remained intellectual.

Also remarkable was their ability to acknowledge greatness in others. It was this quality that allowed Nehru and Patel, despite deep differences in outlook and temperament, to acknowledge each other. Their statesmanship was to not let their differences produce a debilitating polarization, one that could have wrecked India. They combined loyalty and frankness.”

Constitutional morality places responsibilities and duties on individuals who occupy constitutional institutions and offices. Frohnen and Carey formulate the demands of the concept thus:

“Constitutional moralities… can be understood as anticipated norms of behavior or even duties primarily on the part of individuals within our constitutional institutions. We use the term morality and refer to constitutional morality with regard to these norms or duties principally because of the purpose they serve; they can be viewed as imposing an obligation on individuals and institutions to ensure that the constitutional system operates in a coherent way, consistent with its basic principles and objectives.”[4]

Another major feature of constitutional morality is that it provides in a Constitution the basic rules which prevent institutions from turning tyrannical. It warns against the fallibility of individuals in a democracy, checks state power and the tyranny of the majority. Constitutional morality balances popular morality and acts as a threshold against an upsurge in mob rule:

“It is important not to forget that human beings are fallible, that they sometimes forget what is good for them in the long run, and that they yield to temptations which bring them pleasure now but pain later. It is not unknown for people to acquire the mentality of the mob and act on the heat of the moment only to rue the consequences of the decision later. By providing a framework of law culled over from years of collective experience and wisdom, constitutions prevent people from succumbing to currently fashionable whims and fancies. Constitutions anticipate and try to redress the excessively mercurial character of everyday politics. They make some dimensions of the political process beyond the challenge of ordinary politics.”

No explanation of constitutional morality will be complete without understanding the uniquely revolutionary character of the Constitution itself. Granville Austin has referred to the Indian Constitution as a “social revolutionary” document, the provisions of which are aimed at furthering the goals of social revolution.- Austin described the main features of the Indian Constitution as follows:

“It was to be a modernizing force. Social revolution and democracy were to be the strands of the seamless web most closely related. Democracy, representative government, personal liberty, equality before law, were revolutionary for the society. Social-economic equitableness as expressed in the Directive Principles of State Policy was equally revolutionary. So were the Constitution’s articles allowing abolishing untouchability and those allowing for compensatory discrimination in education and employment for disadvantaged citizens?”

The core of the commitment to social revolution, Austin stated, lies in the Fundamental Rights and in the Directive Principles of State Policy, which are the “conscience of the Constitution” and connect India’s future, present, and past.- Constitutional morality requires the existence of sentiments and dedication for realizing a social transformation which the Indian Constitution seeks to attain.

Constitutional morality highlights the need to preserve the trust of the people in institutions of democracy. It encompasses not just the forms and procedures of the Constitution, but provides an “enabling framework that allows a society the possibilities of self-renewal”. It is the governing ideal of institutions of democracy which allows people to cooperate and coordinate to pursue constitutional aspirations that cannot be achieved single-handedly.

Andre Beteille in “Democracy and its Institutions” (2012) speaks of the significance of constitutional morality:

“To be effective, constitutional laws have to rest on a substratum of constitutional morality… In the absence of constitutional morality, the operation of a Constitution, no matter how carefully written, tends to become arbitrary, erratic, and capricious. It is not possible in a democratic order to insulate completely the domain of law from that of politics.

A Constitution such as ours is expected to provide guidance on what should be regulated by the impersonal rule of law and what may be settled by the competition for power among parties, among factions, and among political leaders. It is here that the significance of constitutional morality lies. Without some infusion of constitutional morality among legislators, judges, lawyers, ministers, civil servants, writers, and public intellectuals, the Constitution becomes a plaything of power brokers.”

Constitutional morality underscores the ethics of politics in a country. It gives politics the identity to succeed. In his last address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, Dr Ambedkar discussed the importance of the role of the people and political parties in a constitutional democracy:

“I feel, however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution.

The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics.”

He also invoked John Stuart Mill to caution the nascent Indian democracy of the perils of personifying institutions or laying down liberty “at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enables him to subvert their institutions”.

In Dr Ambedkar’s words:

“[I]n India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Institution building is thus a facet of constitutional morality. It envisages an institutional basis for political behaviour. It involves that the political parties and the political process address issues affecting the public at large. Constitutional morality reduces the gap between representation and legitimacy.

Justice Dipak Misra (as the learned Chief Justice then was) held in Manoj Narula v Union of India (2014) that:

“The democratic values survive and become successful where the people at large and the persons-in-charge of the institution are strictly guided by the constitutional parameters without paving the path of deviancy and reflecting in action the primary concern to maintain institutional integrity and the requisite constitutional restraints”.

It is only when political conflicts are regulated through negotiations and accommodation that the enforcement of constitutional principles can be achieved.

Constitutional morality requires filling in constitutional silences to enhance and complete the spirit of the Constitution. A Constitution can establish a structure of government, but how these structures work rests upon the fulcrum of constitutional values. Constitutional morality purports to stop the past from tearing the soul of the nation apart by acting as a guiding basis to settle constitutional disputes:

“Of necessity, constitutions are unfinished. What is explicit in the text rests on implicit understandings; what is stated rests on what is unstated.”[5]

Constitutional morality provides a principled understanding for unfolding the work of governance. It is a compass to hold in troubled waters. It specifies norms for institutions to survive and an expectation of behaviour that will meet not just the text but the soul of the Constitution. Our expectations may be well ahead of reality. But a sense of constitutional morality, drawn from the values of that document, enables us to hold to account our institutions and those who preside over their destinies. Constitutional interpretation, therefore, must flow from constitutional morality.


Govt of NCT Delhi v. Union of India (2018)

[1] Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, Oxford University Press (1966), page xi

[2] Andre Beteille, Democracy and its Institutions, Oxford University Press (2012)

[3] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “What is constitutional morality?”, Seminar (2010), available at

[4] Bruce P. Frohnen and George W. Carey, “Constitutional Morality and the Rule of Law”, Journal of Law and

Politics (2011), Vol. 26, at page 498

[5] Martin Loughlin, “The Silences of Constitutions”, International Journal of Constitutional Law (2019, In Press),

available at