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What ‘The Crown’ taught me about the Constitution

A lawyer draws parallels between the symbolic heft of the British crown and the instinct to preserve the Indian Constitution

‘The Crown’ is about the institution of monarchy and its centrality in the UK.
‘The Crown’ is about the institution of monarchy and its centrality in the UK. (Photo: Netflix)

Part historical drama, part family saga, the first three seasons of The Crown have covered the major events in the first three decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. At the core of the show, though, is the constitutional office of “the Crown", which is not just the physical object or the person who wears it but the institution of the monarchy itself and its importance to the UK.

Spoilers follow.

Surprisingly, the show also offers insights into constitutionalism and governance I didn’t expect to encounter, and it has made me rethink a few things I thought I understood as a lawyer and researcher of constitutional law. I would like to talk about two very important insights I got from The Crown that are of great relevance to the present moment.

First, the show introduced me to an important idea put forth by 19th century essayist and scholar Walter Bagehot—that all constitutions have a “dignified" and an “efficient" part. Bagehot is invoked at one point in the show to highlight the deficiency of Elizabeth’s education for her future role as the constitutional head of the nation (season 1, episode 7: Scientia Potentia Est). She is only taught a few lines of Bagehot’s famous book The English Constitution and not nearly enough to understand or critique ideas in a rigorous way—much the way most law students in India are “taught" the Constitution. However, in understanding her role as the “dignified" part of the UK Constitution, she begins to get a sense of what the monarchy truly represents. According to Bagehot, the “dignified" part of the Constitution is one which “excite(s) and preserve(s) the reverence of the population" while the efficient parts of it are the rules and institutions which make government. There’s never a clear separation between the two because one without the other would be meaningless.

In the Indian Constitution, we see this distinction clearly: The Preamble, the fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy are the “dignified" parts of the Constitution, while the rules regarding the law-making powers of the Union and the state, the judiciary, et al are the “efficient" parts. Even though our Constitution’s “efficient" parts are largely borrowed from the Government of India Act, 1935, the absence of anything like a Preamble or fundamental rights tells you why the Indian Constitution is qualitatively different from it. As important a measure of reform as the 1935 Act was, it was never something that could have inspired a population to consider it their own and make them believe in its potential. It was only when the provisions of the GOI Act were married to the Objectives Resolution in 1946 that we eventually got the Constitution as we know it: a document that has both the power to energize citizens to defend it and give them the institutions that they can use to defend it.

Second, The Crown gave me a new perspective on how essentially conservative and hidebound institutions can be made to change. My favourite episode of the series so far is Marionettes (season 2, episode 5) featuring the crisis that engulfed the monarchy in 1957 after a scathing article by Lord Altrincham on the institution in general and Queen Elizabeth in particular suddenly finds public agreement—more so when Altrincham defends his view calmly but passionately on national television as those of a royalist! The monarchy, confident and self-assured of its place in the UK Constitution, suddenly finds itself at the receiving end of allegations that it has become outdated and lost touch with people.

Elizabeth sets up a secret meeting with Altrincham seeking suggestions for reform and finds he has already drawn up a list of “three dos and three don’ts". While not each one of his suggestions is taken up immediately, his fervent plea that the royal family open itself to the public is grudgingly accepted. Though such a secret meeting never took place in reality, the rest of the events are largely true and Lord Altrincham has been credited with having helped the monarchy reform and stay relevant.

The lesson for India’s constitutional institutions, especially the Supreme Court and the judiciary, cannot be starker. If the Supreme Court today finds itself facing a credibility crisis, it is not because any provision of the Constitution has been amended by a malevolent government. It is the result of an institution having closed itself off to the general public and one which is out of touch with lived realities. Even as it has tried to expand its powers and assert its importance in preserving the Constitution, its non-transparency in general, elitism in appointments and refusal to modernize have meant that the judiciary finds itself on the path to irrelevance so far as its constitutional role is concerned.

There’s no shortage of Lord Altrinchams in this country (or secret rooms in our courts to have quiet meetings) but will the judiciary, like the British monarchy, heed a list of dos and don’ts offered? Only time will tell.

The Crown’s (unwitting) lessons on constitutionalism are even more relevant at the present moment. The Constitution is not just a text for lawyers and scholars to pore over—at its very core, it has the power to move people and make them claim it for themselves. That people at protests against the new citizenship law and proposed National Register of Citizens read out the Preamble, and the Adivasis of Jharkhand chose to carve out the Fifth Schedule in stone as part of the Pathalgadi movement against changes to land and forest rights in 2016, tells us that. It has proved to be a powerful weapon in the hands of the powerless. It is an embodiment of values not just of the founders of the nation, but also of the people who believe in the idea of India today.

Alok Prasanna Kumar is senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

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