What Do We Study in Political Theory?

 What Do We Study in Political Theory?

What Do We Study in Political Theory?

If we look around us what we see would be movement, development and change. But if we look deeper we would also see certain values and principles that have inspired people and guided policies. Ideals like democracy, freedom or equality for instance. Different countries may try to protect such values by enshrining them in their constitutions as is the case with the American and Indian constitutions.

These documents did not just emerge overnight; they are built upon the ideas and principles debated almost since the time of Kautilya, Aristotle to Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. As far back as the fifth century B.C., Plato and Aristotle discussed with their students whether monarchy or democracy was better. In modern times, Rousseau first argued for freedom as a fundamental right of humankind. Karl Marx argued that equality was as crucial as freedom. Closer home, Mahatma Gandhi discussed the meaning of genuine freedom or swaraj in his book Hind Swaraj. Dr. Ambedkar vigorously argued that the scheduled castes must be considered a minority, and as such, must receive special protection. These ideas find their place in the Indian Constitution; our Preamble enshrines freedom and equality; the chapter on Rights in the Indian Constitution abolishes untouchability in any form; Gandhian principles find a place in Directive Principles. 

Political theory deals with the ideas and principles that shape Constitutions, governments and social life in a systematic manner. It clarifies the meaning of concepts such as freedom, equality, justice, democracy, secularism and so on. It probes the significance of principles such as rule of law, separation of powers, judicial review, etc. This is done by examining the arguments advanced by different thinkers in defence of these concepts. Though Rousseau or Marx or Gandhi did not become politicians, their ideas influenced generations of politicians everywhere. There are also contemporary thinkers who draw upon them to defend freedom or democracy in our own time. Besides examining arguments, political theorists also reflect upon our current political experiences and point out trends and possibilities for the future. 

But is all this relevant for us now? Have we not already achieved freedom and democracy? While India is free and independent, questions regarding freedom and equality have not ceased to crop up. This is because issues concerning freedom, equality, democracy, arise in many areas of social life and they are being implemented in different sectors at different paces. For instance, although equality may exist in the political sphere in the form of equal rights, it may not exist to the same extent in the economic or social spheres. People may enjoy equal political rights but still be discriminated against socially because of their caste or poverty. Some people may have a privileged place in society while others are deprived even of basic necessities. Some are able to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves while many are unable even to go to schools so that they can have decent jobs in the future. For them, freedom is still a distant dream.

Secondly, though freedom is guaranteed in our Constitution, we encounter new interpretations all the time. This is a bit like playing a game; as we play chess or cricket, we learn how to interpret the rules. In the process, we discover new and broader meanings of the game itself. Similarly, the fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution are continually being reinterpreted in response to new circumstances. For instance, the right to life has been interpreted by the Courts to include the right to livelihood. The right to information has been granted through a new law. Societies frequently encounter new challenges which generate new interpretations. The fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution have been amended and expanded over time through judicial interpretations and government policies which are designed to address new problems. 

Thirdly, as our world changes, we may discover new dimensions of freedom as well as new threats to freedom. For instance, global communications technology is making it easier for activists to network with one another across the world for protecting tribal cultures or forests. But it also enables terrorists and criminals to network. Moreover, internet commerce is all set to increase in the future. This means that the information we give about ourselves online to buy goods or services must be protected. So even though netizens (citizens of the internet) do not like government control, they recognise that some form of regulation is necessary to safeguard individual security and privacy. As a result, questions are raised regarding how much freedom should be given to people using the net. For instance, should they be allowed to send unsolicited e-mails to strangers? Can you advertise your products in chat rooms? Should governments be allowed to read private e-mails to track down terrorists? How much regulation is justified and who should regulate – governments or some private regulators? Political theory has a lot to teach us about possible answers to these questions and is therefore very relevant. 

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