Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 03 March 2023

Parliament is the North Star of Democracy

Source: By The Indian Express

Amid demands by the Opposition for a discussion on the row surrounding the Adani Group, Vice President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Jagdeep Dhankhar on 3 February 2023 said Parliament is the “North Star” of democracy and everyone is required to work in accordance with rules.

Parliament is the essence of democracy. Parliament is the North Star of democracy. It is a place of discussion and deliberation to realise the aspirations and dreams of the people and not a place of disturbance. We are required to work in accordance with rules,” Dhankhar said while rejecting notices by Opposition members seeking suspension of all business to discuss the Adani affair.

Interestingly, some days back, Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud had called the basic structure doctrine a “North Star” that gives “certain direction to the interpreters and implementers of the Constitution when the path ahead is convoluted”.

What do these men mean by “North Star”?

Here, both VP Dhankar and CJI Chandrachud have used the metaphor of the North Star to refer to something constant/permanent that leads and provides direction.

When VP Dhankar says that the “parliament is the North Star of democracy”, he means that it is the institution that guides democratic functioning, that dictates the direction a democracy takes. Since it represents the ‘will of the people’, many political thinkers have always felt that as an institution, the parliament is the most fundamental in a democracy.

On the other hand, CJI Chandrachud comes at the issue from a certain wariness towards majoritarianism and the injustice that can be carried out in the name of the ‘people’. For him, it is the basic structure doctrine that prevents this from happening.

How does the North Star help in navigation?

Polaris, also known as the North Star or the Pole Star, is a very bright star (around 2500 times more luminous than our sun) placed less than 1° away from the north celestial pole. Its position and brightness have made humans use it for navigation since late antiquity. It is a part of the constellation Ursa Minor and is around 323 light-years away from Earth.

Since Polaris lies nearly in a direct line with the Earth’s rotational axis “above” the North Pole, it stands almost motionless in the night sky, with all the stars of the northern sky appearing to rotate around it. This makes it an excellent fixed point from which to draw measurements for celestial navigation. Simply the elevation of the star above the horizon gives the approximate latitude of the observer and in the northern hemisphere, if you can see Polaris you can always tell which way is north (and, by extension, which ways are south, east and west).

Upon crossing the equator to the South, the North Star is lost over the horizon and hence stops being a useful navigational aid.

When did the North Star first used to navigate?

Polaris seems to have been first charted by the Roman mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, who lived from about 85 to 165 B.C. While there does exist some evidence pointing at how the star was used for navigation in late antiquity, it is during the ‘Age of Exploration’ that it becomes such a central part of human history.

Christopher Columbus, on his first trans-Atlantic voyage of 1492, “had to correct (his ship’s bearings) for the circle described by the pole star about the pole”, wrote his son in his biography. As European colonisers set sail for exotic locations across the world, the North Star became an ever so important feature of the night sky that allowed for remarkably accurate navigation using instruments which were still rudimentary by modern standards.

Where does the literary metaphor emerge from?

The very first known instance of the North Star appearing in literature beyond technical treatise on astronomy or biographies of explorers comes from Shakespeare. In the Bard’s epic Julius Caesar, the eponymous emperor describes himself as being “as constant as the Northern Star”. Speaking just before his assassination, Caesar says,

“I could be well moved if I were as you.

If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.

But I am constant as the Northern Star,

Of whose true fixed and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;

They are all fire, and every one doth shine;

But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.”

(Act III, Scene I, lines 58-65)

This metaphor draws from the seeming constancy of the North Star in the night sky, using it to tell readers about how Caesar views himself.

Does the Northern Star “change”?

Interestingly, this play is dated to be in 1599, when the North Star was very much known, understood and commonly used for navigation. However, during the reign of Julius Caesar (46-44 BC), there was no constant North Star.

This is due to the fact that the northern celestial pole changes over time. “If you picture a line connecting Earth’s North and South Poles as the axis around which Earth rotates, that axis is slowly moving in its own circle,” explained astronomy professor Christopher Palma to How stuff works. Over a period of around 26,000 years, the Earth’s axis completes one full rotation.

By the end of the 21st century, the celestial pole will move away from the Polaris – humans will need to identify a new ‘North Star’.