The Indian Condition
It is remarkable how entrenched statism – and to a slightly lesser extent, socialism – are in the Indian psyche. In any discussion of the country’s shortcomings, the common refrain one hears among Indians is that the government does not do anything. In a country whose parliament is essentially filled by the socialist Left and the religious Left, this is no loss to the political masters. But how much does it help citizens? Or is it still subjects?
It is not fair entirely fair to blame the people for this, though they must bear some responsibility. The pervasive resignation to mai-baapism takes more than a few people in a few years. This feudal mindset takes generations to develop, and it takes generations to escape. In Europe, it took revolutions and liberal governance to create an as yet imperfect balance of rights between the state and individuals. For better or for worse, there is no sign of either in India.
Call it fate, or blame the vagaries of history, but around the time of the Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrious and Industrial revolutions, India underwent significant de-industrialisation and was ultimately colonised. Three factors for India’s economic decline are thought to be, 1. cheaper machine manufactured goods in Europe, 2. a Mughal economic policy ravaged by war and worsened by the dissolution of their empire, and 3. a gradual shift to commodity exports from manufactured goods due to relative trade advantage of the former over the latter. For whatever reason, these factors indicate an intellectual decline, or a failure to convert science to technology, thereby ceding the edge to the West.
There is some debate on the nature of Mughal rule and its impact on India, and I am no expert in this area. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the arguments that claim a decentralised, liberal Mughal rule that allowed small entrepreneurs and ideas to flourish is flawed on one basic count – if such were the case, why did they succumb to a vastly smaller military force? The need for military technology was as prevalent in India as it was in Europe – the subcontinent was hardly a peaceful and idyllic place! Furthermore, why were the most prized items of trade Western weaponry in exchange for spices, tea, and other products from the subcontinent? The valiant defence of the Mughals reminds me of Diogenes – when confounded by Xeno’s airtight argument on the impossibility of motion, just stood up and walked around. If the Mughals were indeed so liberal and not in decline, why did they fail totally against not even a European state army but a corporation’s militia?
The impact of the Raj went beyond merely restraining material prosperity; rapacious imperial policies reduced the overwhelming majority of India (or at least kept them there) to thinking about the next meal than about a better steam engine or water pump; literacy was not encouraged either. Technology in India had few achievements to boast of in the two centuries before Company rule, and slow dissemination of Western machines such as the printing press, the telegraph, railways, did not create a vibrant public sphere. Power – political, economic, and military – remained vested in the government and embrace a new class of entrepreneurs.
The real betrayal came after independence. Indians, despite a nascent outward habitus of voting, remained largely in the feudal mindset of state patronage. Unlike the American revolutionaries, the leaders of the Indian independence struggle used the rhetoric of nation rather than individual liberty to drive out the British (quite understandable, given the differences). Jawaharlal Nehru, a committed Fabian socialist, used his popular appeal to showcase socialism as the only face of modernity. Opposition to Nehru’s ideas made for good reading in the Lok Sabha records but carried little weight among the masses. Used to seeing the state as a patron, first from kings and then from the colonial masters, socialism fit right in with their worldview – if they had one. Nehru’s education policy focused on grand projects such as the Indian Institutes of Technology but paid much less attention to primary and secondary education. Nehru promoted heavy industry and neglected cottage industry and the private sector, keeping the economy largely in the hands of the state. The rise of the bureaucratic class to build, maintain, and lackadaisically run the state machinery, from banks and media to nuclear power and communications, ensured that the state remained the godfather of most educational and economic opportunity; control of the media ensured that this narrative was not challenged by greedy private or “subversive” foreign elements.
Power flowed fairly easily from father to daughter, and the reign of Indira Gandhi spelled a new Dark Age for India. Perhaps Durga for Pakistan in 1971, Indira Gandhi was a Lamashtu for Indians. The disasters of the IG years are beyond the scope of this post, but the state grew in power during her tenure, personality cults were encouraged, and cronyism rewarded. Indira Gandhi, the Gandhi family, the Indian National Congress, and the state it wielded – in that order – became the only source of…everything. News was censored, institutions were bent, banks and airlines were nationalised, and private enterprise was taxed and regulated almost out of existence. The Emergency was yet another demonstration of the power of a rotten state. Throughout her iron fisted rule, the state was advertised as the provider of goods and opportunities, and the license raj which had now grown into astronomical proportions inhibited any private initiative. Indian subjects had yet to be weaned away from statism.
Only the naïve believed that the post-1991 Open Era would spell the end of mai-baapism. It is true that sectors of the economy have opened up, and private media is also tolerated. However, this has only resulted in an unhealthy nexus between big business, the media houses, and the government. Many private media channels are controlled by politicians, and, as the government remains the single largest advertiser, the fourth estate has sold out to the highest bidder. Indeed, with more money in the system, consumerism has risen and has improved the lot of most small business owners. Yet larger businesses still need political godfathers who can extend favours and immunity – for a price – to them. Despite becoming a more open country, theoretically at least, it is surprising the impunity with which the government still blocks twitter accounts and demands that webpages be removed. Red tape is still a noose around the country’s entrepreneurial instinct. The government’s enlarged budget has been used to extend further subsidies and entitlements to sections of society, further reinforcing dependence on the state. In a way, the Indian government has become society’s peddler!
The cost of missing an intellectual upheaval has been incalculable. All three of India’s political coalitions, the United Progressive Alliance, the National Democratic Alliance, and the Third Front, offer only different flavours of statist solutions. The UPA foists state welfarism on India, the NDA prefers to use the state mechanism to promote religion and will not dismantle the welfare state it inherits, and the Third Front seems set to dissolve the country in parochial state-sponsored minoritarian subsidies and handouts. There is no liberal tradition, based on individualism and liberty, in India. Through historical accident and then by INC misrule, such heretical thoughts were never allowed to flourish.
Some might think it is the aam aadmi‘s fault for his political apathy. Indeed, that may merit a small apportioning of the blame, but the lion’s share must lay with politicians, particularly the INC (they ruled almost ten times longer). For a creature conditioned into muted criticism of the government and dependent on state largesse, the common man finds it easier to manipulate the system and succeed than striking out on his own in a brave new world of individualism, liberty, and capitalism. This is, of course, assuming anyone has time to think after balancing the monthly budget in an era of high food inflation, sluggish economic growth, power shortages, skyrocketing fuel prices, water scarcities, pollution, juggling quotas, poor roads, petty corruption at every step, and public transportation stretched to bursting. A wrung out common man suits the government just fine; after all, as Sir Arnold reminds us in Yes, Prime Minister, no government would reform the system that put it into power in the first place.
In defence of the aam aadmi, it must also be acknowledged that not all people chose mai-baapism – to assume so would be to deny them any agency, which, despite the power differential, they do have. They have proven to be realists, manipulators, and opportunists, using the statist metanarrative to their benefit rather than actually believing in it. In fact, some argue that the whole notion of welfare is too top-down a view and unhelpful; in reality, the lower strata are opportunistic and switch patrons based on who gives the most benefits. Thus, the agency is more with the recipients of patronage than with the politician patrons. Over the years, as welfare structures ossified whether for political reasons or neglect, it has created vested interests in the maintenance of these schemes. This is not necessarily parasitic in nature – many people may have just lost faith that the state could actually deliver better opportunities.
Is the narrative as simple as has been painted above – a statist, top-down approach manipulated by individuals starved of opportunity? Of course not; few things are in India. One factor that complicates the equation is the reach of the state and another is caste. Despite the enormous footprint of the Indian state, the fact is that it doesn’t reach everywhere. Not all regions of India have comparable access to services. Beyond schools and doctors, this goes to bureaucrats and police officials, who could with ease run a minor fiefdom in the backwaters due to lack of oversight. In the case of such state weakness, how can a state descend into a crony system? This question shows a very good perception of the realities of the modern Indian state, and the answer reveals the layers of mai-baapism. In the case of weak state presence, caste plays a large role. Political operators organise along caste faults for maximum demographic advantage to assume power. In power, patronage is extended to the community that raised the leader and oftentimes other castes are excluded from state largesse. The reward for voting “correctly” is state bounty for oneself and one’s kith and kin. Caste becomes a voting criterion. With the right network, one might even be awarded a party ticket for elections (a cross-party analysis of election tickets would yield interesting data). Thus, caste is fused with the welfare state in an odd blend of modernity and feudalism.
There is, of course, the question of the Opposition, specifically the NDA. If the average Indian does not want a massive and interfering state, surely the NDA has overwhelming support to come to power? There are multiple problems with this: 1. the NDA has been in power barely six years of independent India’s sixty-five years, giving them little time to overhaul the state; 2. with the faith in the state so shaken after decades of INC rule, the entrenched welfarist structures – however suicidal – seem far safer to rely on than yet another government scheme, particularly if it sounds too good to be true; 3. call it political cowardice or electoral suicide, once entitlements have been declared, it becomes a prisoner’s dilemma situation between the voters and the politicians – the former wonder if the government will stay true to their word and implement real change rather than yet another handout, while the latter wonder if the voter will crucify them at the next elections. The institutional breakdown initiated by Indira Gandhi has taken a severe toll on the Indian political landscape.
So what is the solution? I do not have one. It is far easier to jump through the hoops as you are told to and manipulate the system than to challenge it. Besides, who has time for such a project? Not only is it a generational task but also one that requires generous funding, rigorous intellectual effort, and good media relations. Furthermore, no good deed will go unpunished in India. Who will bell the cat? In 1947, after almost three decades of non-violent struggle, India obtained swaraj…swatantrata might be a little more difficult.
I’d like to thank Amar Govindarajan, Harsh Gupta, Manohar Seetharam, Harini Calamur, and Sajid Bhombhal for their comments on an earlier version of this post. I have factored in the criticisms, opinions, and additional data they provided into this version.
A version of this post was published on Niti Central on November 05, 2012.