A deep thirst for change in India must be met by the monolithic state
26 Jan 2013
We live in an age that is struggling to interpret its own meaning. The nature of social and political change in India is so rapid and contradictory that naming it is no easy task. Is this India’s Tahrir Square moment? Is this the dawn of India’s Progressive Age? These analogies obscure more than they enlighten. Certainly, urban India is witnessing new forms of mobilisation. But unlike Tahrir Square, no regime change is at stake. There is clamour for a new political imagination. But the elements of this imagination have hardly congealed in any form that can be identified as Progressive. What we are witnessing in India is the unleashing of energies that have long been in the making. There is a sense of a powerful current tearing down an old decrepit system. But will the result be chaos, or a new ordered freedom? In part, the answer to this question will depend upon whether we can diagnose our own predicament.
The architecture of the Indian state is now being seriously contested. Indian practices of exercising power were founded on six principles that are no longer tenable. The first principle was vertical accountability. To be held accountable meant being held accountable by your superiors, not by citizens or other parts of the system. So long as the powers that be did not ask questions, did not prosecute or pursue you, no one else did. This is slowly beginning to change. There are potentially a lot more sites for horizontal accountability within the state. But most importantly, there is a clamour to be held accountable to citizens, not just in some diffuse way through elections, but in terms of the services the state provides. The second principle was relative secrecy. The state had a great informational advantage over citizens in two senses. The state’s own inner workings were relatively secret. And the state was a primary source of information about our well-being. Both those propositions are no longer true. It would be foolish for any state to now assume that its legitimacy can rest on keeping secrets. But perhaps more importantly, citizens craft a sense of well-being through information outside of the state. A couple of decades ago, you may not have known your water or air was poisoned because the state did not tell you. Now an NGO like CSE will. Parents as individuals knew how the public school system was failing them. Now a marvellous institution like Pratham, through the ASER Report, will tell you how catastrophically systematic is the failure in learning outcomes. In short, society is learning to find its own measure. And as it does, it is finding just how seriously the state has shortchanged it.
A presumptive distrust of society, and thus ordinary citizens, has become natural to the state.
The third principle of state power was wide discretion. To a degree, all states require discretionary power. But they need to justify its use through an exercise of public reason, where those reasons take into account all stakeholders. In every major decision the government has been involved in, whether allocating spectrum or land, siting SEZs or designing water schemes, it has failed to engage in public reason. It assumed it could get away with shoddy justifications for its actions. The fourth principle of the state was relative centralisation. Despite the fact that you have so many regional parties that share power, India remains one of the most administratively centralised states in the world. The degree of centralisation, where the Planning Commission micromanages every small rule associated with a centrally sponsored scheme with tragically perverse effects, is untenable in a society as vibrant and complex as India. Local bodies, whether urban or rural, are still not seen as instruments of self-government, as institutions that will resolve local conflicts. Instead, they are hemmed in by demands of vertical accountability rather than accountability to citizens. Add to these what you might call a principle of presumptive distrust. The Indian state has legitimised itself as a state against society. The American Revolution was, to a great degree, a revolt against arbitrary state power. Indian independence was not just anti-colonial. It also wanted to craft a state that could be in the vanguard of reforming society. The idea was that the state would need to intervene very deeply into social relations to produce a modern society. Some of this aspiration was justified in the face of enormous social evil India experienced historically. But over time, it acquired a logic of its own, where a presumptive distrust of society, and therefore of ordinary citizens, became second nature to the state. In the name of reforming society, the state infantilised it. Almost all our laws are framed with a peculiar mentality. They are not designed to produce good. They are designed to safeguard against every possible misuse. In a society where a hundred flowers bloom, a few weeds will grow as well. But our state is so concerned about the weeds that it kills all the flowers, in the process leaving a barren landscape. This presumptive distrust of citizens has become deeply entrenched and not challenged by any one of our ideologies, including Indian liberals. But what it has done is created a state that hems in the creativity of ordinary citizens to the point of suffocation.