March 19, 2020
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Tocsin For An Ancien Regime

A deep thirst for change in India must be met by the monolithic state

Tocsin For An Ancien Regime
Illustrations by Sorit
Tocsin For An Ancien Regime

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.

And finally, the Indian state operated by creating the tyranny of compulsory identities. On this view, India is a federation of communities, by religion, caste or ethnicity. Each citizen has an identity that for political purposes they cannot escape. This ideal was superficially attractive: it recognised India’s diversity and recognised the fact that some identities may need to be taken into account for considerations of justice. But this conception of India is deeply flawed. It failed to recognise that the Idea of India should be about individual freedom. The goal is to let individuals make, remake or shape their identities as they wish. And these identities should have little bearing on questions of citizenship or justice. Instead, our politics reinforced the tyranny of compulsory identities in the name of diversity. As a result, defences of individual freedom always become subordinate to demands of fixed identities. But a new freedom is bubbling from the bottom.

The tyranny of compulsory identity doesn’t admit that the idea of India should be about individual freedom.

These principles—vertical accountability, secrecy, discretion, centralisation, presumptive distrust and compulsory identities—formed a suffocating but mutually reinforcing system. Vertical accountability and arbitrary discretion require degrees of secrecy; presumptive distrust and identity politics allows the state to lord over citizens and in turn justify reasons of state. We are at a cusp where all these principles are on the verge of collapse. You cannot govern India if the state is not horizontally accountable to its citizens, if the state has no capacity for internalising knowledge that society is generating, if it does not engage in public reason, if it does not include people in governance through decentralisation, if it does not give up the infantilising distrust it has of citizens and if it does not honour individual freedom and dignity. The old order is slowly collapsing. The question is whether the new order will be able to internalise new principles.

Three factors make our transition to the new order more difficult, painful and slow. The first is the closed character of the political system. In any democracy, the central mechanism by which you produce accountability is political competition. You would assume that an opposition would have an incentive to embarrass the government and offer something new or different. The big shock of the last year was the degree to which the Indian political system is so deeply collusive. What the opposition does is not embarrass the government or offer an alternative. What all parties do is engage in a theatrical, pantomime-like game with a predictable script that has no relation to finding a solution. No party has been genuinely able to commit itself to a serious anti-corruption agenda. Even after the horrendous gangrape in Delhi, no political party could come out and say the simple words: in the states we rule, we will implement police reform. This is compounded by the fact that as the self-identity of politicians becomes that of contractors (both literally and figuratively), their capacity to carry out the task of mediating complex differences will diminish. So extra-political channels have almost become a necessity.

The second factor is the nature of our civil society. Many of the challenges we face, like urbanisation, crime, healthcare are what analysts call wicked problems. They are problems with multiple possible solutions. There is also some uncertainty about how any solution will actually work. But solutions are also extremely path-dependent. Once a large system, let us say public healthcare, is put in place, it is like the Titanic, difficult to steer around to a new direction. We are right now in the process of putting in place these large architectures, whether Right to Education, environmental regulatory systems, universal healthcare, cash transfers, reform of PDS and so forth. It has to be said that civil society is extremely divided over what shape these architectures should take. Often positions are driven by inchoate fears rather than careful or reasoned argument. But perhaps more importantly, the way government responds to these differences is not by saying: we will pick one kind of system and follow through on its logic. In the end, it is perhaps less important what we pick than the fact that what we pick should work well, all things considered. But what we end up doing is combining so many incompatible logics of system design in the name of compromise that policies do not have a chance right from the start. We want independent regulators, but then they are still subject to governmental discretion; we want decentralisation with bureaucrats lording over the political process; we want to give everyone the right to education but prohibit any testing of whether they are in fact getting an education; we are designing health insurance in a way that violates the cardinal principle of an insurance scheme: to spread the risks, all should participate. Our habits of argument are about ticking off all the boxes to our ideological satisfaction, not about thinking through the dynamics of a process.

The biggest threat facing India is that our elites may not recognise the transformative possibilities.

The third difficulty is that India is going through momentous social change at all levels. Even in the bottom deciles of the income distribution, consumption patterns are fast changing. The alignment of caste and occupation is beginning to weaken. Migration is increasing. But there are other specific changes. In many states, the asset bubble has suddenly catapulted small farmers into a real estate economy, governed by a logic of unprecedented cash, and with it guns. In some states, the appalling gender ratio is generating a deep social crisis, upsetting traditional marriage patterns. In urban India, divorce rates are soaring. Women are also entering higher education in unprecedented levels, yet the structure of our cities and workplaces is not designed to elicit their participation in the workforce. Individuals are also being drawn into a new economy of desire, consumption and aspiration. But in a strange way, freedom requires exercising more judgement and a sense of discrimination than repression. But all the institutions that could guide us through this thicket of choices we need to make—the family, religion or traditional civil society—are not quite geared up to the moral and existential demands these rapid changes impose on us. There is a great possibility of liberation in these changes. But there is also a sense of moving into unchartered territory. New forms of social self-knowledge have not quite kept pace with the rate of social change.

Political collusion, styles of argumentation and confusing social self-knowledge are going to make institutional channelling of the great churning we are witnessing more difficult. It is often said the middle class will have a central role in mediating this conversation. To a certain extent that is correct. As Partha Mukhopadhyay points out, there are two middle classes in India: the global middle class at the top ten per cent of the income distribution, and what we might call the local middle class, the forty to fifty per cent households whose income is not less than eighty but not more than two hundred per cent of the median income. But what both middle classes have in common is this. The Indian middle class has become one of the most privatised middle classes in the world. Close to eighty per cent of urban kids, including amongst the poor, will be in private school. More than ninety per cent healthcare expenditure is out of pocket. Colonies provide their own security and often captive power. Drinkable water is provided through private means, and so forth. We can debate how the privatisation of the middle class came about. But the fact of its privatisation sets up two competing dynamics. On the one hand, it has responded to state failure by exit. On the other hand, reform of the state needs the powerful to have a stake in it. The horrendous rape case in Delhi may finally have brought home the fact that exit is not entirely an option: a society where even sovereign functions like law and order are dependent on private provision or social control will be a precarious one indeed. But will the vicious circle continue: state failure leading to more exit? Or will the state find a way of incorporating a potentially reformist zeal?

But in the background of this administrative, political and social churning lies one large fact: the necessity of economic growth. Economic growth, with all its limitations, has been a singularly unsettling force in Indian society, largely for the good. It allows the possibility of a new kind of state to be built. It gave India a sense of self-confidence. Per capita incomes rising at five to six per cent a year transformed the horizons of possibility. Sure, it increased the possibility of rent-seeking, produced new forms of inequality, and new environmental hazards, largely as a result of state complicity. But it fundamentally underscored the fact that a brighter future was possible. The single biggest intellectual mistake of the last five years was not recognising just how tremendous a force for change growth was going to be, altering our sense of self in so many ways. If that dynamism does not return to the economy, this restless churning that we are witnessing could turn into a narrative of despair. The single biggest threat facing India is the possibility that its political elites will simply not recognise the transformative possibilities of this moment. They will, like a decrepit ancien regime, cling on to an order whose time has long past.

(The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research.)

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