Three thoughts on Independence Day

On preserving liberty, preserving India

Can we keep our Republic?

All this has held for close to seven decades, so much that we take the Indian Republic’s survival for granted. Yet our confidence might be as contingent as the scepticism of many in the 1940s and ‘50s who didn’t think that the grand political project called India would last beyond a few years. The survival of the Indian Republic must not be taken for granted, and indeed, cannot be taken for granted. It is not the violence from without and within that present the greatest risks to the future of our republic. What we should be more concerned with are the side effects of the high idealism of our Constitution, for they might one day overwhelm the intended good.

The first side effect of the Constitution is a contest of values, between those enshrined in law and those hallowed by tradition.

The overriding concern of the Constitution’s makers to unify the country and its people under one state gives us the second side effect: iniquitous federalism. Demographic trends over the next few decades—with the North outstripping the fertility rates in the rest of the country—will shift more seats and power to already powerful states. At some point the relatively disempowered populations will express themselves politically.

Third, unless the Indian republic radically transforms its administrative structure—from top-down hierarchies to flat networks—it will fail in delivering even basic public services, leave alone lofty ones like social revolution.[If we can keep it]


Liberal values are at an intrinsic disadvantage because they cannot be imposed.

…while reasoning can be taught, it cannot—by definition—be imposed. You can’t force people into reason. You can’t punish them for not employing reason. On the other hand, people are forced into, and to stay in, unreason. They are punished for straying from unreason. The history of humanity is replete with the oppression and punishment of those who disbelieve, of those who challenge or repudiate faith. In the modern nation-state, one goal of politics is to capture the education system and use it to perpetrate the chosen dogma (ideology, religion, race, ethnicity and so on), that in turn perpetrates the particular narratives of power.[For reason to prevail]


Market liberals and nationalists can come together. But can they exclude chauvinists and bigots?

To be politically powerful however, an ideology needs to find lots of real people who have the courage not only to stand up for what they believe in, but also to oppose what they don’t. The happy people in the middle are happy because they don’t have to pass the Longbottom Test (“It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies; a great deal more, to stand up to your friends”). Due to political considerations, even the intellectual leaders of this “new right” will find it hard to condemn actions that clearly depart from the principles of their creed. This compromises principles and upsets the tenuously balanced ideological construction.

In other words, establishing a sophisticated ideology…requires its proponents to provide principled leadership. Remember Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement across the country because of an incident violence in one village, Chauri Chaura. That’s how high the bar is. That’s why it’s hard to take the high road. [The right way to turn right]


Three thoughts on

On Independence Day 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004;

On Republic Day 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 

What lies to the right of centre in India?

The cohabitation of traditionalists and market liberals

Ever since India’s 2009 general election, it has become fashionable for many politically-minded people in the country to style themselves as being “right of centre”, “centre-right” and other terms where “right” and something else is joined together with a hyphen.

It is clear what people who label themselves thus are against — the Congress party, and especially the family that constitutes its apex leadership. Mostly, they oppose its “appeasement” of minorities, especially Muslims. They oppose its propensity to create “entitlements” in the form of reservations, quotas, subsidies and special treatment. They oppose the cronyism in the economy and political corruption in governance. They oppose its pusillanimity in foreign policy. There are many more, but these strike me as the big ones.

It is less clear what they stand for. Many of our self-styled right-of-centrists are strident opponents of liberalism. Many have deep misgivings, if not outright opposition to markets and free trade. The most coherent “right” in India is the Hindu right, which is clear about its commitment to Hindu nationalism, broad or narrow. However, even the Hindu right does not have an economic agenda that is consistent with its political ideology: should the Hindu nation rely on individual liberty and free markets, or should it construct a strong state that draws lines on individual freedom and controls the levers of economic power? During and after the 2014 election campaign, market liberals and social illiberals found themselves in the same “right of centre” camp, often having to pretend to be each other in order to fit in.

This ideological confusion and political tension within the segment that calls itself right-of-centre in India comes because our political context and historical development is different from that of the West, where the Right and Left first came into existence. I’ve written about this in my Niti-Mandala post, constructing India’s political spectrum. I was reminded of it last week as I read Jonah Goldberg’s statement of the Conservative position in the United States: which connects tradition and markets and forms the basic worldview of the American Right that the Republicans used to champion before Donald Trump, er, shook things up.

As a Chestertonian at heart, I like and respect old things. I like it when stuff beats the law of averages for reasons we cannot easily fathom. The Hayekian in me thinks old things that last often do so for good reasons we just don’t — and sometimes can’t — know. Unfortunately, we live in an age where we take the razor of reason to every little thing and strain to know the whys of it, as if knowing the why will empower the how. [National Review, emphasis added]

The same argument would be self-contradicting in India: where there are inhuman inequities embedded in caste discrimination and social practices. You can either defend the traditional Indian social order or individual liberty (and markets and so on). You can’t defend both, because the former is constructed without regard to, and often in suppression of the latter. This explains the confusion and tension among our “right of centre” compatriots, who are at best, — to turn a phrase from a best-selling novelist — Half Right. No pun intended.

They can either be traditionalists who seek to defend the old order from social revolution, and therefore come into tension with the Constitution that demands it. Or they can be liberals who pursue individual liberty and free markets, and thereby come into tension with everyone else who opposes either individualism or markets or both. They can’t be both.

Logical consistency apart, the practical question is to what extent can the two Half Right constituencies come together in politics. Is the tension between them bridgeable? Well, that’s hard to say, but the side with greater political clout will force the other into submission. Market liberals are not driving policy in the Modi government today.

The arrangement will hold to the extent that their dislike for the Left outweighs their dislike for each other. If the Congress party sheds its baggage — and that’s a big, big if — or another party takes up its Centrist space, it is likely that the the more liberal of the liberal Half Right will gravitate towards it. Until that time, the liberal Half Right will cohabit with the traditionalist Half Right, because most who seek the security of an ideological label are likely to lack the courage and commitment to stand apart, because that means standing alone.

On Kaveri

Change the ground, er water rules

This is my response to Mint’s request for comment:

The political and constitution crisis is a direct consequence of the faulty basis on which the decision to allocate Kaveri river waters is being made. Regardless of which court or tribunal and which year, whatever allocation it decides will be wrong; and one or the other side will be dissatisfied enough to contest the decision. This is the reason why this dispute has persisted for more than a century. We cannot blame courts or political leaders, because they are trying to make the best out of a faulty set of ground rules.

The ground rules must change: the principle on which water is allocated cannot be based on an arbitrary historical snapshot of the South Indian economy. Unless we move to principles that acknowledge water is scarce, water use patterns are changing rapidly, have incentives for new technology and allocations need to keep pace with the economic growth, we will be doomed to social acrimony, constitutional crises and political violence.

See Nidheesh’s report in the newspaper, and my Pragati essay on how river water can be better managed.