Tagore on the welfare state

Why a welfare state will fail in India

I often argue that the fact that the Indian Republic arrogated to itself the task of social welfare has made the Indian citizen, at the margin, less inclined towards that cause. The argument goes something like this: “Why bother about doing something about the poor because it’s the government’s job. After all, most of our taxes and government revenues are allocated for social welfare, rather than providing us with public services.” Charity and philanthropy exists, but it is difficult to sustain an argument that the average citizen feels responsible for helping the poor and the less privileged.

Rabindranath Tagore had thought about this, long before India became independent and set itself up as a welfare state. Here’s an extract from Partha Chatterjee’s essay on Tagore’s views on nationalism. (Tagore, by the way, was opposed to nationalism, as he felt that it was contrived from the European historical experience and unsuited to the Indian context).

Rabindranath’s argument was this: before the English arrived in India, the samaj would carry out through its own initiative all the beneficial works necessary to meet people’s needs. It did not look to the state to perform those functions. Kings would go to war, or hunt, and some would even forsake all princely duties for pleasure and entertainment. But the samaj did not necessarily suffer on this account. The duties of the samaj were allocated among different persons by the samaj itself. The arrangement by which this was done was called dharma.

That which is callcd “the state” in English is now called, in our modern languages, the sarkar. The sarkar, has always existed in India in the form of the royal or sovereign power. But there was a difference between the power of the state in Britain with the power of the king in our country. Britain has entrusted the entire responsibility of looking after the welfare of the country to the state. In India, the state only had a partial responsibility… From giving alms to the destitute to teaching the principles of religion and morality to the common people, everything in Britain depends on the state. In our country, such activities are founded on the system of dharma among the people. Thus, the English are happy when the state is alive and well; we are relieved when when preserve our system of dharma.

But even if it is true that we never had a universally benevolent sovereign power in the past, could we not through our own efforts build such a state now? Rabindranath’s answer is clear: “No, we cannot.” He says: “We must understand this: the state in Britain is indissolubly founded on the general consent of the entire society; it emerged out of a process that is natural to that country. We cannot have it here simply by the force of argument. Even if it is inherently of outstanding quality, it will still remain beyond our reach.”

Extracted from: Tagore’s Non-Nation, “Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy”, by Partha Chatterjee, pp99-100

This appears to be an argument for investing in social capital, rather than charging the state with the task of social welfare. Tagore was onto something. But it was Gandhi who carried the day.

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Our problem is not spiritual but social

Rabindranath Tagore’s diagnosis of India’s problem

In this letter to a New York lawyer, Tagore accurately pinpoints the big problem—parochialism based on identity—and its unhappy consequences. It comes up again, in verse, in Where the Mind is Without Fear: “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/By narrow domestic walls”. This letter was perhaps written around the same time (Gitanjali was published in 1912) and elaborates on the argument in high prose.

Letter to Myron H. Phelps (New York)
16 December 1911

In every age the spiritual ideal has found its highest expression in a few specially gifted individuals. Such are to be found in India even today, often in the most unlikely places—among the apparently sophisticated, as well as among the unlettered and outwardly uncultured—startling us with the wonderful depth of their spiritual perception and insight. I do not feel that India has lost her spiritual heritage, for it is clear to me that her highest thought and activity is still spiritual. In the old days, however, the simpler environment—the comparative freedom from so many diverse and conflicting interests—permitted of the easy permeation of this ideal, emanate though it did from a few isolated altitudes, through and through the lower strata—with the result that Truth was recognized and realized not only intellectually but also in the details of everyday life.

A distinguishing characteristic of this spiritual civilization, as I have explained in my former letter, was its inclusiveness, its all-comprehensiveness. Aliens were assimilated into the synthesis; their widely differing modes of thought and life and worship being given their due places in the scheme by a marvellous interpretative process. But while the evolution of the spirit thus proceeded upon highly complex lines, the growth of the material body went on in a simple unorganized fashion, so that the time arrived when the mesages of the spirit could no longer find their way unimpeded throughout, resulting in differences of spiritual intensity, and consequent compromises and aberrations in the character of its manifestations. That is why high thinking and degenerate living are seen side by side; ideals are converted into superstitions: and the finest of inspirations reduced to grossness in action, wherever the vitalizing spiritual stream is deprived of its freedom of onward movement.

The problem of India therefore does not seem to be that of re-establishing its lost ideals, but rather of reforming its overgrown body so as to harmonise with and give free and fitting expression to its ever-living soul. In other words our problem is not spiritual but social—that of reviving, by organizing and adapting to its more complex environment, our fast disintegrating social system. It is our disorganized society which prevents our ideas and activities from being broad, the narrower self from being merged into or sacrificed for the sake of the greater—and our national experiences are being dissipated and wasted for want of a storing and coordinating centre. The workings of the spirit are seen as flashes but cannot be utilised as a steady flame.

In the west the situation seems to bejust the opposite. There we see a highly organized body, as it were, of which the soul is dormant, or at least, not fully conscious. While our soul is in search of an adequate body for want of which it cannot give its inspirations effective shape, and succeeds only in displaying to the outside world various incongruities clothed in phantastic forms, we find the west deploring its lack of spirituality. But surely spirituality cannot be lacking where the larger self is finding such noble expression in comfort-scorning striving, in death-defying heroism. On what can this living for ideas be based if not on spirituality? As for the want of consciousness, does not that tend more and more to be remedied by the very activities to which so efficient an organism finds itself increasingly impelled?

It is only where life is petty and scattered, and society partitioned into mutually exclusive sects that the vision of the Great is lost—it is only there that the mental horizon becomes narrow, aspirations fail to soar high, and the spirit remains steeped in a perpetual despondency. Here and there some greater soul may succeed, like a cloud-topping peak, in rising into the serene atmosphere above; but the multitudes wallowing in the slough below are as devoid of material consolations as of clarity of spiritual perception, and an unmeaning repetition of ritual is the only lifelike response of which they seem capable.

If the spiritual genius of India is not to prove futile for the purposes of humanity then it needs must seek to acquire the art of body-building. May it not be possible, in that quest, to avail ourselves of the assistance of the West without treading that slippery path of imitation which leads only to self-destruction?

Source: The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: a miscellany (Sahitya Akademi, 1994)

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Two laws of policy realism

A cynic’s perspective on robust policy design

The first law of policy realism
A policy that relies on the Indian citizen to act in selfless public interest will not work. In fact, a policy that expects an Indian citizen to act in anything but self-interest and relative gain will not work.

The second law of policy realism
A policy that expects Indian citizens to adhere to a process—any process—will not work as intended, because people will ignore, work around or actively undermine the process.

Implications of the above:

1. Policies must be designed to appeal to self-interest and maximise relative gains (in other words, the citizen must feel s/he will get more out of it compared to others).

2. Policy design must incorporate processes that are consistent with people’s mindsets and are resistant to being undermined.

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Why the President of India must reject the Food Security ordinance

President Pranab Mukherjee must reject the Union Cabinet’s unjustified ordinance

The UPA government’s Food Security Bill (brief) is likely to cause severe damage to the Indian economy, while saddling future generations with an open-ended spending commitment that will be hard to wind down. The government’s own Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices and the Expert Committee (report) headed by the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (report) have argued against it. As Ravikiran Rao argues in Pragati, the scheme will not only widen India’s gaping fiscal deficit, but severely distort the national food supply chain.

But you do not have to agree with the bill’s critics to acknowledge that a bill on which there is no consensus even among the government’s top economic experts, which imposes a burden on future generations, at a time when the Indian economy is in doldrums and the investors—domestic and foreign—are wary about investing in India, should not be implemented in a hurry.

Yet that is exactly what the UPA government is attempting to do. After emotional blackmail—for which purpose Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was recruited—failed to persuade parliament in the previous session, the Union Cabinet has now decided to sneak it through an ordinance.

Under the Constitution, an ordinance is an emergency provision, equipping the Executive to implement measures when the Parliament is not in session. The ordinance must be approved by both houses of Parliament the next time they convene and “shall cease to operate at the expiration of six weeks from the reassembly of Parliament”. What is important to note is the debates in the Constituent Assembly, the wording of the Constitution and Supreme Court judgements are clear that issuing ordinances is an emergency provision to be used at extraordinary times. Chief Justice P N Bhagwati, heading a Constitution Bench in D C Wadhwa vs State of Bihar held that

“The power to promulgate an Ordinance is essentially a power to be used to meet an extraordinary situation and it cannot be allowed to be ‘perverted to serve political ends’. It is contrary to all democratic norms that the Executive should have the power to make a law.” [1987 AIR 579, 1987 SCR (1) 798/IndiaKanoon]

The Union Cabinet’s decision to implement the food security bill—that is still in Parliament—through an ordinance flies in the face of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Justice Bhagwati’s ruling is clear—an ordinance can only be used to meet an extraordinary situation, not perverted to serve political ends.

Where is the extraordinary situation? Where is the food emergency? Is there a famine in the country? Is a famine projected? If there is no extraordinary situation, then the Union Cabinet’s decision to wrap its political pet project in the garb of an emergency is against constitutional morality. It is perhaps unconstitutional as well.

There is no doubt that there many right-thinking Indians who believe that the food security bill is a good thing and that it will even provide food security as intended. However, it will be hard for any reasonable person to conclude that the situation in India is dire enough to bulldoze constitutional and democratic norms and present parliament with a fait accompli.

The argument that the ordinance is necessary because Opposition parties have not allowed Parliament to function does not wash. While the BJP has provided the Congress party with a seemingly plausible excuse, the Union Cabinet is bound by the Constitution. It is sworn to uphold the Constitution. It cannot refuse to perform this duty merely because the Opposition is not playing by the rules. If we are to buy the premise that two wrongs make a right, we are either in a jungle or in a banana republic.

President Pranab Mukherjee is perhaps sympathetic to Sonia Gandhi’s ideological persuasions. As a life-long Congressman, he might be inclined towards the party’s socialist leanings. Yet when the ordinance comes before him, the only question he must ask is “Is there an extraordinary situation that demands this ordinance?” Parliament convenes in a few weeks. Can this not wait until then?

The Indian Republic’s history is replete with presidents, who despite being lifelong Congressmen, have had the integrity, courage and statesmanship to question Congress-led governments. It is up to President Mukherjee to decide whether he wants to be a Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed or a Rajendra Prasad.

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Why public protests are proliferating

When networked societies clash with hierarchical states

This week’s Economist has a couple of interesting articles on the proliferation of public protests in recent times—from the United States, to Britain, to Arab North Africa, India and now Turkey and Brazil. It attempts to understand the phenomenon within the frames of democracy and dictatorship, with technology as a key enabler.

Any study of these protests must contend with a simple, central question: given that the protestors’ grievances are not new, why did the protests take place now (roughly since 2010)? Corruption, economic distress, political oppression and elite control of political power, among others, have been around for decades. What changed enough to cause people to get onto the streets to protest?

It is possible to identify a number of factors: youth bulge, urbanisation, size of the middle class, mobile phone penetration and growth of social media are the most important among them. It is highly likely that these factors—in various combinations—have a causal relationship with the eruption of protests. The “why now?” question, can be explained by the fact that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter are of fairly recent origin. Text messaging over mobile telephone networks is older, but it was only in the last decade that mobile phone ownership increased significantly as a fraction of the overall population. So the availability of technology could explain when the public protests took place.

Technology also suggests a more profound implication. The proliferation of public protests—across democracies and authoritarian states—might be the first signs of a clash between radically networked societies and hierarchically ordered states. (See this talk on radically networked societies.) As I argued in my Business Standard column in December 2011, “the popular legitimacy of today’s hierarchically-structured governments – and the political order they rest on – is under threat in radically networked societies.”

In other words, corruption, bus fare hikes, tree parks or economic policies that the protesters are abstractions or symptoms of the underlying dissatisfaction with the way the people are governed. A networked society is flat, its demands are diverse and often inchoate, decision-making processes are amorphous, and leadership diffuse. However, such a society is governed by a government that operates in a hierarchical manner, top-down and bottom-up, in silos, bound by hard rules and distinct leadership. While a networked society moves fast, a hierarchical government moves relatively slowly on account of its structure. To members of networked societies the hierarchical government appears slow, less responsive and remote, hence lacking in credibility and legitimacy.

The structure of the modern nation-state was forged in the Industrial Age. It now confronts the demands of the Information Age and is increasingly found wanting.

In my column I wrote: “One reason the United States emerged on top of the world order is because it had the best political system for post-Enlightenment industrial age societies. It may well be that the nation that best reinvents itself for the information age will have a shot at being the next great superpower.”

This raises a number of questions. What does a networked state look like? How does a hierarchically-ordered state change itself into a networked state? What does this mean for individual liberty? We do not have the answers yet.

PS. For the record, the Business Standard article I refer to in this post contained a typo that risks changing the entire argument. The sentence in the third paragraph should read “This is not a classical class struggle.” The “not” is missing in the published piece!

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What should India do about US snooping?

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Boundless Informant Heat Map

According to reports in The Guardian—based on information illegally divulged by NSA contractor Edward Snowden—we know that India is among the top ten countries that the United States snoops on. In March 2013 alone, one of NSA’s programmes collected 6.3 billion pieces of information from India. (Yes, all the hoopla in the US about spying is limited to outrage over the US government spying on its own citizens. Spying on other countries’ citizens is somehow acceptable to many freedom- and privacy-loving Americans.)

What should the Indian government do about this? Here are some options:

1. Do nothing. High officials can express their disapproval. The foreign ministry can register a strong written protest. The US ambassador can be told in no uncertain terms that New Delhi is displeased with the snooping. Essentially, nothing actually changes.

2. Take defensive measures. It is incredibly hard to defend Indian communications networks against the kind of surveillance that the NSA is carrying out. It is impossible to harden all networks—although the government can attempt to move its employees onto more secure platforms. When so many government employees still use Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo for correspondence with people outside government, there is a lot that the government can do to make official communications more secure. This still leaves public communications heavily vulnerable to snooping by one and all.

3. Attempt to achieve a balance-of-snooping. Start snooping on ordinary Americans (okay, suspected terrorists only) until the US government gets concerned. Then negotiate a truce to control snooping, much like arms control deals that managed arms races. Even if cyberspace offers asymmetric opportunities, the gap in capacities between India and the United States are mindbogglingly large. It will takes years of sustained investment and effort for the Indian government to do anything that’ll worry the US government enough to want to negotiate. The Chinese might be able to pull this off, though.

4. If you can’t stop them, join them. Use the India-US strategic partnership to collaborate with the United States in the cyber-surveillance and intelligence domains and use the collaboration to acquire skills, capabilities and technology that India does not currently have. Once such capabilities are acquired, India will have more options.

Update: I make some of these points in an NDTV programme.

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Lashkar-e-Taiba vs Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

Is the fratricidal war here?

It was in 2009 that this blog suggested that a fratricidal war among Pakistani militant groups is possible: the likelihood of this happening would increase as long as Pakistani army persisted with its policy of appeasing the United States while simultaneously nurturing Islamist militancy. The Pakistan army has long relied on groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to act on its behalf—so it is conceivable that they will be employed against Pashtun insurgents, like those belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. (Militant proxies are already being used against insurgents in Balochistan and to terrorise religious minorities in Gilgit-Baltistan).

There were some rumblings of conflict between militant groups the following year. However, this month, the fighting is out in the open.

Mukarram Khurasani, spokesman for the TTP’s Mohmand chapter chief Omar Khaliq, told Dawn.com that hundreds of militants had attacked the Pakistani Taliban positions in Shongrai and the bordering village of Jarobi Darra.

Khurasani also accused Lashkar-i-Taiba commander Haji Abdul Rahim of leading the attackers.

The Taliban’s Mohmand chapter chief also claimed that the attack had been repulsed and said that one attacker was killed while three were injured.

Meanwhile, Lashkar-i-Taiba spokesperson Mahmud Ghaznavi rejected the allegations that the group was involved in the clashes. [Dawn]

The report also claims that the Afghan Taliban had also lined up with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, but pulled back after TTP sought Mullah Omar’s intervention. As I wrote in this week’s Business Standard column, this is a tricky situation where the TTP is at war with the Pakistan army but swears allegiance to Mullah Omar, who for his part, is beholden to the Pakistan army. Yes, it’s complicated.

The TTP is spoiling both General Kayani’s and Mullah Omar’s party. Not to forget, there are factions within the Pakistani military establishment that are backing the TTP.

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A British act of unfriendliness

New Delhi must respond to Britain’s discriminatory visa regime.

The British government has included India in a list of ‘high risk’ countries whose citizens will have to post a bond of £3000 (around Rs 275,000) when they apply for a six-month visa. The bond will be fully repaid when the visa-holder leaves Britain, but forfeited in cases of overstay and deportation. It will will apply to highest risk visitors and not to all visitors from the selected countries (LT Sachin Kalbag). The new visa policy is consistent with the Conservative government’s policy to reduce immigration.

How Britain designs its immigration and visa policies is entirely its prerogative, just as it is India’s prerogative to interpret the steep visa bond as an unfriendly act. David Cameron’s homilies for stronger ties with India’s are effectively pointless if Britain discriminates against ordinary Indians. Perhaps the British government has good reason to place India in a ‘high risk’ category as far as immigration is concerned. But then, if you desire strong, strategic ties with another state but see that country’s citizens as ‘high risk’ immigrants, then you are trying to have your tandoori naan and eat it too.

If the British government discriminates against Indian citizens—whatever the reason—then it must bear the geopolitical costs of doing so. New Delhi must review the scope and tenor of India’s relations with Britain. The first thing to discard is pretence. The biggest pretence and pretension is the absurd, anachronistic entity called the Commonwealth. What good is membership of the Commonwealth if the ostensible ‘leader’ of the grouping treats non-members more favourably than members? As this blogger has argued before, India must quit the Commonwealth. Some Indian diplomats will be deprived of lucrative offices, but it’s time bureaucratic interests are overruled by political ones. India’s scarce diplomatic capacity is wasted on the pointless pomposity of the Commonwealth.

It is unfathomable why the Indian government still accepts aid from its British counterpart. We don’t need it. Foreign aid only encourages fiscal irresponsibility in India.

David Cameron - Pragati CoverThis blog had been encouraged by David Cameron’s enthusiastic and seemingly sincere attempt to recast Britain’s ties with India into a genuine strategic partnership. The disappointment at Britain’s actions, therefore, is deeper. Immigration is not only a foreign policy issue that affects ordinary Indians. It is a matter of vital national interest in a world where easy movement of capital, ideas and people is a source of competitive advantage.

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Explica a ABC el analista indio

Quoted in the Spanish

Jaime León, a reporter for the Spanish daily ABC, quotes me in his report on India-China relations. Here’s my opinion in Spanish.

«Los dirigentes chinos están preocupados por la creciente relación entre la India y Estados Unidos. Li Keqiang es el primero en decirlo públicamente», explica a ABC el analista indio Nitin Pai, director del «think tank» La Institución Takshashila. Y es que la desconfianza india hacia china es antigua, profunda y difícil de eliminar. «La guerra de 1962, que los indios piensan que fue una traición, continúa viva en la memoria colectiva en la India», afirma Pai, quien añade que «además, el apoyo de China a los insurgentes del noreste indio y el apoyo nuclear a Pakistán han ayudado a aumentar ese recelo». A su juicio, «es un hecho que China va por delante de la India en muchos aspectos, desde el económico al militar. En la percepción india, China es un adversario estratégico superior con un historial de hostilidad directa e indirecta hacia la India». [ABC]

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Karma is not an excuse for Mao

There is no justification for the Maoist’s armed struggle

The ghastly ambush and murder of unarmed political leaders by Maoists in Chhattisgarh ought to focus the national discourse on the nature of the problem the India republic faces in the forested areas of Central India. Instead, the discourse is being distorted in two baleful directions. First, into a partisan “Congress vs BJP” shouting match. Second, and more dangerously, it is being purposefully led astray by arguments that position Maoist violence as a reaction to Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist vigilante group whose leader, Mahendra Karma, was killed in the incidents.

Let us get the discourse back on line. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) is engaged in a war against the Republic of India. Violence and “armed struggle” are core part of the ideology, practice and empirical record of Maoist groups. The violence didn’t start in 2006, when Salwa Judum was created.

Rather, Salwa Judum was a reaction—albeit a deeply flawed and misguided one—to decades of Maoist violence. To argue that the Maoists escalated violence because of Salwa Judum—for instance, as Ramachandra Guha has done in The Hindu—would be to ignore the broader historical context. Also, would a “peace” imposed by the Maoists on a hapless tribal population be morally acceptable to the citizens of the Indian republic?

Therefore, the Chhattisgarh attack must be seen for what it is—an attempt to disrupt a democratic political process whose success could further marginalise the Maoists. (See our issue brief for details).

This blog has been a severe critic of Salwa Judum from the outset: the state cannot outsource its monopoly over the legitimate use of force. It does so at the risk of landing up in a moral quagmire. Salwa Judum was not merely unconstitutional, it was poor strategy. The use of surrendered militants in Jammu & Kashmir, for instance, undermined India’s counter-insurgency initiatives in the longer term. That lesson was not learnt, and was certainly not applied in Chhattisgarh. If Maoist depredations are explained away by commentators today, it is because of Salwa Judum. Of course, Maoist sympathisers and fronts would find other reasons to justify the violence, but Salwa Judum gave them one highly visible and easy target to hit.

Even so, the fact that Salwa Judum was a wrong move does not mean that killing Mr Karma is somehow justified. It is the strength of the Indian republic that citizens were able to get the Supreme Court to wind down Salwa Judum. Those who felt Mr Karma had crimes to answer for should have taken recourse to the legal system. Yes, cases take too long. Yes, some politicians get away on technicalities. Yes, sometimes judges are compromised. None of this legitimises Maoists killing Mr Karma and massacring many others. In fact, those who claim killing Mr Karma is legitimate cannot also claim Salwa Judum is not—unless, of course, get into the Orwellian territory of saying “unconstitutional actions are morally justified when our side does them, but illegitimate when our opponents do them.”

Salwa Judum is just one aspect of the reluctance and half-heartedness of the Indian establishment’s defence against the Maoists’ war on the republic. The Chhattisgarh massacre should inject moral clarity and lucidity into the public mind. The Indian republic must fight this war. It would be another mistake to use the armed forces for this task. Counter-insurgency needs a different sort of capacity. How to acquire this capacity and how to deploy it needs a far more nuanced debate than the one we have now.

Related Link: What kind of capacity does India need for counter-insurgency:a special report in Pragati on a panel discussion on this topic.

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