Why we must challenge medieval-style patronage at public expense
You’ve heard it in stories. You’ve seen it in plays and movies. The all powerful king is sitting on his throne. A poet, artist or athlete arrives in his court, and impresses the king with his accomplishments. The king then hands out a reward—gold coins, land and sometimes even his daughter—to the man. You might even remember scenes where the king takes off a pearl necklace from around his neck and throws it around that of the grateful subject.
Times have changed. India is a democratic republic. Unlike kings and emperors its political leaders do not rule over us. They are the representatives we appoint to govern our affairs according to laws made with our consent. India’s treasury is not their personal purse to do with as they please. They are the custodians of the taxes we pay to be used for purposes we have pre-approved. Sadly, this is only the theory. In reality the relationship between the government and citizen is more like the one between king and subject rather than between republic and free citizen.
It is precisely this mindset of giving inams that causes our state governments to shower cash prizes and land allocations on the members of world champion cricket team. Let there be no mistake — it is important for governments to publicly recognise and honour excellence in any field. But it must be done so in an appropriate manner. There is no reason why the Indian taxpayer should spend even a paisa rewarding the Indian cricket team for winning the world cup. The tax rupee has many more pressing uses.
Now it can be reasonably argued that the money thus given away does not pinch the exchequer. What’s a few crores in budgets that run into thousands of crores? This view misses the point. These are not the private funds of the politician giving away the money to bask in the afterglow of India’s World Cup victory, but public funds over which the politician is merely a custodian. The legalistic response that these funds come out of the discretionary budget of the chief minister doesn’t wash, because even discretionary spending must be in the public interest to be justified.
It is not that the Republic lacks ways to honour and reward accomplished citizens. There are the Arjuna awards for sportspeople. Why have them if crores are arbitrarily handed to cricketers? Why hand out crores when there are Arjunas?
There are other ways the state can honour sportspeople. There are tens of stadiums in the country named after Jawaharlal Nehru, a great man certainly, but one whose sporting achievements were modest. Why not rename these stadiums after sportspeople who have done the nation proud? It won’t cost more than a coat of paint to paint a new signboard. Bangalore’s Anil Kumble Circle is in the right direction, but why not name new urban landmarks after them (yes, this can be done only after creating new urban infrastructure)?
There is another reason why inams are unacceptable. They perpetuate the medieval mindset of a government that rules and patronises its subjects, rather than a government that governs and respects its citizens. It is the same mindset that robs people of their dignity by patronising them. It is the mindset that robs people of power by doling out entitlements. The entitlement economy aims to make India a nation where goods are free but people are not. As Ramesh Srivats says “Get a free laptop. But not the freedom to say what you want. A free TV, but not the freedom to see what you want.” It bans websites that you should not visit. It bans books that you should not read. It gives you the right to education but insists that you cannot send your children to a nearby school because it doesn’t have a playground.
Far more than any external threat or domestic challenge, it is this mindset that holds India back. If the person handing out the pearls believes he is the ruler, it is implicit that the person taking inam is subordinate and subject, not a free citizen.