Tag Archives | liberal nationalism

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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On free speech and national security

Blocks, bans and censorship no longer work

This is the unedited draft of my guest column in this week’s India Today.

Let us not underestimate the importance and the challenge of maintaining public safety and national security in a diverse, heterogenous society undergoing rapid change. Over the last three decades, riding furiously on the politics of identity and the economics of entitlement, an arms race of competitive intolerance has rent Indian society. It is frequently accompanied by coercion, intimidation or violence.

Unfortunately, where one citizen’s intolerance collides with another’s right to free speech, the agents of the Indian republic cravenly side with the former. This is the context in which our police, intelligence agencies and security forces are tasked with the job of maintaining domestic peace. As important as their job is—for internal stability is the basis for growth and development—they are under-staffed, under-equipped, under-trained and inappropriately organised for the task. To an extent, therefore, it is understandable that the security establishment prefers to err on the side of caution, and seeks as much statutory leeway as possible in laws concerning free speech and civil liberties.

It is understandable, yes, but no longer acceptable. Even before large numbers of Indians acquired mobile phones and got onto the internet, our unreformed, colonial approach to policing had created a yawning gap of disaffection between police and citizen, establishment and society, the state and the individual. The information age has exacerbated this gap, creating extreme pressures on both sides. If left unchecked, such pressures could explode in many ways, most of which spell trouble for our democratic republic.

The traditional method of maintaining what is popularly known as “law and order” involves rationing information. It presumes that information is a scarce commodity like it used to be half-a-century ago. Censorship could prevent the masses from obtaining information that the authorities didn’t want them to. Books could be banned and their import restricted. Sensitive installations could be protected by preventing accurate maps from being published. Even when government documents weren’t classified, there was little chance that citizens would ever have access to them.

This is no longer tenable because information is no longer scarce. Traditional methods might still fetch tactical, short-term successes, but at the cost of creating strategic, long-term damage. Cutting off SMS services in Srinagar might put the brakes on the spread of a riot but adds another layer of grievance to an already disaffected population. In most cases it simply doesn’t work. Censorship can be circumvented inexpensively, banned books downloaded easily and many official documents accessed through the Right to Information.

That’s not all. By keeping blunt laws that were designed for ease of use by unreformed police forces, we do not create any incentives for smarter policing. Draconian laws are bad for the police. They are obviously bad for society. The disconnect they create between the two is bad for the Indian republic.

The recent arrest of the two young women in Palghar, Maharashtra under draconian provisions of the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code, and the subsequent government action against the policemen involved, demonstrates this. The only winners in that episode were the intolerant.

Instead of persisting with the increasingly counterproductive approach of rationing information, a better way would be for the government to manage its abundance. There is nothing stopping the government from putting timely, accurate information online. From traffic updates to weather, from law and order situations to authoritative updates on details of the operations of our security forces. When the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) published tweets and videos of their recent combat operation in near real-time, they ensured that their narrative prevailed over the usual confusion and misinformation that the fog-of-war creates. There are lessons here for our Home Affairs and Defence ministries.

Similarly, law enforcement authorities can keep their fingers on the zeitgeist and intervene with factual information in real time. Some are already doing this. The state police in Jammu & Kashmir have made good use of Facebook. Last month, the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters put out their version of the story even while Arvind Kejriwal was making allegations—concerning non-payment of emoluments to a NSG commando—at a press conference. This method can be used to good effect during times when there are malefactors spreading rumours online. Good information is the best way to counter bad information, obviating the need to block social media, ban websites and suspend telecom services.

Law enforcement authorities must have the powers to ensure public safety and order. However, the Policeman cannot be the arbiter of free speech. It is a mistake to ask police officers to develop the sophisticated sense to appreciate the finer nuances of what is acceptable speech. What we must do as part of a larger project of police reform is equip our law enforcement authorities with information management skills necessary to do their basic job—protecting our liberty—better.

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Populism, freedom and democracy

Defending free speech is best done by voting

The Indian governments’ second cave-in over Salman Rushdie at Jaipur last week should worry us. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s surrender to Muslim ‘sentiment’ over Satanic Verses triggered the process of competitive intolerance that has created an environment where anyone—citing religious feelings—can have books, movies and art banned, and their creators persecuted. A quarter of a century is usually sufficient to reflect on the follies of the past, realise the consequences of the mistakes made and resolve not to repeat them. The UPA government could have managed Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival better. Here was an opportunity to not only reverse the tide of competitive intolerance but also secure an unassailable position in the political landscape.

Yet, the Congress regime failed. And failed abjectly. All it could do was to use low cunning to create fear and uncertainty among the participants. Those who believe that the first duty of the government is to protect citizens from violence will conclude that the UPA government in New Delhi and the Congress government in Jaipur have failed. After all, if we are to allow violent people to determine what a citizen can or cannot do, why do we need government in the first place?

“But it’s about UP elections!” comes the reply, as if fundamental rights are subject to the political exigencies of state assembly elections. While it is understandable that political partisans—who see everything through the lens of costs and benefits to the party they support—will offer this as an explanation, excuse and justification rolled into one, there is no reason for the rest of the citizenry to accept this as the ‘logic’.

“But under the Indian Constitution, fundamental rights are not absolute and the government has the right to place reasonable restrictions on them” comes another reply. This is an accurate statement. From the debates in the Constituent Assembly, to the verdicts of the Supreme Court and to the opinion of experts in constitutional law, there is no doubt that the Indian Republic seeks a balance between individual liberty and public order. Ergo, some actions by the government to abridge liberty in the interests of maintaining order are constitutionally legitimate. This is intended to give the government flexibility. It would be ridiculous to argue that the Constitution is so constructed to cause the government to yield to threats of violence. It would be wrong to blame the Constitution for a particular government’s cravenness or failure.

What then should we make of this affair? As Andre Beteille explains in his masterful essay on constitutional morality, the Indian system is prone to swings between constitutionalism and populism, with the former asserting liberty and the latter assailing it. Why, though, should populism be opposed to individual liberty?

Phrased differently, why should the government cave in to the demands of the intolerant and not to demands of the liberal? Actually, this is the same as asking “why is it unsafe for women to walk on our streets, why is it that our courts take too long to decide cases, why is it that we need a scores of licenses to start a business, why is it that it is so difficult for our children to get a seat in a good school, why is it that we don’t have decent drinking water, electricity supply, hospitals and, and, and …?” Given the public awareness and indeed consensus that these issues need to be tackled, why is the government so uninterested in pursuing these goals with any seriousness?

The answer might surprise you. It’s because India’s democracy is functioning as it should and the politicians are sensitive to the demands of their voters. The electorate is getting what it wants. The population isn’t. Public discourse in India is unduly influenced by the middle class, not least because it constitutes the market for our media. Middle India believes that that issues that it is preoccupied with should also concern political parties and the government. And when it observes that this isn’t quite what is happening, it is disappointed and—like a hopeless romantic who hits the bottle—drowns its sorrows in cynicism.

Democracy is a numbers game. Those with larger numbers can use the flexibility in the Indian Constitution to have their way to a larger extent. Now we can wish that we had a less flexible constitution where this wouldn’t be possible. But not all wishes have their Santa Clauses. Or, we could start practising democracy. Explaining the failure of the old Indian Liberal Party (in 1943!) B R Ambedkar drew attention to what he called “the elementary fact”, that “organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose and particularly in politics, where the harnessing of so many divergent elements in a working unity is so great.”

Technology has made organisation of large numbers of like-purposed people fairly easy. As Atanu Dey has argued, forming voluntary voter’s associations can make an individual voter more effective. It’s being put into action too—see the United Voters of India online platform.

Ultimately, though, it depends on how much of the population becomes the effective electorate. In other words, it depends on whether you vote or not. If you don’t, why blame political parties or the government for giving voters what they want?

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On NDTV: The consequences of Hazaremania

A crossroads, not a victory

(You can also view it on NDTV’s website)

The points I made (or wanted to):

1. The conclusion of Anna Hazare’s fast after a compromise is not a victory for anyone. It’s a crossroads. In fact, there are two crossroads here. First, whether we will pursue political agenda by restoring and strengthening faith in constitutional methods or by taking recourse to street protests. Second, whether we will proceed along the path of economic freedom, openness and reform, or retreat into a new form of socialism that has so utterly failed us.

2. Parliamentarians behave the way they do not because they are idiots but because of incentives. The anti-defection law has made them automatons controlled by the party leadership. When they can’t debate substantive issues they choose to raise their volume or engage in disruptive behaviour.

3. Anna Hazare and his colleagues managed to galvanise the disappointment, outrage and exasperation that has built over the last 8 years. The fundamental cause of this is the stalling of the economic reform process. Political parties failed to understand and capitalise on Middle India’s growing but silent dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. We must not conflate Middle India’s sentiment with an endorsement of Lok Pal or indeed of Anna Hazare and his colleagues. The latter are at best trustees and custodians of public sentiment—they must not see this as license to pursue their own ideological and political agenda.

4. Because the moment is so extraordinary, it behoves Anna Hazare and the leaders of the India Against Corruption movement to act with humility, responsibility and good sense. Here they have fallen short.

5. The second freedom struggle is not about a bill. It’s not about a Lok Pal. It’s not even about making India corruption-free. It is about a quest for economic freedom to be pursued using constitutional methods.

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Three thoughts on Independence Day

New mantras for a new India

It’s been a tradition on this blog to post three thoughts for quiet contemplation on Independence and Republic days. Today, there’s a song to go with them.

Hum Hindustani (1960). Music: Usha Khanna, Lyrics: Prem Dhawan, Singer: Mukesh
 

The three thoughts: A mantra for the alternative; who says nationalism must be intolerant and what is wrong with asking women to learn martial arts.

The three thought archive:
Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;
and on Independence Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

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The mantra for the alternative

Economic freedom, individual liberty and competent government

Longtime readers might recall that this blog has long argued that India’s crisis of governance arises from the UPA government’s institution of entitlement economics, surrender to competitive intolerance and returns to political violence. Corruption and unaccounted money — issues that have captured popular imagination in the last few months — are merely symptoms of the underlying disease. Ridding the body politic of this malaise requires the building of a political alternative around a new mantra:

Give us back our economic freedom, and let it reverse the entitlement economy of corruption and cronyism.

Give us back our individual liberty, and let it reverse the competitive intolerance that is destroying India’s social capital.

Give us a government that restricts itself to being competent in its basic duties — like ensuring the rule of law –, and let it reverse the tide of violence and the grammar of anarchy.

Peace! Peace! Peace!

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What’s wrong with asking women to learn martial arts

A government that can’t prevent women from being molested on the streets is unlikely to do better against criminals and terrorists.

Excerpt from today’s DNA column:

Imagine the Indian Army begins to conduct training camps to train all of us on how to use firearms to defend ourselves against foreign attacks. Imagine they provide booklets on how to make grenades that you could throw at invading soldiers. Imagine the army chief saying that our soldiers can’t be expected defend every single part of the country, overstretched as they are, having to go abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, helping census officials, conducting elections, delivering humanitarian relief and constructing buildings for events like the Commonwealth games. Would we buy this logic?

Yet, this is precisely what we are doing with respect to our police forces. In the face of rampant sexual harassment of women (let’s not trivialise these crimes anymore by calling them ‘eve teasing’) the Delhi police force has decided to rely on D-I-Y methods. It is training women in self-defence techniques, martial arts and handing out pepper-spray recipes outside schools and colleges. Some may see these measures as practical and pragmatic, but they should worry us deeply. For they represent an abdication of the State from its fundamental responsibility – using its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to ensure that there is rule of law. [Read the rest at DNA]

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Who says nationalism must be intolerant?

Nationalism merely expresses the civilisational values of the nation

Waldemar Hanasz’s “Toward Global Citizenship?”, one of the readings prescribed for next week’s Liberty Fund Colloquium at Neemrana, organised by Centre for Civil Society, says “contemporary republications realise that today the only form of passionate patriotism is nationalism, which is often incompatible with toleration and pluralism.”

This negative view of nationalism pervades the Western political discourse. A few years ago, a European friend argued that he was sceptical of nationalism because of the crimes and violence that were perpetrated in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. In a way this is like the contemporary connotation of the swastika in the West. The Nazis appropriation of an ancient symbol sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and people of many other Indian faiths has resulted in the swastika becoming a taboo sign, not just among the ignorant, but also among the politically correct knowledgeable.

Mr Hanasz phrases his sentence carefully but in popular discourse, nationalism is automatically equated with intolerance. This is wrong.

The political expression of nationalism depends on the values of the nation concerned (the nation being an “imagined community” that has cultural kinship). If nationalism in twentieth-century Europe resulted in intolerance and violence it is because the intolerant and violent values of Europe’s nations were dominant. There is no reason to believe that this will happen everywhere else.

Indian nationalism since the middle of the nineteenth century was informed by the quintessentially Hindu values of tolerance and pluralism. As long as Indian nationalism continues to be driven by these dominant Hindu values, we need not worry too much about the colours with which Western discourse paints it with.

The politics of liberal nationalism is not only possible but presents modern society with a enlightened way to manage its affairs. Actually, this has been the way in India for much of history, with the exceptions being Islamic and European attempts to impose religious intolerance in some parts during some periods. These attempts largely failed except in 1947. Even so, the outcome of Partition showed that systems that reject the values of tolerance and pluralism will come to grief.

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Takshashila’s Year Zero

Why, what and what next

India’s problems are scaling faster than the attempted solutions. In every country there is a governance gap—between the economy and its governance—but in our country, the problem is severe, acute and worsening. From telecommunications to finance, from education to agriculture, every sector of the economy needs both specialist domain expertise and management skills. To the extent that India is unable to inject these in its government agencies, it is obvious that we will continue to suffer not only poor governance, but also corruption and injustice.

At Takshashila, we have made it our mission to change this. We are acutely aware that the race we are running is marathon, that we will have to run it for decades and the chances that we will succeed are uncertain. Yet, it is a race we have to run.

We want to build one of the best schools of statecraft in India. It will be school that is as rooted in India’s civilisational values as it is global in its outlook. It will aim to bring together the best minds in public policy to impart customised, high-quality education to the most promising graduate students. That’s the vision. We have a sense of how to get there, but we do not want start the school tomorrow morning. Since it is to be a school rooted in the Indian experience, we want to scan the length and breadth of the country and build the body of knowledge first.

Yes, this is an audacious project for a bunch of people most of who did not even have greying temples when we started out (and most do not have them even now). So we want to earn our stripes—build credibility even as we validate our own assumptions—by establishing Takshashila as a networked think tank. This is the first step towards realising our vision of an outstanding Indian school of statecraft.

It is far more effective to connect talented individuals passionate about changing India for the better into a networked community, than to attempt to hire them and put them in the same building. We do not have the budget for it, and even if we did, we would still stick to the networked model, because we believe it is far more suited to the twenty-first century. [See the Takshashila website for more details]

Thanks to a substantial initial donation from Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of Arghyam, we could start much faster than we otherwise could.

So that’s the preamble. This year was our year zero—the year we got off the ground.

We launched our policy research programme and by January 2011, we expect to have more than a dozen fellows. A number of bright younger people have joined us as research associates. Fellows and research associates are spread across the globe, have day jobs and collaborate with each other over the Internet.

Our Executive Programme on Strategic Affairs (TEPSA) was got off to a start in December 2009, with a full-day programme for senior defence officials, in partnership with the National Maritime Foundation. TEPSA partners educational institutions, think tanks and private companies to train executives on public policy subjects. We will be doing more of these in 2011.

We inaugurated our Roundtable Conclave programme last month. Here the idea is to engage civil society by moving high-quality public policy discussions out from New Delhi into the towns and cities of India. We started in Bangalore, and intend to take the programme into other places over the next several months. The idea is to connect individuals who are interested in public affairs to be part of an informed and influential national community.

All this, of course, is in addition to our online initiatives at the Indian National Interest (INI) platform of blogs and on twitter. From the time we started, popularity and site traffic has never been our objective. We just wanted to put out the most credible, non-partisan opinion on what we think is in India’s national interest. And we will continue doing so.

Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review, a monthly magazine we started in April 2007, and which Rajeev Mantri’s Quill Media has been distributing print copies of since October 2009, is now into its 46th issue. Like at Takshashila and INI in general, Pragati has attracted a fantastic team of energetic, passionate and committed individuals, and great set of contributors, all working pro bono. From the editorial team to individual contributors, nobody gets paid. Yet Pragati has become one of India’s most well-regarded publications on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. In 2011, we want to increase the circulation of both the digital PDF edition and of the printed copies.

Since August 2010, I have personally been working on the Takshashila initiative on a full-time basis, thanks to a good friend’s personal sponsorship. I have been fortunate to receive encouragement from a number of people who saw value in what we are trying to achieve. Even so, such a step would be impossible if not for both the support and reality checks imposed on me by my wife…and well, by my children.

Takshashila needs your help in every one of the areas I’ve written about. We need financial support to build our endowment fund so that we can hire the best graduate students to work on cutting-edge policy research. We need organisers and volunteers across the country to help organise our roundtable conclaves. We need you to subscribe to Pragati, take out gift subscriptions and in general spread the word around.

It’s about building an institution that will last. It’s about being a lighthouse that will provide direction to all ships that are willing to navigate by its beacon. Two-and-half millennia ago Takshashila was the intellectual fountainhead not only of Indian statecraft but indeed of all walks of human endeavour. It’s about creating one for modern India.

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Look who needs the Indian state!

So “mobile, independent republics” need the protection of a “corporate, Hindu, satellite state” Ha ha!

Others have written about Arundhati Roy’s latest, successful hijacking operation. Her cameo appearance in the service of the cause of Kashmiri Sunni Muslim separatism has transformed the debate from being about Jammu & Kashmir to being about freedom of speech (especially hers). So it is unclear whether the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani will invite her to speak at the next seminar they organise.

More seriously, while her remarks have backfired on the cause she ostensibly supports they have wildly succeeded in drawing attention to her—heck, even The Acorn is moved to write about her. But this post is not about her being more than just a rebellious self-promoting intellectual stuntperson. Nor is it about the wrongness of her angry opponents breaking her flower pots.

This post is about the vacuousness of her claims of personally seceding from India and declaring herself a “mobile, independent republic“. The problem with mobile, independent republics is that they don’t last more than as long as it takes to break a flower pot. For all her grandstanding against the Indian state, Ms Roy (well, her husband) “lodged a complaint at the Chanakyapuri police station, following which police personnel were deployed outside the residence.”

The mobile, independent republic couldn’t even protect itself. It (well, its husband) had no choice but to turn to the corrupt, human-rights-abusing, uniform-wearing personnel of “the corporate, Hindu, satellite state.”

But then, the mobile, independent republic has a case history of irony deficiency.

This incident tells you why Arundhati Roy is wrong at the most fundamental level. The Indian state might be imperfect, but presents the best way to protect the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. Its faults must be identified and publicised—not to build a case for its dissolution, but to organise efforts for its improvement.

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