Three thoughts for the Republic

On standing to reason, avoiding more moral panic and guarding against coercive majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Our Republic is founded on Reason

Of course, government and citizens must uphold the Constitution and live by its lights. That said, every law, every statute and every clause is and ought to be subject to public reasoning. For instance, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the existence of multiple personal laws, the low bar to what is considered sedition and indeed the advice against cow slaughter — to name a few contemporary issues from our penal code and Constitution — must be re-examined in the court of the latest knowledge and understanding of the world. They should stand only when they stand to reason. [The Hindu]

On not letting moral panics consume us

Moral panics in radically networked societies are likely to be intense, personal and, of course, transient. It is unclear how they will affect public policy: politicians and bureaucrats can overreact to what they see as popular demand, or contrarily, tend to ignore what they see as a temporary fad among the digitally connected population. Either way, there are risks. Politicians and parties need to keep their ear to the ground as well as have a finger on the pulse to function effectively. If they lose it, or are confused, the results are unpredictable.

Unfortunately, we know little about how to manage and defuse ordinary moral panics, less these social media-driven recursive ones. We have to grope our way out of the darkness. The stakes, especially for us in India, are high: it is not only about sustaining the conditions for economic growth and transformation. It is also about preserving our constitutional values: As Mr. Desai warns, albeit in another context, there is a risk of how “using the instrument of democracy, fear and divisiveness are likely to triumph over ideals and inclusiveness”. [The Hindu]

The risk from coercive majoritarianism

…we find ourselves in the midst of coercive majoritarianism and the backlash against it.

Yet, it would be dangerously wrong to believe that Hindu majoritarianism is the only game in the country. Like competitive intolerance, majorities everywhere are trying to assert themselves by pushing their agenda onto everyone in their space. We see this in many states: Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Maharashtra, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. It is also happening in villages, towns and urban neighbourhoods, although we do not see it because the national media do not cover it. Everywhere there are trends of a social consciousness that seeks to respond to diversity and pluralism by imposing a majoritarian order. Democracy is offered as justification for this. But India is a republic in addition to being a democracy. This means that there are certain basic values — like individual liberty and fundamental rights — that cannot be pushed over because the majority of the population so desire.

Coercive majoritarianism is a dangerous trend because, like intolerance, it is competitive. It comes at the cost of individual liberty. Conversely, only the relentless defence of individual liberty and constitutional values can counter coercive majoritarianism of the current time. Unfortunately, few political parties and leaders can relied upon to fight majoritarianism, for the simple reason that siding with it is a easier route to power. Perhaps that explains why parliament is discussing “intolerance” rather than the real problem—coercive majoritarianism. [On coercive majoritarianism]

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The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on

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

and on Independence Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Leave it at the tactical

Media-fuelled public outrage must not determine New Delhi’s strategy on the tensions along the Line of Control

Success or failure in a contest between two states is not measured by merely by the relative numbers of soldiers killed or bits of territory gained or lost. It is measured by the relative well-being of the people in the states concerned. What is the national interest if not “the well-being, prosperity and happiness of the nation”? The Arthashastra puts this in pithy terms: “The possession of power and happiness in a greater degree makes a king superior to another; in a less degree, inferior”.

Since the nuclear tests of 1998 and the Pakistan’s invasion of Kargil, leading to a brief border war in 1999, there has been a fairly commonplace lament in the popular discourse that India is unable to “do anything” to respond to Pakistani provocations. Let there be no doubt—Pakistani provocations have been many, they have been systematic and they have caused the nation physical, social and psychological harm. Let there be no doubt that India’s responses have been more restrained than they need to be—not least to a predilection among India’s prime ministers to see the need for “a peace process with Pakistan”. Let there also be no doubt: a flawed logic—the presumption that the Pakistan they do the peace process with is the Pakistan that attacks us—informs this policy.

Even so, by most measures, Indians in 2013 are better off than their Pakistani counterparts (see this Gapminder chart). This is despite the UPA squandering a good part of a benign decade and bringing the economy on the verge of a fiscal crisis. This is despite the neglect of governance reforms and bringing the polity into a wrenching political churn. Pakistan, for all its provocations and too-clever-by-half exploitation of its ‘geopolitical positions’ is back into the international doghouse it was in. It is being devoured by its own domestic monsters, without the need for any help from India.

So folks, we are winning this one.

Back in 2003, in a conversation with Sameer Wagle, a friend and intellectual sparring partner, this blogger had argued that the solution to our problems from Pakistan is economic reform. In fact, as argued in this Pragati cover story, Reforms 2.0 is our China policy, our America policy, our Europe policy and every-other-country policy. From this perspective, the UPA government’s abandonment of the reform agenda is its biggest foreign policy failure.

The purpose of national defence is to ensure that India’s growth and development can take place undisturbed. Defence policy is not an end in itself (a point that Pakistan has missed).

The recent escalation of tactical conflict between India and Pakistan at the Line of Control comes at a time when India is in the grip of a grand moral panic and political flux. The media and public discourse tends to rapidly end up in outrage and anger. For this reason, it is all the more important to be more careful and dispassionate and not precipitate actions that might end up being self-defeating.

First, it is important that the Indian side does not give Pakistan an opening to end the ceasefire along the Line of Control. For if the ceasefire goes, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will rub its hands in glee and attempt its strategy of the 1990s—essentially infiltrate men and war material into Indian territory under the cover of armed conflict. The broader situation is a lot like the 1990s, as ranks of the jihadi alumni from Afghanistan begin to swell in 2014, and though the Indian armed forces are better prepared than two decades ago, who needs the resumption of a proxy war?

Second, it makes sense not to disturb the adversary when he is making a mistake. Pakistan is in deep turmoil. A number of internecine rivalries are tearing the country apart. It will get worse in 2014 when international troops leave neighbouring Afghanistan and the militants no longer have a foreign enemy to fight. It is hard to predict which way Pakistan might go, but it is smart not to give the warring factions a reason to join forces and focus on a common enemy in the shape of us.

Third, let the armed forces sort out the tactical game along the Line of Control away from the media glare. The Indian Army has been engaged in this conflict for decades and is well-aware, well-trained and well-equipped to handle the matters. General Bikram Singh’s statements make this amply clear. The army “reserves the right to retaliate at a time and place of its choosing”. This is as it should be. It is imprudent, risky and counter-productive for media-fuelled public outrage to force the army’s professional assessment.

None of this is an argument for the manufactured and contrived ‘peace process’ activities. Rather, that New Delhi must use the detente to its strategic advantage. What the public debate ought to be about is not how New Delhi plans to react to a tactical attack but to chart out how it will exploit the detente to strengthen India’s strategic advantage.

Finally, one of India’s strategic projects has to be the systematic containment and eventual dismantling of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. So much of New Delhi’s policy is short-term, the here and the now. Worse, India’s public discourse is even shorter—momentary surges of awareness and emotion on one issue that quickly lapse and move on to the next one. All the more important then, for thinking Indians, to never forget that the military-jihadi complex must be destroyed.