Three thoughts on Independence Day

On society, its attitudes and a mantra for improvement

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day:

– Why Tagore said India’s problem is not spiritual, but social:

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.[Our problem…]

– How hypocritical attitudes in our society breed corruption and erode moral values.

Hypocrisy, freedom & corruption
Hypocrisy, freedom & corruption

– And a mantra for the alternative:

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! [The mantra…]


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 Independence Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On social trust, on leaving welfare to society and on the problem of identity-based parochialism

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day—how distrusting fellow Indians and institutions is costing us; why a welfare state is not suited to India; and why parochialism based on identity is our big problem.


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 Independence Day 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

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.

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)

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.

The wages of distrust

Tackling a Mahatma Grade Problem

In a discussion at Takshashila’s Bangalore centre several months ago on what might be India’s biggest problems, I nominated “lack of social trust” as one of the fundamental ones. In today’s new column in Business Standard—the old monthly column on geopolitics continues as usual—I argue that lack of trust is undermining India’s economic growth.

“Widespread distrust in a society,” according to Francis Fukuyama, “imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.” In a 2001 study of 41 countries, economists Paul J Zak and Stephen Knack conclude that “growth rises by nearly a percentage point on average for each 15 percentage point increase in trust.”

According to the World Values Survey, social trust plunged almost 18 percentage points in the first half of the last decade. This suggests India might have lost an entire percentage point of economic growth due to the loss of social trust. So while economists and “policymakers have been sensitive to slowing growth, growing inflation and widening fiscal and current account deficits, few account for the impact of the fall in social trust.” Read the column for what role public policy might have in addressing this problem.

How did other countries fare? Scandinavian countries score very high. Brazil, surprisingly, scores very low. Here’s a chart that compares India, China, Japan and the United States.


Even if social trust in China appears to be declining gradually, the Chinese enjoy much higher levels of trust than the others being compared. The United States seems to be recovering gradually from a plunge in the 1990s. For a country that is relatively homogenous, Japanese trust levels are lower than Chinese, and are comparable to the much more diverse United States. Note, also, that other than the Chinese, a majority in the other countries does not trust other people.

Restoring trust is a Mahatma Grade Problem (MGP) — we can be reasonably sure that public policy alone cannot solve it: the solution has to emerge from society itself. As I write in today’s piece, “even if we somehow found a way to make us trust each other, only one out five is likely to trust the persons advocating the solution. A democracy with high levels of distrust will, thus, find policies hard to implement, especially if they are non-intuitive.”

Addendum: What causes some countries to have greater social trust?

Jan Delhey and Kenneth Newton analysed social trust levels in 60 countries and arrive at the following conclusion:

The highest levels of generalised social trust across the globe are closely associated with a tight syndrome of religious/cultural, social, economic, and political characteristics.

Protestantism, but no other religion, is strongly associated with trust, probably because the Protestant ethic has left an historical imprint on cultures of equality and the importance of consistently trustworthy behaviour.

An absence of ethnic cleavages is also important, presumably because people of the same ethnic background find it easier to trust one another.

Wealthy and egalitarian societies are trusting societies, although wealth seems to matter more than equality.

Last, good government is an essential structural basis of trust. Corruption free and democratic government seems to create an institutional structure in which individuals are able to act in a trustworthy manner and can reasonably expect that others will generally do the same. [Delhey & Newton, Predicting Cross-National Levels of Social Trust: Global Pattern or Nordic Exceptionalism?]