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!

International Relations – The Board Game

The players are not playing on the same game board

Image: Nitin Pai/The Acorn/The Takshashila Institution

This is a graphic that I use for my lectures on international relations to illustrate the point that the players see the game board differently. How a player sees the board not only influences that player’s strategy but also influences his perception of others’ actions. The point is simple enough, but many are conditioned to believe that everyone sees the board just as they do. Of course, it does not mean that states act rigorously in accordance with these stylised models—it means that no student of international politics can be oblivious to their existence and influence.

Reading the Arthashastra: R P Kangle’s magnificent work

Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)
Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)

R P Kangle’s three volume compilation, translation and commentary on Kautilya’s Arthashastra is actually in print and available from the venerable Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. (Well, the flaky website requires you to create an order, then email it to the publisher with your credit card information, but it worked).

Leafing through the text, you realise that they don’t make scholars like Professor Kangle anymore. For this is not merely a translation of an old Sanskrit manuscript, but a veritable product of scholarly detective work, attention to detail, reverence of the classical language, mastery of it and of English, and, not least, a labour of love. As M V Rajadhyaksha writes in a volume commemorating Professor Kangle’s birth centenary:

He was a single-minded perfectionist, and not a scholar in a hurry. And he worked on his project silently. He would not make the solemn and self-complacent noises a publicity – hunting, ambitious scholar would make…

The Kautiliya Arthashastra, in three volumes, was first published by the University of Bombay in 1955. The second edition followed soon. The work sold well but the royalty Kangle received from the University was pitifully small. Motilal Banarasidass, the Delhi publishing house famous for its publication of books in the field, offered to publish the next edition. The third edition (really a reprint of the earlier edition) brought Kangle the handsome royalty of sixteen thousand rupees, a princely amount in those days. And Kangle donated the entire amount to the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bombay in grateful acknowledgment of what he had derived from the library, which had been like a second home to him, particularly after his retirement from the Educational Service. That he did this when the pension on which he had to subsist was quite meagre—and when his family responsibilities had not lessened appreciably—speaks much of his selflessness and of his unwillingness to translate his scholarship into easy money. [M V Rajadhyaksha/Perceptions on Kautiliya Arthashastra]

The first volume is an authoritative compilation (in Sanskrit) of Kautilya’s Arthashastra from a number of manuscripts and fragments. The second is an annotated English translation. The final volume is a scholarly discussion on the text and the debate and controversies regarding the book and its famous author.

The text of Rudrapatna Shamasastry’s 1915 English translation is readily available on the internet; but R P Kangle’s work is newer, deeper, more thorough and the ultimate resource for those who want to understand the roots of Indian statecraft.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Reading the Arthashastra: The rule of law

The science of punishment and the science of government

The concept of dandaniti, variously translated as the science of punishment, the science of chastisement, and in Dr Shamasastry’s translation, even as the science of government may be better understood to be the imposition of the rule of law. Dandaniti is central to Rajdharma—the morality of governance—and is discussed at length in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya suggests why and how the rule of law ought to be applied.

That sceptre on which the well-being and progress of the sciences of Anvikshaki, the triple Vedas, and Varta depend is known as Danda (punishment). That which treats of Danda is the law of punishment or science of government (dandaniti).

It is a means to make acquisitions, to keep them secure, to improve them, and to distribute among the deserved the profits of improvement. It is on this science of government that the course of the progress of the world depends.

“Hence,” says my teacher, “whoever is desirous of the progress of the world shall ever hold the sceptre raised (udyatadanda). Never can there be a better instrument than the sceptre to bring people under control.”

“No,” says Kautilya; for whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable. For punishment (danda) when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment; while punishment, when ill-awarded under the influence of greed and anger or owing to ignorance, excites fury even among hermits and ascetics dwelling in forests, not to speak of householders.

But when the law of punishment is kept in abeyance, it gives rise to such disorder as is implied in the proverb of fishes (matsyanyayamudbhavayati); for in the absence of a magistrate (dandadharabhave), the strong will swallow the weak; but under his protection, the weak resist the strong. [Arthashastra I:4]

In other words, Kautilya eschews a harsh imposition of punishments in favour of their measured but efficient use.

Now it is not known whether Ravikiran Rao referred to fourth chapter of Book I of the Arthashastra but his article on counter-terrorism policy in this month’s Pragati but some of his arguments reflect the Kautilyan view—especially the need to have a co-operative citizenry.

Beyond terrorism, there is abundant evidence that the modern Indian state is failing in its practice of dandaniti. In this week’s Economic & Political Weekly, Andre Béteille has an excellent essay on constitutional morality in India, where he says that the people of India “are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without discarding the one or the other”. When even the chiefs of India’s famously disciplined armed forces brazenly disobey orders issued by constitutional authority, and internal security is almost entirely cast in the framework of competitive communalism, you know that the pendulum is well into the populism phase. A swing back towards constitutionalism is way overdue.

Even if Prof Béteille is right and endless oscillations are destiny, the modern day dandaniti should aim to keep their amplitudes small.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.