It was the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal who, in his monumental study, Asian Drama, coined the much-used term ‘soft state’. He described India, in particular, as a pre-eminent example of this new nomenclature of political theory. Soft state, according to him, is a polity in which “policies decided on are often not enforced, if they are enacted at all”. In such a state, moreover, even while framing policies, the rulers “are reluctant to place obligations on people”. This reluctance, he said, often “excused and, indeed, idealized”, the soft state that, according to him, prevails in India today. And the creation of such a State has been Jawaharlal Nehru’s baneful political legacy that we have almost uncomplainingly lived with, in the last half a century.
A country may have a soft state on account of special circumstances. However, as an when the opportunity occurs it does necessary course correction; rectifies the lapses to shed the stigma of a soft state and acquire thereby attributes of a modern polity where the State plays, as and when necessary, a positive role. Ours is not only just a Soft State but what I would describe as a Nehruvian State, which is a polity (like modern Indian State) where a State having become soft, reconciles to that status for ever, making no effort whatever to change course, however pressing the compulsions to do so.
Machiavelli had pointed out since a State cannot be both loved and feared; the rulers of the day have to make a choice. According to him “it is far safer to be feared than loved.” The Nehruvian state on the other hand bends backward to be loved by doling out freebies than be feared by dishing our punishment for not complying with the laws of the land. A stage comes thereby when the fear of non-compliance falls by the wayside and laws of the land are only for the statute book, and not for enforcement.
Wittingly or unwittingly, not only were the foundations of the Nehruvian style soft state laid in the 1950s when Nehru was at the helm of affairs, but the superstructure too was put in place — a superstructure that those who followed him found exceedingly hard to dismantle even if they ever intended to. In fact, they (most notably his daughter), added copiously to it, so much so that today it has become such a mammoth that no ruling party can even think of doing anything to pull it down. All they do, therefore, is to accept it as it is and use it, as much as they can, to their maximum political advantage.
Myrdal called this as “dichotomy between ideals and reality, and even between enacted legislation and implementation”. In a soft state there is “an unwillingness among the rulers to impose obligations on the governed”. This unwillingness is the legacy of the Nehruvian soft state that we are condemned to live with for the foreseeable future. Some observers of the Indian scene have, confusedly, attributed it to the Gandhian ideal that social reforms should be brought about by a change of heart, and not through compulsion. Gandhi did indeed believe in it. Non-violent resistance was the weapon he deployed to bring about a change of heart.
Unfortunately, often was such a declared change of heart beguilingly bogus. For example, a political double-dealer like H. S. Suhrawardy having a change of heart after a day’s fast with Gandhi in Calcutta, is highly unlikely — if he ever really observed it in the first place. And all this just on the eve of August 15 1947 when Calcutta sat atop a volcano ready to spew communal lava. Suhrawardy was merely using Gandhi as a tool and Gandhi was too ready to be duped because he wanted to clutch at some straw. Indeed, Gandhi didn’t believe in imposing decisions. Instead, he believed in genuine conviction and strict self-discipline.
The Gandhian “change of heart” may be true of persons but can hardly be the basis of State policy. The proclivity of leaders of a soft state not to impose obligations on the governed is more to do with what Myrdal himself diagnosed as “corresponding unwillingness ... to obey rules laid down by democratic procedures”. Gandhi was never guilty of that. In fact, he would have been the first to speak up against the creation of the soft state if he was around when it emerged.
Soft Options a Way of Life
The genesis of the Nehruvian soft state cannot be attributed to the Gandhian legacy. Nehru has to take the full responsibility for it. He was, all through his Prime Ministership, supremely devoid of the will to do what given circumstances called for. He preferred to live in the realm of good intentions. The world of reality and its difficult problems, scared him as it were. His failure to legislate a uniform civil code, initiate population control, launch a meaningful assault on illiteracy, adopt measures for agrarian reforms are only a few examples of the man’s unwillingness to take hard decisions even when he enjoyed overwhelming mass support. Resorting to soft options was, it appears, his way of life.
In a soft state the leadership invariable opts for soft option. There are examples galore in the history of the last six decades since Independence of such options, which Jawaharlal Nehru and his descendants adopted.
Take, to begin with, the acceptance of June 3, 1947 plan to partition India. The juicy bait that the wily Viceroy dangled out before both Jinnah and Nehru was immediate transfer of power. The terms of the plan and their short, medium and long-term implications just didn’t matter to both. If the country was being divided on basis of religion that the Muslims of UP and Bihar were vociferously advocating, then why on earth were they allowed to stay back to wait for another day to play their communal card. Forcing them out to go to live with their fellow brethren was the hard option and acceptance of status quo, the soft, supine option. Indian leadership opted for the latter.
Nehru was modernistic in declaration of intent. He is on record to have said:
The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, in India and elsewhere has filled me with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests.
However when it came to implementing the vision, the soft option of status quo prevailed
If Jawaharlal was genuinely determined to forge a nation of Indians irrespective of their religion, the obvious option was a uniform civil code for all who lived in India. Instead of adopting it, the proposal was stashed in the never-to-be implemented Directive Principles of State Policy—the list of high sounding intentions contained in Part IV of the Constitution of India, that are not enforceable by any court.
Shah Bano Case
On 23rd April 1985, the Supreme Court passed a historic judgment in Mohammed Ahmed Khan v/s Shah Bano case which made waves all over the country. The judgment was passed under section 125 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 that the destitute divorced wife is entitled for maintenance after divorce, would be applicable to Indian Muslims.
A howl went up from India’s Muslim politicians as if the judgment ordered an extermination campaign of the faithful. Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister had parliamentary majority but not the backbone required to stand up against Muslim obscurantism. So, principle and Constitution be damned, he rammed a “Muslim Women Act” through Parliament, reversing the Shah Bano decision.
The Nehruvian genes in the grandson determined the decision to cave in. In fact, whenever a hard choice faced the family, their instinctive response was to opt for the soft choice.
Take our relations with Pakistan. We have fought four wars with our prickly neighbor: in 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999. After months of war and hundreds of casualties every time all what happened was status quo ante bellum. You don’t have to be a strategic expert to know that a war in not a picnic. A nation goes to war in the last resort i.e., when all other options have been exhausted with a view to clinching matters. But not that in our case. On super power intervention, we’re every time in square one as if nothing had happened. The basic cause of the conflict remains unresolved.
Yes, the 1971 war was different primarily because Bangladeshis were indeed all determined to cast off the yoke of Pakistani domination and the Indian Army was led by a General who vehemently believed that a war is fought in the last resort, and to win. But then again, instead of going in for the hard option in round of final settlement i.e., insisting on converting the LOC in J&K into an international border to resolve the conflict once for all, Mrs. Gandhi acquiesced into accepting the softest (and slipperiest) of options, namely, choosing to be taken in by the glib promises of an unscrupulously crafty political operator which Bhutto was.
It must be said to Vajpayee’s resounding credit that in the Kargil operations he steadfastly refused American offers of intervention and firmly held his ground till the May-July 1999 Operation Vijay was successfully over.
Let me take three crucial political decisions to show how the path of soft option has become a firm attribute of the polity which indeed augurs ill for the future. And these three deal with the all-too-important issues of India’s national language, the Kashmir issue and our national reservation policy.
Take, first, the national language of India. The Constitution of India states that “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.” However, neither the Constitution nor Indian law specifies a national language, a position supported by the Gujarat High Court ruling.
All through independence movement Gandhi had stressed the need of a national language and maintained that Hindi is the only language which could be adopted as national language because this is a language spoken by majority of the Indians. It has the potential of being used as an economic, religious and political communication link. The Constitution makers had deliberated the issue of Official Language in detail at the time of framing the Constitution. It was decided that Hindi in Devanagari script should be adopted as the official language of the Union. At the time of framing and adoption of the Constitution, it was envisaged that English will continue to be used for executive, judicial and legal purposes for an initial period of 15 years i.e., till 1965.This was prescribed after detailed deliberation so that necessary arrangements could be made for smooth language transition. The Constitution makers were conscious that language transition in all the fields may not be possible by 1965. They also had the far sight to allow the use of English along with Hindi during the first 15 years.
The framers of the Constitution had envisaged that Hindi with the help of other Indian languages would evolve as a composite language, capable of being accepted by people living in non Hindi speaking regions.
Later on, in view of the antipathy of Southern states, particularly Tamil Nadu, the 1963 Official Languages Act was enacted. It provided for the continued use of English even after the year 1965.
Now does it mean it should continue forever? After sixty-five years of Independence we continue with the muddle. English is the language of no more than 10 per cent Indians. Can we let this anomaly continue? The fundamental reason is the unwillingness to take a hard decision and implement it.
Take the controversial Article 370 of the Constitution which the so-called secularists want to retain forever. The very wordings of the Article and its title “Temporary provisions with respect to the State of Jammu and Kashmir” are both significant. They imply that it was designed as a temporary or provisional arrangement. That temporary provision has continued for sixty-five years. The question to ask is how temporary is temporary.
In its election manifesto in 1999 BJP showed remarkable political courage to declare that if returned to power, it would abrogate this controversial Article. However the inherent Indian proclivity to opt for soft options made the Party to keep its enforcement in abeyance for cobbling up a political alliance to have its third shot at governing the country.
Lastly, take the case of reservation which in most societies is a form of affirmative action designed to improve the well-being of the backward and under-represented sections. In India it commenced when the Constitution became operative. However, what was envisaged to last a decade has become a complicated formula to help backwards forever. It is guided more by electoral considerations than any other criteria. It is now like crutches which may have negative impact in longer run.
Enforce, Not Make New Laws
Any untoward happening in our society is accompanied by chorus of demand for a new law to deal with it. Take the extensively covered brutal gang-rape of a paramedic in December last year. All sorts of suggestions for a new law to deal with rape inundated social media.
As the bench of Justices D. K. Jain and J. S. Khehar of the Supreme Court pointed out last week there was no need to amend existing laws relating to rape since legal provisions already provided for completion of the trial within two months. “It is all about the implementation. The only thing you have to do is to implement the existing laws.” No further laws or amendment to existing legislation is required. Their Lordships should have pointed out that the fault lies following the soft option of dragging the cases on. What is required the determination to execute the existing law.
Interestingly enough, the CJI’s of India share an endearing trait with retired senior bureaucrats. They candidly admit that something is terribly wrong in the Kingdom of Denmark. Things perhaps weren’t too bad till they were around in the corridors of power but the day they stepped out things took an irredeemable turn for the worse.
PN Bhagwati, a former CJI, tells us “our judicial system is crashing under the weight of arrears and... is almost on the verge of collapse.” Indeed, the subordinate courts, the High Courts and the Supreme Court are over-burdened with pending cases. Our judicial system has failed to provide justice to a large number of people though they are eager to settle their disputes amicably. The number of pending cases in the High Courts runs into lakhs; thousands of them are pending for more than five years. The Union Law Minister once disclosed in the Lok Sabha that 4,11,000 cases were pending before the 17 High Courts. The number has increased considerably since he made that statement. The anxiety of the litigants can well be imagined.
The civil society would like to know what brought into being this deplorable state of affairs?
Monster of Terrorism
There is indeed a deep connection between our Soft State culture and the monster of terrorism that poses a grave threat to the very existence of the polity. Remember the case of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who had the distinction of being India’s first Muslim Home Minister in VP Singh’s Cabinet in 1989. Within few days of his assuming office, his third daughter Rubaiya was kidnapped by terrorists. Very well timed indeed! Almost looks pre-arranged! Five seasoned terrorists were released in exchange of Rubaiya. Wonderful deal indeed; and a great precedent-setting event.
So, when on December 24, 1999, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based terrorist group, hijacked an IA aircraft, the Government had no qualms to strike a deal. After India released three dreaded militants in its custody the passengers of the aircraft were released.
You may recall what a State like Israel which doesn’t believe in soft options, did in Operation Entebbe, that memorable counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the Israel Defense Forces at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on 4 July 1976 to rescue Israelis taken as hostage.
Why on earth, after all these years we have not been able to arrest Dawood Ibrahim? Everyone knows he lives in and operates from Karachi. It is there that he married his dear daughter to cricketer Miandad’s son. Israelis would have got him from hell itself if he had wronged the Jews.
It's basically a matter of attitude.
Our attitude does not reflect a national resolve to pay the price required to fight terrorism. That's our problem. We were not ready to pay the price when the hijacked plane landed in Amritsar. We were not ready to pay the price when it reached Kandahar.
We enacted a series of special legislations to combat terrorism - MISA, DIA, DASCA, NSA and TADA. But all these were allowed to lapse. Due to several lacunae in our governance, our system of enforcing the rules of law suffered, amply indicating our softness in fighting terrorism.
DIG police A S Atwal was shot from behind and killed on 25 April 1983 by militants when he was coming out of Golden Temple after paying obeisance and with Karah Prasaad in his hands. He was unarmed. Police could have walked in to arrest Bhindaranwale and his associates. But it didn't happen and things came to such a pass that operation Blue Star became necessary. This would happen only in a Soft State, which as Myrdal pointed out breeds cynicism among the ruled who know nothing will happen after some protests and official promises.
According to Myrdal, the Nehruvian Soft State had no determination or courage to change prevailing attitudes and institutions that stood in the way of reform and development. As a result, it couldn’t frontally attack, for instance, the institution of caste or take “measures that would increase mobility and equality, such as effective land reform and tenancy legislation”. Other examples include its inability to eradicate corruption at all levels; enforce tax laws; effectively tax income from land and in general, enact and enforce all other obligations on people required for development.
One direct consequence of this softness has been the tremendous growth of left-wing extremism in recent years, which Manmohan Singh called the “gravest internal threat” to the country’s security. Thanks to the soft state that is fast becoming a failing one, the specter of left-wing extremism or Naxalism casts its shadow over 150 districts in the country, affecting nearly 40 per cent of India’s geographical area and 35 per cent of its population.
The next time you celebrate beloved Chacha Nehru’s birthday, don’t forget to raise a toast to the legacy of the Nehruvian State that he bequeathed to modern India.
Continued to "Debasting Instititions: Fault Lines of the Polity"