India’s Soft State

- An Albatross Around the Polity’s Neck

Assessing Nehru Legacy – V

Continued from “Outdated Colonial Administrative System”

Thanks to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, albatross – otherwise a beautiful (though trifle heavy) seabird – has, metaphorically, come to denote a psychological burden tantamount to a curse. In the poem, you’ll recall, an albatross started following a ship, which was fairly common. In fact, being followed by an albatross was generally considered an omen of good luck. However, a mariner shot the albatross with a crossbow, which is regarded as an act that will curse the ship. And that’s what happened. So,

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Something very similar, my countrymen, happened to us. Conchs were blown profusely and coconuts broken aplenty, when on August 15, 1947, India’s Ship of State was launched on the high seas of Independence. (Actually, as chimes of that fateful midnight hour died an unidentified member blew a conch shell of the kind used to summon the gods to witness a great event. Instantly a great cheer arose.)

In Shallows

The man at the helm was Jawaharlal Nehru. He was supposed to steer the Ship of State to a pre-determined destination – supposedly spelled out in the tryst with destiny address to the nation. Instead, over the years he navigated the ship, in the Bard’s words “in shallows and in miseries”.

Why did all this happen? The hand on the helm wasn’t firm. The State supposed to bring into being profound socio-economic changes morphed into what sociologists call a Soft State – a glib euphemism for a passive and reactive role where levers of power were usurped by business-as-usual vested interests.

Fortunate, indeed, are the countries that have their Founding Fathers, i.e., those who laid the cornerstones of their polities, still around to steer the ship of the state as well. United States, for example, is one of them. Four of the seven commonly referred to as the Founding Fathers – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – were fortunate to get elected as Presidents to have a decisive say in the evolution of the institutional infrastructure to give shape and form to their dreams.

The Indian polity shares this distinction with the United States. Jawaharlal Nehru, who under Gandhi’s leadership, not only played a significant part in the Independence struggle, led the country for the first seventeen years as its Prime Minister. And it was in that capacity that he shaped the curves and contours of the polity that he bequeathed to the country. He takes, thereby, the prime responsibility for the gap that exists between what our polity could have been and what it actually is. And the most important attribute of that gap is the deplorably Soft State that India is today.

Soft State

The now-too-all-familiar term ‘soft state’ was coined by the Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal in Asian Drama, his path-breaking study of post-Independence South Asian countries. He used it to describe India as a pre-eminent example of this new nomenclature of political vocabulary. According to him, a Soft State represents a general climate of “indiscipline” in society which obtains in South Asia and, by extension, much of the developing world elsewhere. It stands in sharp contrast to the kind of modern state based on rule of law that had emerged in Europe after the British Glorious Revolution.

In a Soft State, according to Myrdal,

... all the various types of social indiscipline which manifest themselves by deficiencies in legislation and, in particular, law observance and enforcement, a widespread disobedience by public officials and, often, their collusion with powerful persons and groups ... whose conduct they should regulate. Within the concept of the soft states belongs also corruption (Myrdal, Asian Drama (1970), p 208). (Italics added)

Myrdal attributed this phenomenon to destruction of many of the traditional centers of local power and controlling influences under foreign rule and the failure to create viable alternatives by the colonial powers. Combined with this was the development of an attitude of disobedience to any form of authority which stood in the way of achieving independence from alien rule. This attitude persisted even after independence.

Let me illustrate this by Gandhi’s example. He had based his non-violent struggle for independence by flouting British laws. But after Independence, he didn’t care to tell his countrymen that they must henceforth strictly follow the laws of land to uphold the authority of the State. Under such a dispensation there was no place for threats of fast-unto-death if a particular demand wasn’t conceded. On the contrary, he himself went on fast to extract certain decisions from the Government of the day. And following his example others resorted to this stratagem and continue to do so.

Vested Interests

Additionally, Myrdal pointed out:

Soft States are dominated by powerful interests that exploit the power of the State or government to serve their own interests rather than the interests of their citizens. Policies decided on are often not enforced, if they are enacted at all, and in that the authorities, even when framing policies are reluctant to place obligations on people.

No wonder the beneficiaries of the Soft State were (and continue to be) “rent-seeking” oligarchs or rich and powerful politicians and their families working in cahoots with other vested interests.

Baneful Legacy

As the first Prime Minister of India exercising unchallenged full control and authority over the apparatus of State, after Gandhi’s disappearance from the scene, Jawaharlal must take full responsibility for India’s effortless slide into a Soft State. And this, unfortunately, has been Jawaharlal Nehru’s most baneful political legacy to India.

In his famous treatise The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli posed the difficult question that all wielders of power have to face: should the ruler(s) “be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved.” His sane advice was: “It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” (Italics added.)

At the folklore level the loved/feared polarity in our society has, traditionally, been comprehended with the rulers of the day described as mai-baap i.e., nurturing lovingly AND (when necessary) commanding sternly.

The rulers in the Soft State crave only to be loved. Hence, their extreme reluctance to take action that might displease their numerous constituents.

Unfortunately, not only were the foundations of the soft state laid in the 1950s when Nehru was at the helm of affairs, but its 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 monolith that no ruling party thinks of doing anything to dismantle and replace it. All they do, therefore, is to accept it as it is, and use it as much as they can, to their maximum short-term political advantage.

Myrdal called this as “dichotomy between ideals and reality, and even between enacted legislation and implementation”.

One very significant attribute of a soft state 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 endure.

Gandhi’s Role

Some observers of the Indian scene have attributed this attitude to the Gandhian ideal that social reforms should be brought about by a change of heart, and not through legal compulsion. Indeed, Gandhi did believe that non-violent resistance was a weapon to bring about a change of heart. Let me take two examples.

When Gandhi was in Calcutta (as then spelt) in August 1947, the town was engulfed in one of its worst communal orgies. Gandhi not only wanted to stop this senseless frenzy but also bring into being a change of hearts. Before going on a fast to achieve this he wanted a prominent Muslim leader of Bengal to join him in this Herculean task. For this he turned to Shaheed Suhrawardy, a prominent Muslim leader who had been Chief Minister of undivided Bengal. He was a sharp critic of Gandhi, whom he described as “that old fraud.” Gandhi invited Suhrawardy to join him in the attempt to bring peace to Calcutta.

Together they went around to areas where Muslims had been killed and thrown out. Gandhi persuaded the Hindus to invite their Muslim brethren back. And they did – a miracle it seemed in that communally surcharged atmosphere.

The next was the turn of visiting a Hindu suburb where the victims were Muslims. When the Hindus refused to oblige Gandhi he
brought Suhrawardy forward, and stood with one hand over his shoulder and the other resting on his granddaughter’s shoulder. The critical moment came when a Hindu youth shouted at Suhrawardy: “Do you accept the blame for the great Calcutta killing of last year?” “Yes,” replied Suhrawardy. “I do accept that responsibility. I am ashamed of it.”

The miracle had happened as The Statesman reported: “Remarkable signs of a return to communal amity after a year of bloodshed were seen in Calcutta last night and early this morning. Almost unbelievable scenes of fraternity and rejoicing were witnessed in some of the hitherto worst-affected areas of Central and North Calcutta….”

And that is cited as an example of change of heart. But was it really? After a few weeks that incorrigible political crook that Suhrawardy was, fled the country for greener pastures of Pakistan of his dream. And his conduct there, including political somersaults, is a well recorded chapter of history.

The second example cited about the change of heart thesis is Gandhi’s fast in Delhi – and as it turned out to be the last of his life.

The capital of India to which Gandhi returned from Calcutta was seething with acute communal tensions after independence. Hindu refugees from the Punjab were pouring in the capital in their thousands in search of new roof over their head. And they were acutely aware of what uprooted their lives. There were frequent clashes.

Gandhi went on fast on the January13, 1948. This turned out to be the last fast of his life. It lasted till January 18th . One of his demands was to transfer Rs. 55 crores which was Pakistan’s share of sterling balances, which Patel had withheld. Actually, the immediate reason for the fast was his demand that the mosque in Mehrauli - the shrine of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Chishti – occupied by Hindu refugees be returned to Muslims.

Political leadership, deeply concerned about Gandhi’s state of health, mustered enough inter-communal support to appeal to the Mahatma and extend him an assurance of change of heart among citizens of Delhi. All but the extremely naïve knew that it was a political farce, anything but a change of heart.

Indeed, Gandhi didn’t believe in imposing decisions. Instead, he believed in genuine conviction and strict self-discipline. The Gandhian “change of heart” may or may not 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 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 had he been around when it evolved. The Nehruvian soft state cannot be attributed to the Gandhian change-of-heart legacy alone.

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 a systematic population control program, 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.

Continued to India’s Soft State – The Almighty Paradox We’ve Lived With 


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3532      Comments: 3

Comment I fully concur with the evaluation of Nehru's legacy by Mr. H. N. Bali. The brilliance, understanding, and analysis of recent history by Mr. Bali is superb. I might add he is very balanced in his efforts without demonizing the first Prime Minister of India. Let me add that these ideas I read here are not new but part of discussions among college students during late 20th century in India. I just want to caution that Nehru failed as a PM does not mean the answer is Bhajrangi nationalism we hear so much about today. Majority of Indians knew this, that is why they tolerated Nehru's inaction and incompetence at governing and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty he perpetrated on the nation.

P. Rao
12-Sep-2015 20:24 PM

Comment excellent analysis and very convincing argument - must read for all patriotic minds
damages need a lot of time to be repaired quick action needed

rama rao

Dr V V B Rama rao
08-Sep-2015 21:20 PM

Comment Mr.Bali,thanks for this excellent article.
May be people will think twice before paying undue respect to those who destroyed HIndustan from the start.
The sad state of affair what pains Hindustan today, is the result of Nehru/Gandhi joint effort to appease the minority community at the cost of majority community.
Nehru was more interested in womanizing and getting recognition like a Noble Prize for peace.Gandhi might be a good person but complete failure as politician to work for the cause of the HIndus.
The rate of growth of Muslim population is going to have a dire consequence in next 30 to 40 years. The future Pakistan will include parts or whole of Bihar,UP,W.Bengal,Assam,Kerala and -----.
The pseudo secularists,leftists are trying their best to hasten the process.
Only way out is for the HIndus to unite irrespective of caste,creed etc.
Bande Mataram.

Buddha D.Rudra
26-Aug-2015 22:43 PM

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