Assessing Nehru Legacy VI
India’s Soft State - An Albatross Around the Polity’s Neck
Paradoxes bring out the underlying meaning in a fascinating way. In case you’re some reservation, let me elucidate.
Strictly, paradox is a statement that’s self-contradictory because it invariably contains two statements that are (like it or not) both true, but both of them cannot be true at the same time. Do you recall having been introduced to the concept of a paradox in school by the example of a “jumbo shrimp?” If it’s a shrimp, how can it be jumbo? Isn’t it a contradiction in terms? However, a shrimp can indeed be jumbo-sized in comparison to other much smaller shrimps.
Take George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The oft-quoted words “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” are part of the cardinal rules. Clearly this statement does not make logical sense. Does it? However, the thrust of a paradox is to point out a truth, even if the statements contradict each other.
Orwell was trying to make a profound political statement. All governments claim that everyone is equal. Don’t they? However, it’s ostensibly false. Nonetheless, we all have skewed perceptions of what it means to be equal. The interpretation is up to the reader to decide.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark states: “I must be cruel to be kind.” On the surface, once again, this statement does not seem to make much sense. Can an individual convey kindness by resort to cruelty? However, Hamlet is speaking about his mother, and how he plans ultimately to slay Claudius in order to avenge his father’s death. His mother is now married to Claudius, so of course this will be a tragedy for her. However, he does not want his mother to be the lover of his father’s murderer (unknown to her) any longer, and so he believes the murder will be for her own good.
Soft State is another paradox that we have lived with since our Independence? You may wonder how? What is the role of State – what it should do and what it does – and how it came into being, are much-discussed themes of political thought the world over. Surprisingly, there is rare unanimity of approach to the concept of State among diverse cultures. Almost everywhere the State was conceived of by differentiating it from state of affairs in non-State. Ancient Hindu thinkers, for instance, did this by adopting the famous matsya-nyaya or the logic of the fish, the bigger devouring the smaller. As Matsya Puran puts it: “In the absence of the wielder of punishment the powerful swallows the powerless.” Hobbes’ Leviathan describes the state of nature as a state of war and of no rights, where life is brutish and short. Spinoza called it a regime of vultures and harpies. Hence, the need of State as dispenser of the rule of law and protector of individual rights and liberties.
State, therefore, is by definition an enforcer of law and order. And for that it scrupulously ensures that laws, once enacted, are strictly enforced and those who defy the authority of the State are suitably punished.
And now look at the actual state of affairs around us. Chaotic traffic on the roads, brazen defiance of the rule of law in general, abysmally slow and corrupt working of the legal system, particularly at lower levels; reckless political populism, gradual breakdown of the sense of obligations in societal relationships. What they indicate in not the presence of a State but the unfolding of what Gunnar Myrdal called the a Soft State – a euphemism indeed for the namby-pamby administrative system that obtained under Nehru
Let’s have a look, to begin, with our all-too-common daily traffic snarls.
In North America i.e., the United States and Canada, whenever a side road joins the main road perpendicularly, there is a prominent red hexagonal road mark Stop. There’s a similar Stop sign on the main road just before the side road joins it. Having lived abroad for years I never saw a vehicle ever fail to obey the sign even when there was no visible trace of traffic on the road ahead nor a representative of law enforcing agencies. But Stop means Stop. And all forms of traffic must obey. And I have so far never seen any citizen flout the rule.
Even less-crowded four-road-intersections are not fitted with any special traffic control arrangements. Here, self-disciple of the citizens is the regulator. Vehicles stop on all the four roads at the given Stop sign and then proceed on first-come-first-leave basis.
Now let’s take our case. Some time or the other you would have gone to the Delhi domestic airport to take an early morning flight. If you don’t take the flyover and, instead, drive on the earlier ring road parallel to Vasant Vihar, there are almost a dozen traffic lights before you reach the airport. I’ve seen not one car caring to stop at any red light between 4am and 8 a.m. Of course there’s no traffic patrol around in those early hours. Doesn’t it indicate our utter disrespect for law? Obey the traffic rules only if there’s a possibility of being fined, but not for sake of law or public safety.
The above example highlights the stark difference between a hard state and a soft state. As a matter of fact most Indians when they land for the first time in Europe or North America think that they have come from a true free-for-all democracy back home to a totalitarian regime where laws of the land must be obeyed absolutely unconditionally.
In our society laws and regulations supposedly meant for all citizens exempt two special sections of citizenry: first, that very special variety called Very Important Persons like our Hon’ble Ministers, top industrialists and well-connected socialites and, of course, the Gandhi family, including Robert Vadra. The second group is the so-called choti savari – i.e., the pedestrians, cyclists and scooter drivers. Those not included in these privileged categories know how to violate laws and get away by influence-peddling. So, we see enacted day after day the latest version of Edward Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Law?
For its impact on others, recall the famous verse from Bhagavad Gita Chapter III: 21
yad yad acarati sresthas
tat tad evetaro janah
sa yat pramanam kurute
lokas tad anuvartate
(Whatever action is performed by persons in higher echelons, common people tend to do the same i.e., follow in their footsteps. And whatever standards they set by their actions, others adopt the same.)
Let’s take an example from the Western world where, in contrast to our Soft State, a functional State is in place.
In January 2003, Gordon Campbell, Premier of British Columbia – a province of Canada – was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol while vacationing in Hawaii. After the release of the arresting officer’s report British Columbians came to know that their Premier was handcuffed in the back of a police car before spending 8 hours behind bars in a Maui jail. He pleaded guilty. Campbell’s blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. In Hawaii, drunk driving is only a misdemeanor. In Canada, it is a Criminal Code offence. As is customary in the United States, Campbell’s mug shot – an internet slang for head and shoulder picture – was provided to the media by Hawaiian police. The image proved to be a lasting personal embarrassment for Campbell, frequently deployed by his detractors and opponents. Campbell was fined $913 (US) and the court ordered him to take part in a substance abuse program, and to be assessed for alcoholism.
Can this happen in a soft state? Can you imagine the UP police doing the same with Netaji’s heir apparent – or for that matter with one of his cronies?
Babu Jagjivan Ram, the famous leader of Dalits – was a senior member of the Nehru Cabinet. He was so busy politicking that for years he didn’t have time to file his annual income tax returns. Do that in the United States and see what happens! Was any action taken against him? Perish the thought. Laws are meant for lesser mortals like you and me, and not for our Netas.
Politics sans Conviction
Another crucially important attribute of Soft State is practice of politics shorn of convictions. That means all political alignments are the same despite different labels.
Let’s take the case of Labour Party that won the historic general election at the end of Second World War. The Attlee Government was committed to bring about socio-economic transformation of the British society. And as Martin Francis shows in his study, Ideas and Practices Under Labour 1945-1951, Attlee carried out that transformation, including the creation of National Health Service.
And a tribute to that comes from a most unexpected quarter – from someone who did everything conceivable to demolish the Labour socialist edifice. Enamored of her own “convictions”, Margaret Thatcher as Tory Prime Minister for eleven years (1979-90), vehemently disagreed with the Labour nationalization programs. She mentions, nevertheless, in her memoirs that she is an Attlee “admirer”. The Iron Lady’s admiration was famous for its ruthlessness – a quality she had in abundant measure like Indira Gandhi – with which Attlee made his government implement whatever it genuinely believed in. In Attlee’s own memoirs – As It Happened – there is the poignant phrase: “The old pattern was worn out and it was for us to weave the new”. (Italics added). And Labour Government had the courage of convictions to discard the old pattern and weave a new one. (Incidentally, this precisely is the challenge confronting Modi-led NDA coalition.)
Did the Congress Party and Jawaharlal Nehru (in particular) have any “conviction politics” and an action plan on the lines of the Labour manifesto to weave a new pattern of socio-economic relationships? It has been an unmitigated tragedy of Indian polity that its leadership is devoid of convictions. Most regrettably, the only consideration that weighed with those who were called upon after Independence to give a sense of direction to the affairs of the State, was to ensure their own continuation in power, often throwing overboard whatever ideals they had professed before assuming power.
Nehru’s oratorical flourish about “tryst with destiny” notwithstanding, his leadership was devoid of vision. His countrymen, especially his admirers – and there’s no dearth of them – called him an idealist and a visionary. (The term ‘visionary’ is used in Indian politics in a very loose sense to mean a dreamer, almost always unconcerned with how to translate dreams into reality.) In fact, as an attribute of leadership, ‘vision’ has a specific connotation. It is a quality which propels and directs change and, more importantly, defines it and provides its justification with a view to ensuring that all concerned pull in the same direction, allowing, however, room for maneuver at the same time. A truly committed leadership also makes sure that forces inhibiting policy initiatives are thwarted as and when they surface. It is vital to ensure, simultaneously, that the ultimate objective of change must never be lost sight of.
And none of these attributes of visionary leadership (in the real sense of the term) was discernible during the Nehru era.
Similarly, Indira Gandhi’s sole concern was to remain in power. To what ultimate use was political power put to, didn’t figure in her calculations. All the political campaigns that she launched, including “Garibi Hatao” before the 1971 elections and the Twenty Point Program during the Emergency were mere elaborate PR exercises cunningly aimed at maintaining a tight grip on the levers of power. Following basically her political philosophy – though packaged more attractively, courtesy Rediffusion (the advertising agency employed for the job) – Rajiv Gandhi too had no political convictions of his own to bring to bear upon the functioning of the polity.
With a visionless leadership, the Congress Party languished as a political machine. As a matter of fact, with the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family started the ruinous drift of a visionless polity with no convictions of political left, right or center. Despite this drift, if the polity survived it’s because of the inherent strength of Indian society.