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Sanjeev Sanyal: At 60 - Rethinking the Indian State

We need a 'strong' but 'limited' state

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It is now 60 years since we became a and the came into being. Yet, each passing day brings fresh evidence of the state’s inability to respond to threats to its citizens: witness the daily in eastern India, jehadi terror from Mumbai to Kashmir, the “parole” for Manu Sharma, the rampant poaching of tigers, and our apologetic response to Chinese pressure on Arunachal. These are not mundane failures in the provision of public services but go to the heart of what we should expect of the Indian state.

Back to basics
We tend to expect a lot of things from the state — from defence of our borders to clearance of garbage. We also expect it to actively promote economic “development” and a myriad of social objectives. Therefore, we have given the state very wide-ranging powers. However, the Indian state is clearly unable to deliver on most of these expectations. Instead, we have ended up with a weak but all-pervasive state that does not have a clear set of priorities. Since it does not have a clear set of priorities, we cannot judge its performance and hold it accountable. What is worse is that unscrupulous individuals have been able to subvert the powers of the state to serve their own ends.

The first thing we need to do is to decide what is the most important role of the state. Robert Nozick, one of the 20th century’s most influential political philosophers, was of the opinion that the first responsibility of the state is to protect its citizens against violence, theft and fraud as well as to enforce contracts. Indeed, Max Weber defined the state as the apparatus that has the monopoly over the use of force in a given territory. A state that cannot enforce this monopoly is not a state at all.

This echoes the traditional Indian notion of the state. According to Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the maintenance of law and order and the dispensation of justice is the science of government. Similarly, as has argued in his latest book, the one thing that the Kurukshetra War teaches is that there will always be individuals like Duryodhana and society needs to curb them with force, if necessary. Being “good”, like Yudhishthir, is not the state’s first mandate.

Contrast this with the bewildering responsibilities that we have burdened the modern Indian state with. I am not arguing that the government should abandon all other responsibilities but merely pointing out that the maintenance of order and dispensation of justice (including enforcement of contacts and the protection of property rights) must be the starting point. Today’s Indian state fails miserably at this basic responsibility — witness the moribund legal system, and the usurpation of power by non-state actors like the Naxalites.

In short, I am arguing that the Indian state must be “strong” and it must restore its monopoly over the use of force. This includes the urgent reform of the police, legal system and the administrative apparatus. This is far more important for the country’s economic and social future than spending on various government “development” schemes. As puts it, “Progress in this world depends on governance and on the maintenance of order.”

A strong state is not without its own dangers as there is always a risk that it may become totalitarian (we experienced this ourselves during the Emergency). This is why other democracies have put serious limits on the powers of the state. The need to limit the powers of the monarch (i.e., the state) has been an important aspect of the development of British democracy since the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta Libertatum, signed in 1215 AD, literally means “The Great Charter of Freedoms”. Similarly, the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution ensures that powers that have not been explicitly granted to the federal government will continue to reside with the people.

India took many things from the British and American constitutions but there is a general assumption that the rights of the people need not be defended against a benign state. Thus, the “benign” state is allowed to interfere with all aspects of the nation’s life and individuals are expected to fall in line for the greater good. The most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon was the attempt to accelerate economic development through socialist planning and industrial licensing. However, this attitude is evident in all aspects of public policy. Till 2001, the citizens of India were not officially allowed to unfurl the national flag — even this was the prerogative of the state. Although industrial licensing was abolished after the crisis of 1991, the overall statist framework remains in place. This provides ample scope for corruption and misuse. Virtually no Indian trusts the country’s politicians and civil servants. Why then do we give them so many powers that are not essential to general governance?

The ‘strong’ but ‘limited’ state
The limited state should focus on two broad areas. First, it should focus on framework issues like defence, internal security, policing, justice, foreign policy, monetary policy, financial regulation and so on. Second, it should provide for public goods where market-solutions will clearly not work — environmental protection, public health, and so on. The Indian state should be encouraged to make sure that it does a good job of these before it attempts anything else.

There is often a presumption that a limited state that focuses on institutions of governance is somehow less concerned about the welfare of the common citizen than the interventionist state. In turn, this flows from a belief that the enforcement of contracts and property rights mainly benefits the rich. Nothing can be further from reality. The rich and powerful will always find ways to protect their interests (as Manu Sharma’s “parole” clearly demonstrates). The properly functioning legal framework is mainly in the interest of the poor. This is not a new thought. In Arthashastra, Kautilya points that the failure to provide justice leads to Matsanyaya — the law of the fish where the big fish swallow the small.

Kautiya’s vision has a great deal of relevance even today. For instance, take the Naxalite insurrection in eastern India. Conventional wisdom is that this is due to the lack of jobs and the so-called “development”. In reality, it is about property rights and the exploitation of the region’s natural resources with the active connivance of the state. In Nandigram, the local people were not asking for jobs and government schemes. They merely did not want to sell their land to a government that was arbitrarily using its powers of eminent domain. As can be seen, the solution for India’s current problems does not lie in the welfare schemes of a weak and all-pervasive state. It lies in a state that jealously guards its monopoly over the use of force in its territory but at the same time, is limited in how it can intervene in the lives of its citizens.

The author is President, Sustainable Planet Institute & Sr. Fellow, WWF

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