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Article in The Financial Express
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan

National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

High time we rejuvenate the republic
(November 18, 2005)

The shocking events of Jehanabad amply demonstrate the precariousness of the Indian state. Equally worrying, the abject failure of the state could undermine our quest for rapid economic growth. We are in a classic conundrum—only rapid growth will ease social tensions and promote peace and harmony; but unrest, violence and social conflict are seriously impeding growth, and exacerbating regional and social disparities. In that sense, the Indian economic engine is at the crossroads: it could derail if we do not set our house in order; or it could accelerate if the roadblocks are removed. The future depends on the nature of the polity’s response: will it be business as usual, or will we rethink the nature of politics and the role of the state?

One invaluable lesson of Jehanabad is that the political process, governance, economic growth and social cohesion are inseparable. As Mythili Bhusnurmath points out (FE, Nov15, 2005), even OECD countries can’t escape the consequences of extreme inequities and political failures.

The critical failing of post-Independence India is our inability to clearly define the state’s role. This failure led to three unhappy consequences.

First, the state failed in vital functions, and ended up discharging its many new responsibilities ineffectually. Predictably, its capacity diminished, rule of law has been eroded, might has become right, and violence, real or implied, became the arbiter in social, political or economic interactions. It is no secret that people despair of getting justice in our courts, and either suffer silently or seek the shelter of criminal gangs or corrupt policemen to provide rough and ready justice for a price. There is now a market demand for criminals in our society. These organised criminals in turn have acquired levers of state power in a permissive political system. The parties needed unaccountable money power, muscle men and the local caste clout that armed gangs bring. The criminals needed state protection and control of the law enforcement wing. These mutually reinforcing needs have criminalised political process, seriously undermining our democracy and rule of law.

Second, with the state’s excessive role in economic decision- making and commerce, politics of pelf, privilege and patronage became the norm. In a licence-permit-quota raj, phenomenal greed has overtaken the state functionaries, and rent seeking has become pervasive. Robert Wade explained this phenomenon as a ‘dangerously stable equilibrium.’ The system is resilient, as the price paid by an individual for non-conformity is unacceptably high. It is dangerous, because the society as a whole paid a far greater price for such conformity. Unsurprisingly, public office has become a marketable commodity, and vast and unaccountable sums are invested in acquiring power by any means. Politics has largely become big business and public office is private property. Officials’ transfers and placements, kickbacks in public procurements, and partisan control of crime investigation are now the chief manifestations of power.

Such abuse of power has further eroded the state’s capacity to enforce rule of law. The state machinery is increasingly perceived to be illegitimate, and this is fuelling violence and disorder. The violence takes many forms, depending on local circumstances, but at the heart of this anarchy and easy recourse to guns is the perceived illegitimacy of the state apparatus.

Finally, with state failing in sensible allocation of resources and management of public services, education and healthcare suffered grievously. In the 60s, there was still hope for poor rural children. Opportunities for vertical mobility were available, and the hope of a better future made drudgery and pangs of poverty bearable. With the relative decline of public services, that hope yielded to despair. Even those who had a smattering of education have not been equipped with useful skills to be able to participate in wealth creation. After all, true wealth lies in production of goods and services to fulfil genuine human needs. There are probably more than 20 million ‘educated’ youngsters in India with no employment. This mass unemployment is a recipe for violence and chaos. Despair quickly leads to violence, particularly as unearned money replaces true wealth creation.

The roots of violence and lawlessness are indeed deep and widespread. Maoist expansion is just one major manifestation of it, with over a tenth of India under the sway of ideological violence. There is violence of other forms in several other pockets, and the underlying factors are similar. Short-term responses to restore some semblance of order and peace wherever and whenever violence breaks out are certainly necessary. But they are wholly insufficient to address the underlying malaise.

Are there reasons for optimism? Of course, there are. Despite all these perversions, ours is a ‘functioning anarchy’, as Galbraith characterised it decades ago. Economy is growing faster than ever before, though large segments and regions are left behind. The expanding middle class, the communications revolution, and the growing youth power are powerful forces of change. While institutions of state have under-performed, democratic process retains its vitality, as evidenced time and again. These factors give us both stability and opportunity to engineer and manage massive transformation of our polity and society.

The agenda is self-evident—restoration of rule of law and justice; comprehensive political and governance reform to alter the incentives in power and improve delivery, and massive efforts for human development and infrastructure.

All these are well within our capabilities as a nation. And our republic is in crying need of such rejuvenation. Can we summon the leadership, will and skill to galvanise the nation into action?




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