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Critiquing Gurcharan Das: Why we don't need a strong state

Does India have a strong state? Ask the average Indian, and the answer will likely be an unequivocal 'yes.' From the policeman to the politician to the bureaucrat, we remain at the mercy of its exercise of arbitrary and unaccountable authority. Corruption — recently voted India's number one problem — is a symptom of our leaders employing the state's overweening power. As is the routine violation of  basic constitutional rights, be it our freedom of expression or protection from unlawful arrest. Add to this the plague of crony capitalism which requires a state that is able to transfer vast public resources to private hands without transparency or restraint.

We live everyday with the state's boot on our throat.

And yet Gurcharan Das in his new book, India Grows at Night, argues that the Indian state is not strong enough. How is this so? An essay based on the book's main thesis in Outlook Magazine reveals a confusion of categories, concepts, and institutions. Das starts out by citing Francis Fukuyama's prescription for successful liberal democracy [Read it in its entirety here]:

A successful liberal democracy has three elements, according to Francis Fukuyama in a sparkling new book, The Origins of Political Order. It has a strong authority to allow quick and decisive action; a transparent rule of law to ensure the action is legitimate; and it is accountable to the people. This was the original conception of the state as imagined by the classical liberal thinkers who inspired both America’s and India’s founding fathers.

The accumulation of state power has instead led routinely to flagrant violations of the law, eroding democratic freedoms and enabling ever greater levels of corruption. AP

In one fell swoop, Das conflates the rule of  law with the state, a critical error that runs through the entire essay. For instance, he argues:

The rule of law in India has weakened as a result of populist and patronage politics. There is paralysis in executive decision-making, parliamentary gridlock and the courts routinely dictate action to the executive. An aggressive civil society and media have enhanced accountability in India, but enfeebled the executive. India needs a strong, efficient and enabling state. Strong, because it has independent regulators who are tough on corruption and ensure that no one is above the law; efficient in the sense that it enforces—with fairness and forcefulness—the rule of law; and enabling, because it delivers services honestly to all citizens.

The assumption here is that if the state were indeed strong — and not 'enfeebled' by parliamentary gridlock, judicial activism and an aggressive civil society — it would be efficient and enabling. But our history shows, that a strong state — say, under the authority of Indira Gandhi — has been neither. The accumulation of state power has instead led routinely to flagrant violations of the law, eroding democratic freedoms and enabling ever greater levels of corruption.

Das' solution is to add a qualifying adjective to his prescription, calling for  "a strong, liberal state." But no Leviathan is by nature 'liberal,' as Thomas Hobbes reminded us over three centuries ago. It becomes so when it is subject to the "rule of law" that is separate from and greater than the state. As the New York Times notes, Fukuyama attributes the emergence of liberal democracy in England to this very distinction:

Another impediment to absolute rule in Europe, in Dr. Fukuyama’s telling, was that the concept of the rule of law emerged very early, largely because of the church’s development of canon law in the 11th century. So when strong rulers started to build states, they had to take account of the emerging codes of civil law. Europeans then developed the unusual idea that it was the law that should be absolute, not the ruler. In pursuit of this principle, the English Parliament executed one king, Charles I, and deposed another, James II. This proved a durable solution to the problem of building a strong state, yet one in which the ruler was held accountable.

Das too acknowledges this distinction — but in passing — when he writes, "The law, dharma, preceded the state and placed limits on the king’s power in pre-modern India. The king did not give the law as in China. Dharma was above the state, and the king was expected to uphold it for the benefit of the people." In modern India, however, the law has become the handmaiden to the state. Despite the countless court rulings and verdicts, the multitude of progressive laws on the books, politicians have used the immense power of the state to undermine and circumvent their authority, as opposed to implementing them.

Viewed in this context, Das' new, new epiphany seems as misguided as his older ones:

As a result, I turned from a socialist to a libertarian, passionately committed to individual freedom. I began to believe that the state was “a second-order phenomenon”, at best a protector of what people choose to do in private life and at worst capable of destroying those freedoms. I felt a laissez-faire policy with a limited government would do the least harm to human beings. Now, two decades later, I have realised that I may have been wrong. I’m now convinced that the state is of first-order importance. It can either allow human beings to flourish or it can become the biggest obstacle to their realising their potential. A laissez-faire state, like a completely free market, has never existed and so the real issue is the extent and quality of government regulation. The state achieves this primarily by guaranteeing a predictable rules-based order. My conversion came about at the seeing the nation turning middle class alongside the most appalling governance. The final blow was the economic slowdown after 2010, when India finally hit a wall we began to experience the limits of “growing without the state”.

He's wrong: Indians are not "growing without the state." We are growing in the glaring absence of the rule of law.

Das incorrectly cites Gurgaon as an example of entrepreneurial success that thrived because it was "ignored by the rapacious state government." In fact, there would  be no Gurgaon without the active role of political leaders in facilitating its development — and the vast number of under-the-table deals involved. The state may have failed in its duty to provide basic services to its residents, but it has been the primary mover in driving unplanned, unsustainable growth for personal profit. Just ask the now-disgraced Mr Kanda.

This fallacy is also why Das misreads the Anna Hazare movement as "the most recent example of a historically weak state colliding with a strong society." The protests, more accurately, marked a strong modern state colliding with a civil society challenging the abuse of state power. The concept of the Lokpal — for all its problems — epitomised the public's legitimate demand that the state be accountable to and restrained by the rule of law. And the movement's failure can be attributed in part to our aching desire for one good man who can offer deliverance.

"If it is lucky, India might throw up a strong leader who is a reformer of institutions (Indira Gandhi was such a strong leader, but she was a destroyer of institutions). Since there is no guarantee of a strong leader emerging in a democracy, the next best hope is to create a demand for reform," writes Das. The problem in India, however, is not that we don't throw up strong leaders — there are plenty at the state level right now, if not at the Centre.  But strong leaders tend to be authoritarian, and inevitably strengthen the power of the state at the expense of other institutions, including the law.  Besides, a liberal democracy that relies on the moral character of one person — even a Mahatma — to deliver justice and accountability is doomed to fail in the long run. What sustains the rule of law is the character and strength of its institutions that are stronger and more resilient than individual leaders.

However flawed his path to his conclusions Das does however get it right in the end, when he concludes, "Hence, the demand for governance reform must emerge out of an Indian moral core. The notion of dharma imposed this moderation in pre-modern India and the question is if might help us to recover constitutional morality today."

The Gurucharan Das excerpt, for all its flaws, makes for an interesting read. You can check it out on the Outlook website.

Also: Coincidentally or not, the consequences of this failure to tap into our moral core — and our embrace of material prosperity at the expense of the law — are writ large in Outlook cover story on Hyderabad, the "scam capital of India" whose new motto is “dabbudabbudabbu” (moneymoneymoney).