Jul 11, 2021 • 18M

#135 The Nehruvian Ideal 🎧

Dilip Kumar and India, and the Tinbergen Rule

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Frameworks, mental models, and fresh perspectives on Indian public policy and politics. This feed is an audio narration by Ad Auris based on the 'Anticipating the Unintended' newsletter, a free weekly publication with 7000+ subscribers.
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While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways.

Audio narration by Ad-Auris.  

Pranay was on this week’s The Seen and the Unseen discussing all things public policy with ace podcaster, writer and thinker, Amit Varma.

India Policy Watch: Dilip Kumar And India  

Insights on burning policy issues in India


Dilip Kumar passed away this week. You might wonder why should that matter to a public policy newsletter. Well, there are reasons. For one, he has featured more than once in our past editions where we have used his films to clumsily make broader points about the choices we have made as a nation. The other reason is great artists shape our collective identity and contribute to national consciousness. It is no surprise a lot of what has been written about Dilip Kumar this week has touched on this part of his legacy. I guess it will be in fitness of things for me to write one last piece on his legacy and how intertwined it is with our post-independent history.

I’m not going to tread new ground here. If you go past the usual hyperbole about his ‘method acting’ ways and how he had to seek medical support to get over his ‘tragedy king’ persona, you will find the more serious commentators usually hold forth on three aspects of his career. First, how he was the embodiment of the Nehruvian ideal of India. Some went all the way to call him Nehru’s hero. Second, how his film ‘Naya Daur’ marked the high noon of India’s tryst with Nehruvian socialism. And third, how in his death we have lost the last link with an era that was marked by idealism and innocence.

I think these are all relevant themes that should be brought up while discussing his legacy. But my reasons are a tad different from the popular narrative.

Nehruvian Ideal

What did it mean to be the Nehruvian ideal of India in the years after independence? Nehru, Ambedkar and other members of the Constituent Assembly drafted the Indian constitution as a project of radical forgetting of our past. This, to them, was necessary to build a new India. But a radical forgetting of the past for a land as old as ours isn’t really an option. So, it was paired with the notion ‘reawakening from slumber’ which Nehru used in his tryst with destiny address. Nehru set the template for the reimagining of a new nation-state. Benedict Anderson reached a similar conclusion in his book Imagined Communities. Like we wrote in edition #62:

Benedict Anderson defined the nation as a social community that’s imagined by people who believe they belong to it while being different from other such communities. Every newly formed nation has to define this imagination. And at that stage, it faces a choice. Or, as Anderson puts it, a paradox:

“The objective modernity of nations to the historians' eyes vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.”

This is a tough ask especially for nations that are formed after a period of struggle. There’s a strong desire to start from a clean constitutional slate while paying homage to ‘subjective antiquity’ in areas outside the bounds of law and statecraft. 

We concluded the following about the reimagination project of a newly formed nation:

  1. Newly independent nations like to make a new start that represents a break from the continuum of their history.

  2. Nations or communities that have a long history which can’t be wished away so easily use the trope of slumber and reawakening to represent the departure from the past.

  3. Historians are pressed into service to reframe history that shows the past events to be serving the nation-building or myth-making objectives of the present.

To me Dilip Kumar was a Nehruvian ideal because he contributed significantly in mainstreaming this project of reimagination through cinema. His ‘natural’ style of acting, specifically his enunciation and dialogue delivery, were a marked departure from the theatrical or the singing style that was popular till then. Though Ashok Kumar and Motilal before him had started the trend, Dilip Kumar was a class apart. His style marked a break from how we watched and assessed a performance. Secondly, as much as he represented a new beginning, he also fitted the trope of reawakening. He was well read, he spoke on a wide-range of issues with acuity and he could quote from Indian, Persian or English literature with equal felicity. Lastly, as an artist, he contributed to the reframing of history and serving the myth-making objectives. His film persona of a sacrificing lover or son, his popularity among the masses who could see past his religion in the years right after partition violence and his social contributions (charities, supporting the troops etc) - they all contributed to the strengthening of the syncretic culture or the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb which was part of the reimagination project of Nehru. He was indeed the Nehruvian ideal.

On Naya Daur

I have written in edition #28 how Naya Daur is a fascinating film about the choice we made between the Gandhian ideal of a self-sufficient village economy that would reform itself organically versus the Nehruvian vision of a state-led modernisation programme that was inherently suspicious of a society rife with deep prejudices and discrimination.

But many claim it to be a great example of Nehruvian vision. They have either not seen the film or have no idea what Nehruvian economics was all about. As I wrote then:

……Naya Daur is, in fact, a stinging riposte to the Nehruvian state. It asks a fundamental question that had split even the Constituent Assembly – who should be the primary agent of change to modernise India? The state, the society, or the market? In siding with the society, Naya Daur seeks a rethink on the role of the state intervening in the lives of its people.

We had a choice to make on how to modernise our society. Change from within or induce it from outside?

….The enlightenment values of liberty, freedom and equality that philosophically underpinned the western democracies were difficult to root in the Indian intellectual or social context. Democracy, with equal rights to all citizens, was, therefore, an audacious gamble. But we chose that radical end.

All that remained was what means should we adopt to change India?

The market was quickly dumped as an option. The imperialist plunder that was seen as the handiwork of markets, the influence of Fabian socialism and the apparent miracle of central planning in the Soviet Union were enough to silence the pro-market voices. One would have assumed that the Gandhian vision centred on the society would have seen the market — that emphasises the merits of voluntary exchange between individuals — in more favourable terms. But that was not to be either.

The society and the state, therefore, were the two poles around which the debates coalesced. 

We chose a top-down approach to change. Change will have to be driven as a programme of the state. That was Nehru’s central planning mantra.

The statists won. Our constitution was to be more than a legal construct. It was to be a tool for social revolution engineered by the state. And, so began a schism in the Indian polity. The state was run by liberal-minded modernists who viewed the customs and traditions of the Indian society as impediments to progress. The common citizenry, on the other hand, viewed the rootless elite presiding over the state as a substitute of the colonial power who would ‘rule’ over them with, possibly, greater benevolence.

At the heart of Naya Daur is a battle between human toil and the efficiency of the machine. Should a village accept a motorised bus or should it continue with horse-driven tongas?

…..The usual last act drama ensues with man winning the race against machine. Dilip Kumar sums it up at the end when he claims the villagers aren’t against machines but want them in their lives on their terms. Let the society decide how it wants to change.

Naya Daur was a film against the intervention of the state who would like to change the society from the outside. It was an anti-Nehru film in that sense.

The role of the state has remained a principal axis of divergence in the Indian political discourse. These faultlines have greater salience today as the society questions the shibboleths on which the constitution and the modern India project was built. That favourite question of Amit Varma in his superb podcast The Seen and The Unseen – whether a liberal constitution was imposed on an illiberal society – is timely as the democratic mandate seems to offer legitimacy to the efforts of diluting the constitution.  

Naya Daur was a huge commercial success. Not merely because the underdog won. Rather, it showed a mirror to the foundation of Indian society. The reflection we saw confirmed our biases. We weren’t as bad as the state made us out to be. Naya Daur has a message for the liberals who wring their hands in despair about the path India is going down today.

The society isn’t the problem. Within it, possibly, lies the solution.  

End Of An Era

It will be hard to argue with the passing away of Dilip Kumar we have lost something precious that linked us back to the years of hope and idealism post independence. But I would suggest that era had begun its decline from the 80s and was well and truly forgotten in the past decade. What remained was buried this week.

So, what was this era about and what ended this week? I wrote about this and the notion of farz in edition #30:

In his later years, Dilip Kumar often played an agent of the state (judge, police commissioner etc.) who would place his farz above everything else. In these roles, where he effortlessly blurred the lines between method acting and sky-high racks of piled up ham, Dilip Kumar would often shoot to kill or sentence to untold misery his own kin. Shakti, directed by Ramesh Sippy, is the prime example of this genre. 

But I have always argued that the farz of agents of the state stems from their incentives. It often used to be at odds with their personal values.

The state drove the agenda for change in society through the right set of incentives. Classic public choice theory at work.

The foundational premise of modern India is that the state is ontologically prior to the society. The state should create legislation and structures that shape and change the society. Its agents who emerge from that society itself have the incentives to adhere to the philosophy of the state regardless of whether it aligns to their personal convictions.

This created an unstable, yet desirable, equilibrium in India. The state was founded on values of equality, redistribution, secularism, fairness and social welfare. The society from where agents were drawn hadn’t fully accepted and internalised these values. So, you had free-market economists drafting socialist policies or an enlightened district magistrate who preached social equality at work but practised discrimination at home.

But as the economy liberalised, the state lost its overbearing grip as the primary provider of employment and its ability to set the societal agenda. This had an unintended consequence.

The liberalisation in the 90s led to the creation of a large middle class that didn’t depend on the state for its livelihood. This freed them from the incentives designed by the Indian state. The free-market incentives aren’t the same as that of the state. It rewards efficiency and value creation. For the middle class now, there was no need to live the dichotomous life their parents led – of having a professional code that was different personal code. Liberals are often surprised how well-educated professionals working for MNCs turn out to be bigots. The answer is simple. The state couldn’t change the society as it had expected. And, once the incentives from the state stopped mattering to the citizens, the mask dropped. You didn’t need the state for anything. So what use the code that it set?

There’s no farz to adhere to because there’s no incentive.

Further, the nature of the government running the state has also changed.

You can argue the democratic mandate now is for the idea that the society is ontologically prior to the state. This changes the incentives for the agents of the state too. No longer do they have to align their ethics to that of the state. The state itself is being made to align its incentives to that of society. So, you have a scenario where both, those who depend on state and those outside it, have no conflict between their professional and personal codes.

So, what has ended with Dilip Kumar?

For new India, a great actor of the past whose films were slow and sad is no more. That’s about it. Life goes on.

But what about for a generation and more who grew up believing the ideals of the Indian state as it was founded on? Those who invested in the idea of India that was shaped by Nehru?

For them, the death of Dilip Kumar is a painful reminder of how things were, how they could have been and how far we are now from those ideals. Their loss is palpable.

Like Shakeel Badayuni wrote in the Dilip Kumar sci-fi starrer Uran Khatola (1955):

चले आज तुम जहाँ से, हुई ज़िन्दगी परायी

तुम्हे मिल गया ठिकाना, हमें मौत भी न आयी


You have left this world today and we are bereft. You found your destination while we continue living in despair.

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A Framework a Week: One Instrument, One Target

Tools for thinking public policy

— Pranay Kotasthane

In edition #9, I had identified multi-objective optimisation as the bane of policymaking in India. The key claim was that policies and institutions fail when they are laden with several objectives, resulting in a system that fulfils none. I had given three examples of instruments that fail this test in India —tax policy, traffic police, and MGNREGS.

Turns out, a more elegant way to formulate this intuition is the Tinbergen Rule. It states that to successfully achieve 𝑛 independent policy targets at least the same number of independent policy instruments are required.

A corollary of the Tinbergen rule is the assignment principle. Once a policy instrument has been mapped to a policy target, it becomes unavailable for pursuing other targets.

The idea is simple in theory but tough to execute in practice. Forget governments, even smaller organisations burden one project with several targets. As Kelkar & Shah write in In Service of the Republic:

Clarity of purpose is efficient for the principal and not the agent. It is our job, as policy thinkers, to hold the metaphoric feet of every agency to the fire, and hold it accountable for a narrow set of goals associated with a narrow set of powers.

This principle results in a three-rule heuristic:

  1. Reduce the number of targets that the State is held accountable for.

  2. If #1 is not possible, increase the number of instruments or organisations, each responsible for a narrow set of targets.

  3. If #2 is not possible, coordinate policy instruments within the same organisation to achieve more than one target.

The default mode of operation in India is jugaad i.e. #3. #2 requires increasing state capacity. #1 requires a radical reimagination of the State's role, which seems distant given how the welfare state continues to increase in scope across the world.

PS: This is an excellent short paper on the need for administrative coordination even if the assignment principle is followed.


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Article] Nirpal Dhaliwal in the Guardian on Dilip Kumar: “The actor, who has died at 98, gave expression to the intense cultural complexities raised as independence met modernity – with respect, depth and subtlety”.

  2. [Video] From Prasar Bharti archives: Dilip Kumar in an exclusive conversation with Noor Jehan.

  3. [Podcast] The next Puliyabaazi is with Disha Ahluwalia, an archaeologist, on recent findings of Indus Valley Civilisation artefacts.

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