#23 How to Think About the Indian State

A conversation on what the COVID-19 response tells us about the Indian state and society

This newsletter is really a public policy thought-letter. 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. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

Welcome to the mid-week edition in which we write essays on a public policy theme. The usual public policy review comes out on weekends.

What the COVID-19 Crisis Reveals About the Indian State

— Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley

An unsophisticated way to analyse the actions of a state is to think of it as a person. It has biases and fears, it likes to project a certain image of itself to the external world, it has a code of conduct (however warped), some formative influences that shape its thinking and, maybe, a kind of character, or even, who knows, a consciousness. There isn’t any academic rigour behind this anthropomorphic model. But humour me and just walk along with me for some time.

When things are normal the state, like any other person, plays multiple roles with various masks on – an enforcer of rules at home, a caring presence for those needing help, an ambitious go-getter outside or a woolly-headed idealist. There’s a way a person reconciles these identities either by keeping tight boundaries or through some personal mythology they build about themselves. However, this slips during a crisis. That old cliché – adversity doesn’t test the character but reveals it – holds. In a way, then, a crisis and the response of the state to it is the best way to analyse it. If you buy into this thesis, let’s see what the COVID-19 crisis reveals about the Indian state. And, once we know something about the Indian state, we might have an answer on why the ‘Idea of India’ is the only notion that cleaves political thought in India.

Republic of No

The Indian state, like all states, is coercive. Its power of coercion though works best when it denies something; when it says no. The executive capacity isn’t geared to enable the rights of citizens. But it is very effective at curtailing them. A state derives its legitimacy when it recognizes the ‘reasons of belief’ of its citizens and then exercises its monopoly of force over the citizens in a way that doesn’t repudiate those beliefs. In India, this is easy. The one strong belief among its citizens is that of the state as a ruler with unlimited powers. The Republic of No follows from here.

India responded to the spectre of COVID-19 contagion by suspending entry of international flights and enforcing a 21-day national lockdown when the case count was about 500. This was the earliest any country had placed such restrictions and was seen by many as an overreaction. There’s a generally held view, backed by the evidence of a huge number of ‘avoidable’ deaths, that the value of life is cheap in India. However, this isn’t true. There are also multiple success stories – large scale vaccination programmes, reduction in infant mortality and control over communicable diseases –that suggest the state is effective in reducing avoidable deaths. Also, there’s a collective memory that’s still fresh among people and administration of outbreaks going out of control. All of these meant the state had the will and the people were willing to live with a complete lockdown. This was quite unlike other democracies. Citizens complied and the administration came down heavily on those who didn’t. The local administrative machinery of the district magistrate, gram sarpanch, superintendent of police and the medical officer came together to contain the spread and manually contact trace anyone who might be in danger of spreading the virus. Communities developed their own protocol in restricting movements of their residents and there weren’t any dissenters who protested the imposed lockdown. In fact, those most affected by it, the millions of daily wage migrant earners, walked back to their villages in a sad acceptance of their fates than protest the sudden shutdown. The Indian state and its citizens are most effective when they prevent things from happening.

An Instinctive State

The significant centralisation of power that’s part of the design of the Indian state often precludes a consensus-driven or a planned approach that considers likely scenarios and trade-offs. The upside is that the state can act extremely fast when it deems fit. The downsides are apparent. Decisions are often taken on instinct and repercussions are borne at leisure. Boldness is the measure of a decision, not its impact.

While the lockdown decision was quick and its implementation complete, it was evident within the first 48 hours that the consequences of the decision weren’t thought through. With the economy grinding to a halt and an immediate relief package not in sight, the impact on small and medium businesses has been severe. The inability to provide for migrant workers or contract workforce and the complete shutdown of the inter-state transport system led to a humanitarian crisis and possibly, the spread of the virus in rural areas. There was a delay in trying out other options to flatten the curve like digital contact tracing and rapid testing, widespread distribution of masks and establishing social distancing guidelines at public places which could have provided insights on how to lift the lockdown partially later. Also, the lack of communication on what scenarios could emerge at the end of the lockdown and thinking through an exit strategy was left for too late. Lockdown is the only option was just too strongly communicated. When the restrictions will be partially lifted, we might still have a self-imposed lockdown by the citizens because of the fear instilled. It won’t be easy to get economic activities back because of this.

Reflexively Socialist

The Indian state doesn’t yet see entrepreneurs and industrialists as employment generators and wealth creators. Sure, the state indulges in the rhetoric around this and occasionally rewards them, but it is wary of being viewed industry friendly. The state and the citizens reflexively think of the private sector as exploitative of the labour they use. The line between profiting and profiteering is very thin in their minds.

India has provided for the lowest fiscal stimulus among large economies so far while its economy has come to a standstill. The fiscal package itself had very little for the industry. The monetary package is primarily a deferral of the pain than providing a balm for it. What’s worse the state has used moral suasion since the beginning of the lockdown urging all establishments to not reduce salaries or lay off people. Businesses are boxed in. They don’t have revenues, can’t reduce their costs and won’t get a fiscal relief package from the state. So, in effect, the businesses are funding a relief package themselves. What’s more with the message to private sector to not take any employee action, there’s no groundswell of support for lifting of restrictions among the vocal salaried class. In fact, there is a moral hazard built in right there. So far, the lockdown seems like a state-sponsored trip to purgatory for the private sector.    

Symbolism over Substance

States, the world over, revel in symbolism of flags, emblems, seals etc to create an emotional attachment for its citizens. The states bestow on them meaning drawn from the history of the nation, a cherished ideal or a common value. The symbols remain mostly static but the relationship of the people to them is re-imagined by every generation. The Indian state loves symbolism. The fight for freedom from colonial rule was replete with it because people in India are uniquely moved by it. The Indian state has learnt that lesson well. It isn’t merely keen on static symbols. It actively looks to create new ones.

The lockdown in India has been unique in the way state has orchestrated events and symbols to rally people together at quick intervals. In other countries, in contrast, these gestures have mostly evolved organically from the society. The Italians were singing in their balconies because they collectively felt better doing it. Nobody asked them to. The collective clanging of the plates or lighting of diyas or torches to honour those on the frontlines are the unique contribution of the Indian state to the global pandemic response. The overwhelming participation of the citizens across sections suggest an intuitive grasp the state has about the psyche of its people. It is a powerful tool to effect a change.

The Lone Political Axis

A Republic of no, instinctive, reflexively socialist and privileging symbolism over substance – that’s what this crisis reveals about the character of Indian state. This is also useful to understand why the lines that divide political thought in the western democracies don’t have much relevance in India. Left versus right, liberal versus conservative or libertarian versus statist; these divisions don’t animate Indian political discourse as much. Our core beliefs, that which the state continues to nurture to retain its monopoly over violence, are to be statist, socialist and conservative. Those in opposition to these will remain a minority. It will always be an unequal battle. The real dividing line on political thought in India has always been nationalism. This pits one imagination of the Indian nation with the another complete with their own imagined past, a lament of the present and a vision for an ideal nation.

That old cliché – the idea of India – is where the true political divide in India lies.    


The Instincts of the State are Shaped by the Intuitions of the Society

— Pranay Kotasthane

An exercise in thinking about the state is as much an exercise in thinking about society.  So I want to extend Raghu’s essay and talk more about this relationship.

A key feature of Indian society is its hyper-diversity. In less charitable terms, it refers to the multiple axes along which the society is fractured. This hyper diversity makes collaboration through purely societal means quite difficult. When it does happen, it is viewed with suspicion due to past recollections of group-based exploitation.

With societal collaboration having its peculiar problems in the Indian context, a more widely accepted cooperation pathway is the one where the State is at the forefront. That’s because the Indian elites (taken to mean as anyone with a graduate degree) still harbour an overwhelmingly benevolent view of the state. There are sharp divisions about who should be in power, not so much about what they should be doing.

To draw this out further, there is an old book Public Finance and Public Choice: Two Contrasting Visions of the State in which two legendary economists argue about the role of the state. James Buchanan, one of the leading lights of the public choice theory, is unsurprisingly suspicious of the government. Richard Musgrave, one of the founding fathers of public finance school, views the beneficial functions of the government sector quite favourably. If we think of this as a continuous axis with Buchanan’s and Musgrave’s views as the two extremes, the Indian society has consistently been on Musgrave’s side.

I only have intuitions as to why this is so. One explanation comes from path dependence — the colonial experience makes us inherently suspicious of both businesses and markets (even though both terms mean quite different things). So, the other mechanism through which societies express and fulfil their needs and wants — as against the state — is perpetually handicapped.

The second explanation comes from the social revolution experiment that the Indian state took onto itself after independence (more on this here). Created in the backdrop of a deeply fractured, poor, and unequal society, the Indian Constitution came hardcoded with a social revolution algorithm to transform the equations between individuals and between groups. One unintended consequence of this experiment has been that the state is now seen as the only vehicle for driving any change.

Another point needs to be made about the current context. This vision of the state as a benevolent actor gets amplified when it’s represented by an individual who enjoys charismatic authority — perhaps a consequence of measuring decisions by their boldness than by their outcomes, as Raghu writes.

This is my current understanding of why the state remains our society’s go-to troubleshooter. Less abstractly, it explains why India largely complied with a state-sanctioned lockdown.

Lastly, I do not agree with Raghu’s last point that nationalism is the true dividing line in political thought. At Takshashila Institution, where I teach and research, we believe these are the two most important axes of politics: identity (nativist, nationalist, or internationalist) and freedom (economic, social, and political). Nationalism is just one of the many ways in which identity politics manifests in India.

On somewhat similar lines, Pradeep Chibber and Rahul Verma, in their book Ideology & Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India, claim that the most important ideological debates in India are centred on statism — the extent to which the state should dominate and regulate society, and recognition — whether and how the state should accommodate various marginalised groups and protect minority rights from majorities.

Like everything else, there are many ideas and many Indias that stack up against the phrase ‘the Idea of India’.

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