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A young woman is raped in an abandoned Mumbai textile mill. A dysfunctional Parliament unites to pass a law that will guarantee cheap food to two out of three Indians. A campaigner against superstition is gunned down in Pune.

There is evidently little to connect these three disparate events that attracted so much public attention in recent weeks. However, there is a subtle pattern here that tells us a fair bit about the nature of contemporary India.

Let us first consider the initial two issues. The assault on the young woman is just the latest example of growing crimes against women. It reveals the failure of the Indian state to undertake its most important duty of protecting citizens against violence of all sorts. Yet that has not seemingly stopped our political class from loading even more responsibilities on a government structure that is already weak because of years of neglect; the guaranteed entitlements to information, employment, education and food are to be provided by the same ineffective state that cannot even keep the streets safe.

The economist Indira Rajaraman has perceptively noted in a recent newspaper column that the European welfare state came into being only after the states there had successfully done their primary job of providing public goods such as safety that each citizen can benefit from. One followed the other. An ineffective state layered on a fractured society has also ensured that Indians prefer government programmes to benefit their limited group rather than public goods that have broader benefits. Think of this image from any Indian city: expensive cars that run on subsidized petrol are parked on streets full of potholes.

The problem has deep historical roots. Even as we despair of the inability of the Indian state to do its basic duties, it is also worth remembering India has usually had a weak state. The great Magadhan state based on the rules of Kautilyan realism many centuries ago was a rare example. The modern republic is thus an attempt to break away from the burden of history.

China stands out in contrast, with its uninterrupted history of a strong state that was only sometimes punctuated with relatively short periods of political chaos. The Indian state has suffered from both a lack of capacity as well as a weak revenue base. For example, Tirthankar Roy has shown in his wonderful The Economic History of India that colonial India in the second decade of the 20th century had far weaker tax revenue as a percentage of its economic output than other British colonies such as Malaya or Ceylon.

All successful modern nations meet three key requirements: an effective state that has a monopoly of violence, public affairs are run under the rule of law which treats everyone alike, and the state is accountable to its citizens. Ask yourself how contemporary India fares on these three parameters, which have been put forth by political thinker Francis Fukuyama. It is likely that most readers will give the Indian system low grades on all three.

India survived despite a weak state only because affairs were run by local social norms that coordinated public behaviour. The problem here is that many of these informal norms are riddled with caste and gender inequities—and should have a diminishing role.

The founders of the Indian republic were quick to spot the dangers here. The constituent assembly debates have several warnings about how India needs a liberal political culture to ensure that it does not merely become a country with the paraphernalia of democracy. The most eloquent words of caution came from B.R. Ambedkar, who warned that India was taking a brave risk of trying to graft a liberal constitution on a fundamentally illiberal society.

How can these traditional social norms be reformed? This is where the third event mentioned at the beginning of this column comes in: the murder of Narendra Dabholkar. He was trying to reform attitudes on the issue of superstition, and was part of a long tradition of social reformers who had argued that political independence would be less effective if traditional social norms on issues such as gender and caste were not reformed. Pune—the city where Dabholkar was shot—was the epicentre of these grand debates at the end of the 19th century.

India is currently in a sort of twilight zone. It neither has a strong state that will impose the rule of the law nor has it been able to reform traditional social norms that do not consider women to be equal members of society. It also has a political class that has undermined the Indian state even as it keeps piling it with new responsibilities. These are not problems that have easy solutions, but much is to be gained by going back to the wisdom of the men and women who gave us a liberal constitution—their commitment to constitutional rules, personal probity and social reform.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns

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