Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The curse of a soft state

Democracies can remain healthy only when there is rule of the law, and when there is an efficient state machinery

The horrific rape of a young girl in a New Delhi bus last week has led to understandable public fury. The arrogant response by the political establishment has made matters worse. There is something perverse in the way the Indian state cannot protect citizens but turns its fury against youngsters who have taken to the streets to protest against this failure.

There are two principal ways in which societies encourage good behaviour—social norms and formal laws. Economist Kaushik Basu once explained the difference between the two with his usual pithiness: paying the bill after a meal at a restaurant is the law while tipping the waiter is a social norm. The Indian equivalent would perhaps be the distinction between the danda niti of Kautilya and the dharma niti of Ashoka. Most societies use some combination of the two to check malevolent behaviour.

India is currently in a twilight zone when the traditional social norms have lost their resonance while modern values based on individual liberty have not yet gained acceptance. Social norms are usually the first line of defence. The frail power of social norms necessarily means that the law has to play a more important role. And the state machinery has to be more effective in carrying out its constitutional duties.

What this means is that India needs a strong state at a time when social norms are too weak to be a deterrent against malevolent behaviour, or even more benign transgressions such as driving on the wrong side of the road or jay walking. So there is a good reason why much of the current debate is either focused on better policing or stricter punishments each time a woman is attacked.

Unfortunately, India is a soft state rather than a strong one. The rule of the law is weak. Economist Gunnar Myrdal had warned against this several decades ago, though in a different context. Myrdal wrote about how India is burdened with social indiscipline, corruption and weak law enforcement. Not much has changed since then; in fact, matters are far worse than they were in 1970.

Civil libertarians may recoil at the thought of a strong state, but it may not necessarily be a threat to individual liberty. Democracies can remain healthy only when there is rule of the law, and when there is an efficient state machinery to protect the average citizen. What we currently have—a soft state and weak social norms—is the worst of both worlds.

Soft state or societal anomie: what is responsible for the mess in India? Tell us at