Roll back the Big Indian State and relieve the middle-class

Modi’s words focus attention on an aspect of our lived reality in India: the Big State. (PTI)
Modi’s words focus attention on an aspect of our lived reality in India: the Big State. (PTI)

Summary

  • Prime Minister Modi has expressed disapproval of excessive government interference in middle-class lives. This should serve as a basis for an overhaul of India’s state apparatus. Minimize meddling by the state.

Speaking at an event on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “I want to take the government out of the lives of people. Especially, I don’t approve of government interference in the lives of the middle-class. What is the need of the government everyday and at every step? We should create such a society where government interference is minimal." For the poor, the Indian state would offer support to fulfil basic needs, but for the rest, he said he would end unnecessary intervention as part of his governance agenda over the next five years. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi’s observation of welfare leakages, which squarely focused reformist minds on state inefficiency. Modi’s words focus attention on another aspect of our lived reality in India: the Big State. While “Minimum government, maximum governance" is an oft-cited mantra and ‘Ease of living’ has been a catch-phrase for the administration, his promise will resonate with anyone who has had sarkari encounters.

A list of reforms to roll back the state’s presence in Indian lives could go on endlessly. The principal pain-points, though, are in evidence all around. Take taxation. As its rationale is valid, taxes are inescapable. But how it is levied makes a difference. Not only does it remain far too complex in India, it’s clear that the middle-class bears an outsized burden. In spite of a ‘faceless’ regime to curb harassment by officials, taxpayers whose ‘high value’ transactions are under watch routinely receive notices asking for explanations. And now there also exists a refundable but pointless levy on money sent overseas that varies by purpose and makes one’s overall tax liability even harder to understand. Likewise, the compliance protocols for anyone trying to create a retirement fund can cause chronic exasperation. Frequent know-your-customer (KYC) updates are just one part of it. The Aadhaar system was meant to subsume other requirements, but a fixation with identity verification seems to have led to a proliferation of paperwork needed for asset ownership. Instead of a digital pivot easing lives, files get jammed between old and new systems. The online interfaces run by most sarkari authorities are so poorly designed that unsuspecting users trying to resolve a hitch often get stuck in an infinite loop. The Centre cannot be singled out for all this. In Delhi, for instance, it was the judiciary that had low-emission private cars pushed off the streets by means of an order against old vehicles; and it’s a municipal body that penalizes home-owners who have not been able to geo-tag their property, as demanded, with no help available from policy enforcers.

The state must also commit itself to staying out of the private lives of people. Posts on the microblog platform X suffer excessive oversight, with suspension orders issued every now and then, even as New Delhi’s push against chat encryption jars with the right to privacy. Technology enables an invasive state, but that’s no reason to have one, especially since a colonial law on sedition that survives in a new guise could be misused to stifle dissent, without which democracy can turn dysfunctional. Just as government actions must not abridge free speech (except if lives are clearly at stake), the state has no business prying into private affairs. Should Uttarakhand’s uniform civil code serve as a model for Union-level legislation, even live-up relationships will come under strict regulation. This would flout the basic ideal that Prime Minister Modi endorsed.

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