Sunday, May 01, 2011

Good omens for rule of law in India

On April 8, the day before Anna Hazare broke his fast, I was in Cairo to present the ‘Indian model’ for Egypt's future. After the conference, a few of us wandered off to Tahrir Square, where a massive demonstration had broken out. Through a twist of fate, I found myself suddenly on the podium, offering good wishes to the 37,000 protesters from the people of Al Hind. In the next three minutes I tried to convey a lesson from India’s democracy: it is not elections, not liberty, not equality that finally matters; it is the rule of law. Corruption persists in India because the rule of law is weak.

That night at three am I woke up to the sound of gunfire. I thought they were bursting crackers. There was a knock, and my host whispered that the army had moved into Tahrir Square and I should be prepared to flee as my ‘three minutes of fame’ was posted on YouTube. Filled with fear, I quickly changed, picked up my laptop and passport, and waited. I must have fallen asleep because the next moment it was 7 o’clock and I was still alive. I saw a cloud of smoke above Tahrir Square and switched on the TV to learn that the army had left as quickly as it had come, leaving two dead.

I returned home much relieved. My Egyptian adventure made me view our own politics differently. Although I share Anna Hazare’s rage against corruption, I feel ambivalent. However, the arrogant grandees of the political class, who from their private jets and black SUVs, are trying to smear his anti-corruption movement have not understood the limited nature of political power in India.

India has always had a weak state and a strong society. Because political authority was either too distant or irrelevant to its daily life, we never allowed state power to be so concentrated, as in China, that it could reach deeply and change its basic social institutions. The type of despotic governments that emerged in China or Russia, which were able to divest the whole society of property and personal rights, have never existed in South Asia. Hence, India’s history is of relative political disunity while China’s is one of strong empires. Not surprisingly, India became a chaotic democracy after Independence. In the 1960s Gunnar Myrdal called it a ‘soft state’. Today, India seems to be rising from below, marching towards a modern, democratic and market-based future without too much help from the state. It is quite unlike China, whose success has been scripted from above by an amazing state that has built incredible infrastructure.

What is this society that has held India together for centuries? Jawaharlal Nehru defined it in three words: village, caste, and family. It consists of the over half a million autonomous, self sufficient villages; more than two thousand, hierarchical jatis or sub-castes; and the joint family. What is significant is not hierarchy, as most think, but the idea that the group is more important than the individual. India’s society is changing today with power shifting from traditional to the civil society, including media.

The Indian state evolved from a tribal society, and the tribal raja’s authority was limited by his kinsmen. The land did not belong to the king but to the clan families. Even when sovereign states emerged in the 6th c BC, like Magadha, the king’s power was limited by dharma or the law, and by the Brahmin who interpreted the law. The law did not spring from the king as it did in China, but was above the monarch who was meant to protect it. The Raja who violated dharma is called a mad dog in the Mahabharata, and it calls for a revolt against him.

A successful nation must have an effective state and society. A weak state tolerates corruption, creates uncertainty in peoples’ minds, and weakens the rule of law. People generally obey the law because they think that it is fair and applies to everyone equally. But if policemen, ministers, and judges can be bought, then people lose confidence in the rule of law.

The belated arrest of Suresh Kalmadi, the charging of Kanimozhi, and A. Raja already in jail—these are good omens for the future of the rule of law in India. It is now important to try and sentence the guilty speedily. The political class has stone-walled a Lok Pal bill for 40 years. Anna Hazare’s original version was hugely flawed but with persistence we will soon have an effective law. A Lok Pal bill is not a panacea but it is a big step in the right direction. Meanwhile, I feel grateful that India has come a long way. Unlike Egypt, I do not have to fear the army, nor Islamists high jacking our secular democracy.


asanandan said...

Nowadays.. indias rule over corruption has been changed.


Anshul said...

It is so disheartening to see the current state of affairs in our country. Yes, few arrests have taken place but Sir, don't you think that their objective is to serve a larger political porpose than to punish culprits or demonstrate the power of law. There are thousands who still are at large simply because acting sternly on them won't fulfill any ulterior motive of the people with the might (Black money in foreign banks).

V said...

Corruption is a big problem in India. But things are changing. Social change is slow and there is good reason for that especially in the Indian case - a lot of variation across and within states with respect family, caste, religion and community. I am just curious to know what in your opinion can motivate Indian youth to move against blatant corruption? Most are doing what they can but I think there is much more that can be done. Why are some of us still sitting back and watching the show?

absorbing normalcy said...

"india has always had a weak state and strong society"is unfavourable for the country.government should create a legal system that prevent mob rule.courts should supervise all auspects and make law abiding citizens.let judiciary have more importance than community feel that leads to mobster violence.

Sanjay Joshi said...

Sir, your views are informative but when you take "islamists" for destroying our secular democracy, don't you think its no about Islam these anti humane people can be of any religion, though islam is the third largest religion and is witnessing huge growth in terms of population?

Parijat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parijat said...

Political power might be limited, but there is a distinct drive to increase that power. The usurpation of privacy rights with hardly a loud protest is in progress today. With no checks and balances in terms of obtaining court approvals for obtaining private information about citizens from private businesses. In fact, it is not really political power but executive power, which is scarier. Will civil society rise up to this challenge as well?

Kunal said...

Sir.......I do respect and agree with the point you raised on being weak state. I feel (may be wrong or its too early to make conclusion) corruption is strongly rooted in our system or culture. However, it also playing crucial role in nurturing and inculcation of a new ones. Sometimes, we are taking proud on doing "juggad" for something and foolishly advising others to do the same. I am not sure how to get out from this. It is like " there is pain in my knee and I have to live with it, no other option or can't complaint".

Anonymous said...

the change has begun and may be the people have woken up. Thats all that can be said for now!

free classified said...

It's really great post.india has always had a weak state and strong society"is unfavorable for the country.

Anonymous said...

1. Indians obey law naturally? Obviousy sir that is an elitist view. Have you tried living in rural areas of UP - our largest constituency and seen lawlessness defined? Whar about the rising crimes against women - 5000 dowry deaths, 1000 honor killings, countless rapes.. top seling illusions
2. China is a top down country? India is anarchist? Why is that a plus point? Heirarchy in a society is also important - once we agree to live in a society, structure are important. Self governance is a futuristic model - fr that society ought t be more equitably prsperous. Why not go back t hunting gathering ways? Pure anarchy.
3. "Rule of law" is possible in a non democracy. Right since ancient times. Ancient Roman Empire inventd greater systems than Ancient Greece - the later was ore anarchic and creative. The former lasted longer and was also a stronger empire.

We ought to get more "real". Virtual "stories" are ok to sell to the West but even a casual visitor to our country asks why is the infrastructure in shambles, why so many poor?

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Dr Malpani said...

I completely agree with you the rule towards corruption is really weak in India and some corrective measures are required to be taken by experts.

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Shanker Nair said...

Right on !

Well, all I can say after reading all this, is that I'm happy you woke up safe that morning in Cairo. If not, who'd cater to out intellectual lust with such awesome "loaded" articles ?


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It's really great post.india has always had a weak state and strong society"is unfavorable for the country.

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