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.