Sunday, January 08, 2012

A liberal but strong state is need of the hour

The mistake is to think that the current paralysis in decision making in Delhi is limited to politicians. Gutless bureaucrats, risk averse at the best of times, have done as much damage. India’s economy has sound fundamentals and is today one of the world’s strongest, but its confidence has been badly shaken by a weak state that cannot enforce its own laws, let alone enact its legislative agenda. Partly to blame is the Anna Hazare movement which has led to contempt for state institutions. Around the world, the Left wants a large state and the Right wants a small one, but what India needs is a liberal but strong state that will, at least, implement its own laws.

The other mistake is to believe that the Indian state has weakened in the past two decades as a result of coalition politics. Truth is that India has always had a weak state and its history is a story of political disunity and warring kingdoms. Even our strongest empires were far weaker than say, the Qin Dynasty in China which built the Great Wall to keep out invaders. (That those invaders ended up in India in a chain reaction is another story.) The historian, Chris Bayly, describes how early European travellers to India were struck by the energy, colour and sophistication of the bazaar compared to the decadence of its rulers.Although historically weak, at Independence India inherited strong, robust institutions of the state—a professional police, bureaucracy, and judiciary. These are now in decay and the gap between ideals and reality has grown. It should not take seven years to build a road that takes two elsewhere; neither should it take 19 years to get justice; nor 23 years to build a dam. Poor governance and its cousin, corruption, are symptoms of a weak and soft state.

However, India has historically had a strong society, which prevented tyranny by the state. An Indian was defined by his village, caste and family, not by the state (as in China). The law—dharma--also emerged from society, not the state, and was later codified in Dharmashastras. But that old society is now changing. As Adam Smith predicted in The Wealth of Nations, the growth of markets would lead to a division of labour and new social groups would emerge. Open access to markets and job mobility would undermine traditional social authority, replacing it with more flexible, voluntary groups. Two decades of high growth is doing that and Anna’s movement reflects how it. The country is evolving from a traditional to a modern civil society. This is a positive thing for a modern democracy needs a vigorous civil society to keep it honest.

The past twenty years of capitalist growth have made India one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The contrast between a successful private economy and a weak, public order has led to the impression that India might be able to manage without a strong state. But markets do not work in a vacuum. They need a network of regulations and regulators to enforce them. In the past two decades good regulators have definitely contributed to India’s economic success. The telecom revolution was partly ushered by its first regulator (TRAI) under Justice S. S. Sodhi and B.K. Zutshi, who were strong enough to withstand pressures from the Telecom Department, which wanted to weaken private mobile companies. Stock exchanges have been strengthened by SEBI, the capital market regulator. The Reserve Bank’s oversight of banking has improved and matured. The insurance and pension regulators have also earned their spurs. On the other hand, power regulators in the centre and the states are mostly spineless, self-serving, retired babus, who have failed to implement Electricity Act 2003, and prevented a power revolution in India.

A ‘strong state’ usually carries a bad odour, conjuring up authoritarian images of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. A ‘liberal, strong state’ is, however, not oppressive. It is efficient, enabling and tough against law-breakers. It punishes the corrupt swiftly. But it also protects liberties and dissent and enjoys legitimacy among the governed. A strong civil society is needed to hold such a state accountable. More than ever, Indians today need to make a liberal case for such a strong state.