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Time to Revisit the Indian State

17-08-2020published_dt 2020-08-17T12:31:06.937Z17-08-2020 18:01:06 IST
2020-08-17T12:31:06.937Z17-08-2020 2020-08-17T12:31:06.937Z - - 04-10-2022


Let us make no mistake. Covid-19 is forcing a paradigmatic shift on the world. We are unlikely to return to a pre-corona homeostasis after the war against it is won. No section or sector is going to remain untouched and unaltered by the devastation it is now unleashing. The virus is going to stay around for a while. Its annihilation in the near future is not on the cards. Vaccines are going to be slow in coming and therefore its taming is not immediate. A second wave of outbreak is a realistic probability. 


Unlike other threats to humanity such as global warming and nuclear armageddon, this threat is now, not in the future; it is here simultaneously for everyone, not for someone else and somewhere else; its casualties are around us, not in the far away battlefields or polar regions and coastal areas. No country can rescue another; it’s each one fending for itself.


Covid-19 threatens to push the world into a deep recession. If the lockdown continues, the world economy will contract by as much as 6 percent according to the IMF. If it is not extended, the loss of human lives could be of unacceptable proportions. Global community will be fortunate if it doesn’t spiral down into depression. Both demand and supply contractions are likely to be severe. They are not going to be short-lived. Political systems, economic architectures, cultural mores are on trial. Work patterns, production and distribution practices are up for redefinition. Denial and wishing away unpleasant, yet probable, realities by governments, global organisations, public intellectuals will only compound economic, social, political and human costs. We must now be quick in seizing lessons from the present crisis and get ready to embark on measures to build a new paradigm of life, work and governance. 


Enlarged economic role of the state in the aftermath of World War II came under major assault since the eighties of the last century. Leaders who asked ‘where is society?’ rode to power on ‘cut the damn government down’ ticket. Systems that were putative alternatives to capitalism fell into disgrace. Entrepreneurs heading unicorns and ‘soonicorns’ have become the new demi gods. Minimum governance became the mantra. India too willy-nilly signed up to this creed. But Covid-19 is beginning to challenge the political economy of this creed. Very soon the full scores of state and non-state actors’ performance in the Covid-19 stress test will be available across the globe. Along with others Indian state will also have to answer for its report card.              


India embarked on the path of trimming the role of the state, initially with such caveats as ‘safety net’, ‘reform with a human face’. Gradually those caveats fell by the way side. The lurch became sharp, unapologetic, full-throated. Indian state’s role in health care, education, creation and maintenance of infrastructure, delivery of welfare has shrunk or become nominal, half-hearted, inefficient, and dysfunctional. Of course, it is true that it did not give a great account of itself in these sectors even before the 1991 departure. Disappointment with the dismal performance in its economic and administrative functions in the backdrop of changing global ideological ecosystem encouraged a sharp de facto downsizing of the Indian state’s role. Its retreat from vital functions and abdication of its social responsibility have gained acceptance and legitimacy among the articulate upwardly mobile. While retreat and abdication found influential and forceful evangelists, selective retreat had few advocates.


This departure, however, was not vigorously interrogated. When it was, it was limited to the broad ideological opposition from the left which defended the discredited position of Indian state occupying the commanding heights of economy. Supporters of the departure, on the other hand, had little engagement in giving shape to the new policy. Nor did they worry about calibrating the architecture of the emerging role for the state. As a result ‘Private sector’ became the new holy cow in the place of ‘State sector’. What made matters worse is the culture of simplistic and shallow discourse of public policy that took hold in the our civil society. It mindlessly privileges the agenda of corporates. It transacts in the idiom of stock exchanges and international rating agencies.


Therefore, those with no social media handles, who cannot organise annual ‘thought’ conclaves, who are incapable to highlight their problems with impressive presentations are rendered voiceless. Today, those who bear the brunt of the consequences of shrunken and unresponsive state are the farmer and farm labour, migrant worker, unemployed, those in the unorganised sector, rural poor, and small entrepreneur. They are paying the highest price for the necessary but unbearable lockdown. They are either stranded far away from homes, or confined to homes with no work and incomes, unsupported by the state. Underfunded public health systems are unable to serve them. Tips on how to beat lockdown blues, how to work from home, use zoom, spend quality time with family that fill our pull outs are irrelevant for them. But dominant strand of public discourse is out of its depth. It has no time for these concerns. Worse, this discourse can be gamed from time to time. And alternative  discourse is too feeble to call the attention of the government to the grave implications of Covid-19 for the weak in our society.


But the state’s first responsibility is the marginalised. They are also the crucial part of our economy. They lubricate its wheels and generate demand. Announcing stimulus packages that address the supply side alone without beefing up the demand side will be self-defeating to corporates. Prioritizing the needs of corporate entities will lead to convulsions in our body politic in the wake of Covid-19. The state is in danger of forfeiting legitimacy if it doesn’t ensure the survival and revival of marginalised sections.  


This is the appropriate context to revisit the political economy of the Indian state and its role. The country should begin a vigorous discourse on redefining every aspect of its involvement in our collective political, economic and social life. The relation between the state and economy, its role in allocating resources and addressing questions of inequality, its duty to provide basic human needs, the extent of market’s role in providing services like health, education, civic amenities; the responsibility of the state and private enterprise towards deprived sections, need urgent attention. 


We should re-examine the efficacy of our political structures too: the equation between the citizens and government and what are its implications for individual freedom, privacy and national security; equation between legislature and executive; balance of administrative and financial power between provinces and union on the one hand, and provinces and local bodies on the other. The way we elect our representatives to legislatures must also come under lens. The issue of atrophied local authorities and enfeebled legislatures needs attention. For, they’re at the coal face, delivering the state to the citizen. The way legislatures are elected and governments are made and unmade must be scrutinised. Our outrage at the power of big money in our electoral system has not arrested its growth. The role of serving and retired members of higher judiciary ought to be part of the debate. 


We had an opportunity for an intensive debate when Justice Venkatachaliah Commission submitted its report in 2002. We missed it. The opportunity that Covid-19 provides should not be squandered. Indian state should be strong so that the weak in our society can lean on it. Our rishis told us: durbalasya balam RajaThe strength of the weak is the Sovereign. Not the market.  


(A slightly edited version of this was published in The Hindu on 21 April 2020 )