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India as a theatre State
September 20, 2004
The continuing political drama at the Centre grabs so much of attention, that the casual observer can easily miss the continuing drama of what V S Naipaul famously called 'a million mutinies now.' Behind the story of the caste-based parties, institutionalised corruption, and feudal warlords, is the logic of self-organisation. The Indian bureaucracy and the legal system are not quite equipped to deal with the challenges of globalisation in education, agriculture, and business, therefore new structures, outside of the traditional arrangement, are emerging.
There are many historic reasons why India has failed to develop powerful regulatory instruments that have the capacity to process the information that is part of the systems of the modern State.
Indian democracy is top-down. The affairs of the administration are carried out in bureaucratese, archaic English that is not rich enough to deal with the complexity of contemporary issues. On the other hand, Indian languages remain impoverished since there in no vigorous system of translation from world literature into them; neither is there a system of good public libraries to carry this knowledge to the corners of the country. Television is one mass medium, but it is centered on entertainment. There is no channel in India equivalent to PBS, which is dedicated to education.
India has hardly any world-class centres of research in the humanities, and just two or three in the sciences. The IITs [Indian Institute of Technology] and the IIMs [Indian Institute of Management] also are only good at undergraduate education. If it has been so difficult to create excellence in education, it must be even harder to do so in other fields.
Since the British Raj wiped out traditional systems of cooperative public works in India through force or neglect, the Indian State has mainly been centred in the cities, and the villages have been regions of statelessness, tenuously held together by kinship systems and ritual obligations rather than bureaucracy. The centralised socialist State in the conception of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi tried to extend control to the villages, but by the time of Narasimha Rao that process had run out of steam and the State has since been forced to retreat.
Outside of the field of information technology that touches just a few million workers, the reforms are very shallow. The government often leaves the implementation of policy -- and even its enunciation -- to the judiciary.
If one may take some liberty with the words of the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, India has become a theatre State: The ministers are the impresarios, the judges the directors, and the voters the supporting cast, stage crew and audience.
Legislative grandstanding is the driving force of the politics, and theatrical gestures (like the unanimous resolution of the Punjab assembly on the termination of its commitment to the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal) are not a device to shore up the State, but rather the State.
The ineffectiveness of the State was clear during the BJP government as well. Perhaps one achievement of the Vajpayee government was its tacit acknowledgement of the limitations to its power, which led to a reduction in the political temperature in the country. But its ineffectiveness in dealing with substantive issues was the reason many of its erstwhile supporters chose to skip voting in the last elections.
The new UPA government has replaced a few governors and books, and 'uncommitted' officers may be fired, but the basic issues of availability and quality of education are as unlikely to be dealt with by this government as by the previous one. Neither will much happen regarding public facilities and alleviation of poverty.
Azim Premji is right to complain about the poor infrastructure in Bangalore. One suspects that his threat to expand in locations outside the city is in the hope that this might push the government to action. But that would require a reinvention of the government, which the politicians are reluctant to do.
Chalta hai rules.
Actually, the problem is worse than the creation of infrastructure for the first time. Even new developments that were excellent a few years ago have fallen into hard times. The transition may be seen in how the genteel 'colonies' of yesteryears have decayed into slums in cities like Mumbai and Delhi and elsewhere.
The transportation situation is so bad in the cities, that any business that wishes to be internationally competitive must run a mini-transport company for its employees. Other problems include power, water supply, sanitation and drainage, waste disposal (garbage), and dwindling greenery. Finally, there is the fear of extortion by crime syndicates and the bribes to be paid to bureaucrats.
The gated communities and campuses of companies like Wipro, Infosys and the Western multinationals in Indian cities are like the eighteenth-century fortified factories of Fort St George in Chennai and Fort William in Kolkata. The globalisation that India faced then led to the entire country coming under the control of the East India Company. We can only hope that the new process will be benign, and lead to liberation from the stifling administrative arrangement that we inherited from the British, which we have been unable to reform in nearly sixty years.
In the rest of India, outside of the gated campuses, the adjustment to the pressures of globalisation is varied. For example, in West Bengal, the patronage networks of the CPI-M complement the State; in Bihar, it is the private armies of feudal landlords, on the one hand, and the Marxist-Leninist militants, on the other, that provide the backdrop to the theatre.