Amongst the rare achievements of the Indian state and the enlightened sections of the Indian society were the Hindu Code Bills of the 1950’s, passed early after the Republic was established in 1950. The bills gave Hindu women equal rights, equal inheritance and dignity1. Drafted by the visionary Dr. Ambedkar and passed by Parliament by the skill and grit of Prime Minister Nehru, the bill may be considered one of the few positive actions in Republican India that lead to gains for the entire society. If today, women in India can work, marry and mobilize with more freedom and purpose than they could have 60 years ago, a lot of the credit must go to the bill, the people involved and the various movements it spawned.
The Hindu Code Bill is an instance of a charismatic, honest and dedicated leadership taking along a reluctant, uncertain population and taking on the reactionary opposition and mobilizing the power and moral authority of the state to effect major long term gains for the entire society. Other collective initiatives of the Indian state in the Republican era have been either moderately successful (some aspects of reservations, education in some states, some PSUs) or have so far remained a failure (education in many states, basic infrastructure), but, the student of history will observe that such broad based initiatives have almost disappeared in the last 30 odd years. And indeed, in the last 20 years the state has often receded from even the limited initiatives it took (or tried to take) earlier, although some will say that the results of the last two Lok Sabha elections have checked this.
On the other hand, the Indian society seems to have gone though an accelerated fragmentation in the last 30 years. Barring the important tempering of linguistic divisions2, the fault lines of caste and religion have become sharp and deadly. These have now become so throughly entrenched in India’s politics that they make it almost impossible for the state to engage and interact with the population as a whole, and ably direct society towards those collective goals that give a democratic state credibility. Without a state that can guide the nation towards worthwhile collective goals, is it any surprise that the individual’s interaction with the state and its property have become marked with apathy, cynicism and frustration.
Let us consider the example of the recent Indo-US nuclear deal. Setting aside the merits and demerits of the deal, lets see how the democratic Indian state went about creating a ‘consensus’ for the agreement and how the opposition went about ‘opposing’ it. Far from starting a public debate before committing to the deal, the government simply made up its mind that it wants to sign this deal, come what may. There was no room for broad discussions on what the deal was (except when the government itself was forced into a no-confidence motion), what its benefits would be and what the process for approving such critical agreements should be. The Union Government of India just wanted to sign the deal. Fullstop. Now for the opposition, again there was no call for a reasoned debate on how and why the deal was being signed. It just had to be opposed. Fullstop. After all, it was an opportunity to bring the government down and have a shot at power. Fortunately, India is a democracy and the deal was put to a no-confidence vote, where the nation (or atleast those that cared to watch the mostly sordid proceedings) got to see the deliberative aspect of Indian democracy, where they could learn, understand and take positions on what the state was doing. Unfortunately, since this is Indian democracy, they also got to see the worst kind of backroom deal making, heckling and general lack of integrity.
So what came out of the deal. I am not talking about nuclear fuels and power plants. I am talking about broad gains for Indian society and democracy. Did Indians get to think about the shadowy, undemocratic way in which the GoI can enter into agreements with other nations ? Did they get to think about why there is no formal ratification process ? Did they get to hear debates on the positives and negatives of nuclear energy ? Did they get the chance to deliberate on what the geo-strategic implication of such a deal were ? Not really. The whole thing turned into a big tamasha (तमाशा) for the ‘national’ media to make money of.
Such instances once again illustrate the contradictory nature of the Indian state. It has neither the confidence nor the honesty to take the nation along, like it did early in its life. And without this confidence or belief in collective good, what can expect degradation and cynicism ? An example here would be the Environment ministry. This is a key issue that should has bearings on all Indian citizens, rich or poor, Malayali or Bihari. But how does the ministry operate ? One day it is making encouraging moves on enforcement of environmental regulation, the other day the minister mocks the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Because the state and the media do not want to engage the general population in the discussions, the activist part of the population, environmental NGOs, lawyers have to rely on their own determination, grit and the courts to make the ministry take action for collective good 3.
At every level of Indian life, the city, the village, the state and the Union, in general there seems to be no collective vision. There are important, incremental improvements in many places, but the politics of the fractured Indian society is leads to a state, that is in general crippled and aimless. No wonder it flails.
1: I am by no means claiming that women have achieved emancipation in India, but the Act helped a lot.
2: Achieved, ironically by the division or reogranization of the Union along linguistic lines
3: Rather, try to make sure that the state doesnt do collective harm