Posted by: Vikram | September 19, 2009

India: State, Society and the Problem of Collective Action – Part 1

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


  1. Vikram. Good article.

    India is going through such tumultous times socially and politically. There are so many currents asserting itself in politics that it seems as if the country is getting destabilized. It is difficult to be optimistic amidst all this. The future could go either good or bad. Hard to say. But it is a time that academics can learn a lot from. There’s a storm of ideologies in India now. Nobody knows who will emerge victorious out of it or whether the nation itself will emerge in one piece. Indian-ness is being debated amongst middle class India. I don’t know whether the population in small towns and villages are productively roped in in the political processes. Caste violence is still rife. Infant mortality, malnutrition and maternal mortality all give a bleak picture of India. I don’t know if the social strain is going to split the country politically. There is that feeling in a remote corner of my head.

  2. This may be a very naive view but do you think that India is in a transition phase from one-party bull dozed policies to formulating policies that can include the caste/religion based lobbies? Are we, as nation, still learning how to deal with the aggressive assertion of local identities?

    Did we get any real practice in the past on doing this? I don’t think so. We inherited a heavily centralized administration from the British. Then the state was dominated by one party which made hay while it could at the expense of many marginalized communities and voices. When they realized that they have to assert themselves at the center to get their voices heard, they began a destabilization effort. Would a more federalized government resolve matters? Is there a way to make the government more accountable? Who can do that? The middle class, perhaps? But India’s middle class’ dreams are little more than mimicking their colonial masters. One can only hope that civic minded individuals will create and run grassroots movements that can mobilize masses and ensure a more participative and collaborative citizenry that can then bring about a more federalized structure (and constitution?).

  3. I had watched this no confidence motion live and had written about it in my own blog. It was kind of shocking to see money bags in the well of the parliament…. I guess anything can happen in India.

    “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”

    I feel its a failure of leadership here. Nehru whatever his faults maybe, was quite decisive in implementing certain Acts inspite of general opposition. We have second rate leaders now and no one seems to be interested in doing the right thing, only that which is beneficial for them.

    I don’t have a very optimistic view about the status of women here. Legislations are there to protect her rights but it hardly gets implemented. For ex. lets take the Hindu Succession Act. Though it was impemented in 1956 and gave right to inherit a share of her father’s property the general rule in large parts of India is that a women can have rights only over jewelry and other movable property . I don’t think legislations are of any use if they don’t bring about a change in the ground reality. It a social problem and unless eduction reaches large parts of the country nothing will improve.

    “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 ?”

    A couple of of MPs in the parliament spoke about nuclear energy (remember rahul bhaiyya talking about kalavati,other poor women and how nuclear energy is going to help them), but otherwise as you said most of the proceedings were only a tamasha. What shocked me most was the personal jibes Advani made on MM Singh. What Indians got to know the next day was about the cash for votes scam. It completely overshadowed the proceedings of the House.

    @ Vinod: Why such doomsday predictions? India will keep existing simply because Indians are too indifferent and apathetic to engineer a change. If there is going to be a federal structure I’d like to see that implemented in the financial sector so that each state can utiltize its own tax income. The present scheme is daylight robbery in my opinion.

  4. Guys, I am neck deep in work, will reply soon.

  5. Rags, when I was thinking about the federal structure I had the financial sector in mind. Even if that can be federalized, it’ll go a long way.

  6. @ Vinod, it is difficult for me to be very optimistic about India becoming a leading nation (I mean that in the sense of being a good example to other developing countries, not military etc.), and the reason is exactly what I said in the post, the inability to act collectively due to poor leadership and parochial interests.

    But I am not very pessimistic either, India may seem under severe stress these days and it is. But in times past, it has been in even worse positions, let me just quote what Guha says at the end of his book ‘India after Gandhi’,
    “So long as the constitution is not amended beyond recognition, so long as elections are held regularly and the ethos of secularism broadly prevails, so long as citizens can read and write in the language of their choosing. so long as there is an integrated market and a moderately efficient civil service and army, and – lest I forget – so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive.”

    But survival is not enough.

  7. @ Rags and Vinod: Certainly decentralization is a huge part of the solution to India’s administrative malaise. The real bottleneck is the state governments who dont want to devolve power down to the district and taluka level.

  8. Lots of folks write about this topic but you wrote down some true words!!

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