The last many weeks have seen at least three different incidents of police personnel being attacked in the city of Delhi alone. Not to be left behind, we had the general public protesting the legitimate actions of the police in Mysore city when they tried to enforce traffic discipline. In nearby Mandya, a Deputy Superintendent of Police was nearly run over by the sand mafia only because she was trying to do her job and enforce the law. We have also read about incidents about footwear being thrown at politicians and people expressing a basic disgust at what they see as symbols of power. We also see the high and mighty go about transgressing the law with impunity – whether it is corruption, traffic violations or other forms of human abuse. Is there something that is common between all these incidents across the country? Is the rule of law disappearing in a country that is presumably democratic and law abiding? Why is ‘power’ being despised? Can these incidents be dismissed off or should we see the pattern of ‘State control’ weakening?
On the other hand, the stampede in Bihar state is suspected to be a result of poor management by the officialdom and one wonder’s whether anyone will be held accountable for the same? What then is the state’s role in ensuring governance in such situations? Could the ‘State’ have used its power to enforce discipline on a ‘mob’ that refuses to see prudence in following the law? Why don’t the citizens respect the law instead of unceremoniously ignoring or disrespecting them? Why has governance become a casualty? And it is indeed a strange and paradoxical situation – on one hand we seem to have such a smooth and peaceful transfer of power at the center but on the other hand are seeing a violent attitude that seems to mock at the face of the forces of law and order.
Contrast this with prime minister Modi holding a broom and calling upon his fellow citizens to take on the task of cleaning India. Will this really happen? Will we as a Nation pull our act together and find a collective expression of ‘citizenship’? We need to understand our socio-cultural DNA and our political evolution to appreciate whether we can truly express ourselves fully as responsible citizens of a vibrant democracy.
From a disparate set of kingdoms to acquiring a national identity of ‘India’ has been a long drawn political process. While the control of power and responsibility of administration may have shifted, the mindset and engagement of citizenry has not evolved proportionately. Credit for the formation of the modern Indian state must go to the East India Company that framed the laws to administer it. But one needs to appreciate that these laws were framed to enable control of the State over its subjects rather than ensure accountability of the State to the citizenry. We were only subjects of the Crown but were never regarded as its citizens with our rights and entitlements. This changed in 1947, when we got our independence and the State became answerable to the citizens of India. We inherited robust and well-meaning institutions of Governance that were considered to be one of the best in the world along with laws framed in a different context to address a different need. Though we did show promise in the initial years, we gradually have allowed degeneration to creep in. What happened over the last 60 years? All that we are today is an unhealthy and a noisy democracy.
The famous adage goes that those who do not learn from history will be condemned to repeat it. We need to learn what the history of our country reveals. India has been historically known to have a weak state but a strong society. German Philosopher Hegel’s simplistic observation is “If China must be regarded as nothing else but a State, Hindoo political existence presents us with a people but no state.” Traditionally, we have never conceded power at a deeper level to our so-called ‘rulers’. Today, we are in the process of transitioning from this traditional mindset to that of accepting democratic norms which demands a degree of subservience to the ‘State’. Post independence, this fragmented combination of kingdoms and provinces became a chaotic democracy. What we have today is a loosely structured, segmentary, federal union with the central govt sharing powers with the States but not so much with the citizens. Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist had dubbed India as a ‘soft state’ based on the government’s inability to get things done. This is reflected in the way in which the arms of the state have demonstrated repeated failures in enforcing the laws and legal frameworks. Whether it is handling corruption, or keeping criminals out of our political system, or having a fair & transparent criminal jurisprudence system, enforcing the rule of law on the high and mighty, to having effective regulations in the public sphere – we have seen how the State has been ineffective in evoking trust and faith in its functioning. A ‘soft’ State, Myrdal wrote, is unwilling to ‘impose obligations on the governed’ and there is correspondingly ‘unwillingness on the part of the governed to obey rules.’ What we are seeing today is not only a low level of social discipline but also a system that has incentivized the lawless and is very forgiving of social and legal transgressions. It is amidst such a scenario, we now need to see the lack of citizen engagement and social accountability.
How does one change this situation and how do we get citizens to own upto power and responsibility? Will it be too utopian to expect our citizens to not only be partners in progress with the State, but also accept their role and responsibility within the constitutional framework of the State and its institutions? How would the State respond to an enlightened and engaged citizenry? It is in this background that we need to see what the Prime Minister and his Government are trying to achieve. Whether it is asking the common man and celebrities to engage in the physical act of cleaning the neighborhoods or sharing ideas on web portals or asking for suggestions on how he needs to engage with the masses through the radio – all this are reflective of kick starting the process of engagement. One also needs to appreciate the heightened levels of expectations and the convenience of transferring our citizenry obligations to an iconic personality whom we, expect will wave a magic wand and solve our issues without we even breaking into a sweat. The State also needs to appreciate that citizen engagement once evoked can no longer be a mere political slogan or a tool to garner public support. Enlightened citizens will soon begin demanding good governance and participation, as a matter of entitlement and the system needs to be prepared to respond suitably and sensitively. Otherwise, what will result would be a society filled with disgruntled elements that will further marginalize the State and push its weakness into a state of chaos, irrelevance and confusion.
The leadership of the Prime Minister will be in inspiring the citizenry to pull up their socks and enhance their role in civic and governance matters. He needs to ensure that the State is able to engage with the citizens without overwhelming them into submission and also get the citizens to own up to their ownership of the state without it leading to the arrogance of entitlements. And only then, can we claim to make our constitution truly functional. It is only then can we claim a well-governed State operating with democratic principles, where the ruler and the ruled are seamlessly wired together in ensuring social and economic justice to all.