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July 14, 2011

The citizen at war

Political freedom must be used to fight for economic freedom

Witnessing the recent skirmishes between some segments of the “civil society” and the central government of India, it is hard to keep cynicism at bay. On the one side there are sincere people with not inconsiderable following who are trying to bring about change in governance and the reduction of public corruption which has reached astronomical proportions. While they may be motivated by worthy goals, not all their means are above reproach. Their passion is not matched by their understanding of what should be done and how.

On the other side are powerful people in the government who are not particularly perturbed about the reports that allege, often with substantial evidence, their involvement in scams that run into billions of dollars. These people have the power of the state on their side and are not hesitant in using overwhelming force to defeat the people on the other side. Not just the police force, but they have used government agencies—such as investigative and taxation institutions—to fight their opponents.

The confrontations between the two sides play out with the background consisting of the rest of the population, who for the most part have come to accept their lot with a resignation that borders on fatalism. Decades of increasingly bad governance and ubiquitous corruption have convinced them that that’s how it is and nothing can be done about it. They will not be stirred into action by the civil-society leaders, and apparently the government will not be shaken by the civil society demands.

This adversarial relationship between the citizens and the government has a civil war flavour to it. This is puzzling given that India is a democracy and one would expect the government and the people to have convergent interests. Lincoln had pondered in his famous speech at Gettysburg in 1863 whether a nation with a government “of the people, for the people and by the people” can endure the on-going civil war. The United States did survive the civil war and as one historian put it, it became a country in which the idea of a civil war is inconceivable. The question before us is whether the battles between the Indian government and citizens foreshadow a war between them—which I call a “citizen war” to distinguish it from a civil war which involves warring factions of citizens.

Here I argue that the interests of the people in the government are antagonistic to the interests of the citizens. To make the case, we have to distinguish between two types of governments: one is a development-oriented government which is committed to economic freedom, individual freedom, and political freedom; and the other, a predatory government which denies citizens freedoms for extractive and exploitative (E&E) ends.

It is both an analytically and empirically well-established fact that economic and individual freedoms are necessary for development. It is also beyond doubt that a “license control permit quota” regime—a command economy in other words—is inconsistent with economic growth and development. The explanation for India’s dismal economic performance can be explained almost entirely if one posits that the Indian governments have been of the E&E kind. The evidence is overwhelming.

The reason for why India has an E&E government lies in India’s colonial history. Imperial powers get into the business of running colonies for economic gain. The economic interests of the ruled and the rulers are necessarily mutually antagonistic. The relationship between the colonial masters and their subjects is not voluntary, and as a consequence, power is asymmetric: the rulers have the power to extract economic rents from the economy, at the expense of the ruled. For this, the masters create the laws and regulations which are consistent with their goals. It is perfectly natural and understandable that the British framed laws that gave the colonial government supreme power. During the British Raj, the government was the master and the people its servants.

But of course that relationship between the government of India and Indians changed after India became politically independent. Or did it? The laws which the British had framed for their purposes continued to operate. The institutions continued as before, with minor cosmetic changes, such as renaming “Indian Civil Service” to be “Indian Administrative Service.” Different people occupied the chairs but the functions remained exactly the same. Admittedly the new rulers had more pigment in their skin but they were actors in the same old play on the same old stage with the same old script. Like their predecessors, the new rulers went around with the same red flashing lights on their cars as they did before 1947. They still do. It was, and still is, what in modern parlance can be labeled “British Raj 2.0.” It would be, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again for us except for the fact that most of us were born after 1947.

Unlike the United States, India did not have a “Revolutionary War of Independence.” Actually, India never had any revolutions to speak of, unlike other countries; nor did it have a civil war to iron out what India really stood for. Indians are as a lot not very excitable, and prefer the laid back chalta hai attitude. The British left in their own sweet time when it suited them. They had extracted enough wealth out of India by then, India had become too impoverished, and in any case, colonialism was fast going out of fashion. Their imperial power and hegemony was waning. They left because the sun was setting over the British Empire and it was time to go home.

There are major differences in the cases of India and the US, though they were both British colonies at some time. The Americans won their freedom by defeating the British, and decided that they will not ever be subjects of a king. They gave themselves a new set of rules, and were not interested in reusing or recycling British rules. They wrote an absolutely brilliant constitution which gave the people power over their government. It is short enough for one to read over a lazy cup of coffee, and most Americans have read it in high school.

The American constitution spelled out what the government could and could not do. The constitution severely limits the power of the government, and prudently distributes it across three institutions—the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. The people are the masters and the government that they elect does what the people allow them to do. In India’s case, the government is the master and the people exist to serve it. The Indian constitution is a set of prescriptions and prohibitions limiting the freedom of the people.

What India needs is a fundamental transformation, a change in the rules of the game, not a mere change in the set of players. The independence that Indians should have fought for should have been about real economic and personal freedoms. Granted that Indians have the political freedom to choose but it is more a matter of servants choosing which master they wish to serve, rather than free people choosing who is to serve them. My contention is that the independence of 1947 was at best a partial one. Because Indians of the previous generation avoided a real war of independence, it remains for us to fight and win the upcoming war.

The sad thing is that it is not entirely clear to the people in these early battles being fought in the Jantar Mantar and the Ramlila grounds in Delhi that what they should be fighting for is economic and personal freedoms, and against imperialism. They apparently believe that a bad set of people are at the root of the corruption and that if the corrupt are replaced or punished, corruption will disappear. They are calling for another government institution which will have supreme executive power to investigate and punish the corrupt. One supposes that in due time there will be a call for yet another government institution to “guard the guards”, and so on.

The relationship between corruption and control is real, enduring and easy to elucidate. The more control the government has, the greater the opportunity for the people in government to profit from their power. The colonial British government was powerful. Those who took over the reins of the government did not see any reason for surrendering those powers. The transfer of power from one set of people to another happened seamlessly and indeed, the man at the helm of affairs, Jawaharlal Nehru, even boasted that he was the last Englishman to rule India. No doubt the powers he inherited sat well with his English sensibilities.

The way ahead for India is to reduce the power of the government and shift it to the people. For this to happen, the people have to wrest the power out of the clutches of the government. It is a monumental task and it will neither be an easy nor a quick victory. It is not going to happen through fasts or any other form of blackmail because the powerful are never moved by others’ suffering—there’s sufficient involuntary fasting going on in India anyway, and that has not affected anything.

The way forward is through the only freedom that Indians have—the power of their votes. The government knows this and proof of that knowledge is in what the government does: it fragments the population along caste and religion, easily manipulating them by withholding and granting favours to groups as needed to maintain control. That divide-and-rule works in the British Raj 2.0 equally as well as it did during British Raj 1.0.

Democracy is not just about elections and voting periodically. If the concept is to have any meaning in its implementation, it must be informed voting. If enough people become aware of the reality of the government’s miserable role in their present predicaments, they would at least choose a different set of people who credibly commit to reducing the size and power of the government. Of course, the present government knows this and deals with that threat by choking the flow of information to the people. The internet is on the government’s radar and they are working hard to prevent people from getting informed through that channel.

If the people send a message via the ballot box to the government that they will definitely throw out people who continue to increase the power of the government, in due time there will be people in government who will limit the power of the government. For this to happen, the biggest challenge is to inform and educate the voters. At some point, they have to understand what Gerald Ford warned Americans: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

The unfortunate fact is that we have to realise that freedom does not come without a struggle. The illusion that India is a free country is persistent and hard to shake off. The time has come for the revolutionary war that we should have been done with decades ago, a war that demonstrates that the people are the principals and the government is their willing agents. Since political freedom is a reality, that war has to be now fought politically. Mobs and blackmail will not bring about the structural changes India needs to prosper. The transformation of India will be good but it is definitely not going to be fast or cheap.


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