India, an example?

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Constitution last Sunday, speaker after opposition speaker pointed out that while democratic norms have been tenuously maintained, the promise of social and economic equity is nowhere near being achieved for the bulk of the people, and that the system swamped by a tsunami of corruption and inefficiency at all levels of the government cannot cope. That this was declaimed with a straight face by many party leaders and members of Parliament facing grave charges of financial irregularity, malfeasance, and possession of wealth (bank accounts and properties) beyond “known sources of income” and were cheered on by  many blatant bribe-takers, who for reasons of proximity to the Congress Party’s First Family have escaped investigation, suggests that the political class now thinks of the filthy lucre as only another entitlement, along with government bungalows to live in, fleets of government cars to cart them around, and armies of servants – from menial to civil service types, to help them live the good life at the expense of the taxpayer and to siphon off public funds. That those most responsible for the spreading misgovernance are shameless enough to muster the moral gumption to complain loudly about it on an occasion demanding serious introspection about how, why, and where the Indian system has gone off the rails, hints at the unrecoverable slide the country seems to be in.

Plainly, the system has broken down and the best its minders can apparently do is faintly acknowledge the problem. But even the Titanic needed its famous band to keep playing ostensibly to lift the morale of the hopeless people on board as the ship sank. That role of the Titanic band is performed by a bunch of policy intellectuals led by former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who produced a document – ‘Nonalignment 2.0’ (NA 2.0), helpfully suggesting the principles and guidelines for foreign policy-makers to follow.

The initial reactions to this document after its release in end-February were negative. Critiques of NA 2.0 are on the net, in numerous blogs, op-ed pieces, media commentaries — the reason why the government never fully owned up to it and, in publicity terms, has dumped it. Much of its contents either because they restate familiar themes from public debates in the last two decades or revive the rhetorical slant of policies from a more remote past, seem to have only a passing relevance for the present and, even less, the future. But NA 2.0 does reflect the thinking of the Prime Minister, the ruling Congress Party, and the top bureaucrats and diplomats running the system.

If the historical knowledge of Indian foreign and military policy of most of our politicians, diplomats, civil servants, and senior military officers were not other than book jacket-deep and the country’s policy-making was not based principally on the past as  contained in files, and precedent, with MEA and Defence Ministry officials fleshing out current policy options with an eye principally on previous notings in recent files, India would by now have been actualizing strong policy and capabilities for 2020 and beyond, and pondering the nature of the world in 2050 and India’s place in it, rather than wrestling mindlessly with themes that were long ago put to rest. Then again NA 2.0 is, perhaps, a side-effect of the country adrift in a Manmohan Singh-induced policy haze.

NA 2.0 can be faulted, and has been, on many counts. Its most questionable contention, among a host of problematic theses it has propounded, is its identifying “the power of [“the country’s] example” as the “fundamental source of India’s power”. Oh, really?  It has been the central conceit of the Indian political class and intelligentsia starting with Independence that India stands for something unique, has extraordinary value to offer the world. The less there is to show by way of development and economic progress compared to, say, China, the more we seem to fall back on patting ourselves on our democratic backs. At one level this is nothing but a variant on the exceptionalist rant by every country. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, all countries are unique in their own ways, so what’s so special about India?

India’s “example” is defined as high economic growth rate combined with maintenance of democracy. Those in the developing world who, presumably, are waiting breathlessly to emulate India have actually waited for more than sixty years for this Indian model of development to pan out. Their wait gets longer because our system is still only a work in progress.  The secret of delivering development to a billion plus people logically lies in effective democratic management of the state. In reality this is precisely what has failed the country. That the decrepit and slovenly apparatus of state serves only itself only adds to citizens’ woes.

Were there a self-cleansing and self-correcting mechanism, there would be cause for hope. In its absence, the system can be reformed radically only by its chief beneficiaries – the politicians and armies of non-performing babus from petty clerks to cabinet secretary. But there is zero incentive for them to do so. Moreover, a political class that cannot countenance the gentle ribbing by cartoons and a government craven enough to succumb to pressure to ban them from school text books, are unlikely to reform themselves or the system. India is thus destined to meander, without the end-goal in sight. What example is this?

Further, by any developmental criterion, using any set of socio-economic indices, of development produced by any of a host of international organizations, India ranks in the bottom quartile alongside states in sub-Saharan Africa. These statistics damn India’s “democracy”. That it is lauded more in the West than is taken seriously in the developing world, tells its own tale. The shiny Chinese model of fast-paced economic development and amazing First World infrastructure would appear more attractive. But, venal rulers of third-rate regimes may be enthused by the India model – it allows them to loot and mismanage the country, and also to preen themselves as “democrats”!

[Published as “Ïndia rolls down the hill” in the ‘New Indian Express’ on Friday, May 18, 2012 at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in civil-military relations, Indian Politics, Internal Security. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to India, an example?

  1. Jagdish says:

    Depressing and true. Now you owe another article, to lift our spirits up 🙂

    India does indeed have a unique and spiritual message for the world. Unchecked wealth and power are not the only goals of human life. There are four as per our age old traditions. In Sanskrit namely they are Artha, Kama, Dharma and Moksha.

    But, alas, instead of digging deep and evolving these learnings of the past and apply them to an industrial world, our founding fathers chose the route of amelioration of the social landscape in India, to a western mold. As a friend mentioned, Secularism is nothing but western culture without the church! We are left uneducated in our own rich cultural heritage and as a result move like babes in the woods. Not knowing, where our firm ground is. The result is documents like NA 2.0!
    If one depends on firm roots, our objectives say vis-a-vis China become clear. It is to invade China, culturally. The issue of Tibet becomes more clear and not dependent on the colonial imposed border lines. No longer Tibet becomes only an issue of “suzerainty” as claimed by China, India has legitimate interests too. But, it will take a massive mind set change and the ability to overcome our own minority appeasement polity. A huge project and does not look very promising today. Any mention of any Sanskrit word in these days has become synonymous of being a minority bigot! This is the India of today.

    The other issue we have is structural. Even something as innocuous and sorely needed like the NDA govt.’s NCRWC was rejected by the INC. What is needed is political power in the hands of individual and parties, who at least recognize the issues in the same manner.

    My personal vote is for the party that commits to these three things

    1. Get the govt out of the business of business
    2. Limit the role of govt to be a regulator and a policy maker only and by definition get out of the subsidy business
    3. Commit to a decentralized and federated model of governance (the current model has too much mistrust built in to evolve properly – there will always be tensions in this area)

    Now, it is not all depressing for there is some hope. Gujrat’s socio-economic indicators compare with the best provinces in China. Our issue is not democracy as rightly pointed out, it is the management and design intent of the structures in place.

  2. Actually, the Indian milieu is so secularized that even talking about our cultural roots and tenets, leave alone mining the distant past for the purposes of foreign and military policy, is liable to get one branded a communalist. About Gujarat, etc., Indian as well as intl business communities are discovering the First World prospects of doing business in these well-run provinces.

    Honestly, I can’t get myself up to write in an optmistic vein.

    • Ravi says:

      For vastly heterogeneous countries like India, a presidential form of government is much more suitable than the Westminster parliamentary model. This vital point was lost on India’s “founding fathers”, who slavishly aped their colonial masters and produced a grotesquely deformed and crippled offspring. India’s primary problem is corruption+incompetence. Some uninformed apologists say that the PRC too has rampant corruption. That is true, but the PRC government machinery is largely efficient. India is only a State, and will take eons to transcend into a Nation (assuming that ever happens).

      • Actually, the German parliamentary system is best. For a person to get elected to the Bundestag, he has to win his seat with 50% + 1 of the popular vote. If that isn’t obtained, then a runoff is mandated between the two top candidates in terms of vote tally. This at once splintering along various lines, as has happened in India, leading to a near anarchic situation and forces the winning candidate to necessarily broadbase his message to get elected. This is a solution that was suggested in the Constitution Commission set up during the NDA days. But the necessary Constitutional Amendment is unlikely to get past Parliament comprising mainly splinter parties!!

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