India no more ‘soft state’ under Modi’s leadership

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India no more ‘soft state’ under Modi’s leadership

Sunday, 09 August 2020 | KK SRIVASTAVA

India no more ‘soft state’ under Modi’s leadership

Scrapping of Article 370, demonetisation, the bold decision in face-off with China are three examples, which are only illustrative and not exhaustive, to prove that India is no longer a ‘soft state’ or ‘a functioning anarchy’. India functions much better, it still believes in sagacity and benevolence but it has done away with being a ‘soft state’

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

John Kenneth Galbraith in THE AGE OF UNCERTAINTY

April 1983. I, first time in Delhi from a small town Gorakhpur, having travelled more than 24 hours to cover a distance of almost 800 odd kilometres, lodged in a dharamshala where I was allotted a small room with slow-moving ceiling fan coupled with totally ineffective and non-functional fan-regulator. Beggars can’t be choosers. It does not take much wisdom to pronounce such dictums but realisation of truth behind these words was yet another milestone I reached in my early life. Yes, India, then, was a poor country by any socio-economic standard. More importantly then even after almost 35 years of its independence, it had all the attributes befitting the status of what Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, the most eclectic economist of last century and famous for his magnum opus The Asian Drama, called Asian countries “soft state”.

A day later, I was before the interview board assessing my worth and ranking in Civil Services. One of the members asked me if I had heard of economist Galbraith and his book the Affluent Society. My answer was affirmative. He asked me the meaning of the word, “affluent”. I replied; he seemed satisfied. Another question ensued. “Why did Galbraith call India ‘a functioning anarchy’?” I was at a loss for words. I had no answers. But I took a chance and quoted Nirad C Chaudhuri who in the context of tardy implementation of land reforms wrote in one of his books, “We don’t have guts to do it.” The member looks at me ambivalently and passed me on to the next member.

I have been an admirer as much as of Nirad C Chaudhuri’s intellectual prowess as of Galbraith’s candidly shared experiences. How true both were? What Galbraith implied, as is commonly understood, was that the country did well despite the Government not doing much. Government not doing much was the main theme of Galbraithian oxymoron. What is a “soft state”? Myrdal had a definition ready with him. He illustrated a soft state in terms of a set of characteristics. These inter-alia include 1) various types of social indiscipline which manifest themselves by deficiencies in legislation and, in particular, law observance and enforcement, 2) a widespread disobedience by public officials and, 3) often, their collusion with powerful persons and groups... whose conduct they should regulate. Vested interests play a vital role in soft state. Galbraith wrote, “Ideas may be superior to vested interest. They are also very often the children of vested interest.”

For Myrdal “competence of the government of the poor country is itself a part of equilibrium of poverty.” Myrdal emphasised the intimate relationship between poverty, population and soft state. Functioning anarchy connotes when society develops and grows in the absence of any help from state like authority and continues to perform its normal functions. Read together, both these terms combine to refer to a situation where society functions without any state interference and help. The principal reason why India remained a “soft state” or met the criteria of “functioning anarchy” was absence of “guts” to take in time hard decisions in larger public good.  

India, for a fairly long time, represented a combination of a soft state enduring indifference and incompetence of its functionaries while a social order existed marked by inadequate functioning of both state and society. In India if we look at the behaviour of society, individuals, institutions, policy making circles and the social elite and systems, there are reasons to believe that for a considerable part of post freedom period, the illusion of governance rather than good governance was the perceived reality.

With the BJP coming to power under the leadership of Narendra Modi in 2014, the image of India as a soft state has undergone complete change. Last six years have witnessed foundational changes in economy and society. The scenario is much cleaner: the haze has vanished, transparency is inbuilt in decisions taken and the hands of a strong firm leader are writ large. Neither Gunnar Myrdal’s “soft state” nor does Galbrathian “functioning anarchy” holds water. The leader of almost 138 crore Indians leads from the front: be it digitisation, demonetisation, a new India, surgical strike, handling Covid pandemic or recent skirmishes with China. Let us take three examples.

During recent past in remote Ladakh region bordering China, the soldiers of the two countries did face off for nearly two months. In June this year there was hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese soldiers that resulted in causalities on both sides. It was the worst confrontation in over four decades between two countries which fought a border war in 1962, spilling into Ladakh. The two countries have been trying to settle their border dispute since the early 1990s, without success. The disputed border covers nearly 3,500 kilometres of frontier referred to as the Line of Actual Control and stretches from Ladakh in the north to the Indian State of Sikkim in the North-east. Indian leadership headed by the strong Prime Minister took an extremely courageous step to correct a historical wrong. It declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from Kashmir in August 2019, ending the territory’s semi-autonomous status. It must have infuriated China that condemned the move. Historical wrongs by one country more often than not please many countries especially neighbours. These open gates for other countries to fish in troubled waters.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to this region. He met troops in Ladakh region and interacted with brave armed forces personnel. Praising the valour of Indian jawans, he chanted, “Long live mother India.” Reminding that “after every crisis, India has emerged stronger,” the Prime Minister said, “Enemies of India have seen your fire and fury.” And gave a firm message, “Days of expansionism are over. Expansionism creates danger for world peace. This is an era of development. Expansionist forces have either lost or forced to turn back.” His message was loud and clear: he meant business. No-nonsense attitude requires political guts and now there is no dearth of it. Government’s decision to ban Chinese apps and do away with many big projects that had gone to Chinese companies must have taken China by utter surprise. First time in the history of independent India, an Indian leader showed firmness of voice and intent. Similarly in case of Pulwama terrorist massacre, there was a retaliatory Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s lair in Balakot. The days of a soft state are over. Modi minces no words when it comes to calling a spade a spade: be it within the country or outside especially with irking neighbours.

Second, let us now come to abolition of Article 370. Article 370 of the Constitution granted special status to Jammu & Kashmir whereby provisions of the Constitution which were applicable to other States were not applicable to J&K. This article provided, except for defense, foreign affairs, finance and communications, Parliament needs the State Government’s concurrence for applying all other laws. Did it not sound ridiculous? Over a period of time, Article 370 allowed vested interests within Jammu & Kashmir prosper for their own nefarious purposes. Most importantly Article 370 compromised the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country. Article 370 created power elites wielding prodigious power and control over resources resulting in genuine demands of common people remaining unmet. Article 370 was utilised to deprive both Ladakh and Jammu region of a fair share of economic pie. While, Article 370 provided political, economic and cultural and other safeguards to Kashmiris, it was also misused by some to deny the same safeguards to people of other regions of the State. Existence of Article 370 brought sufferings, trauma both physical and psychological and alienation to common people of J&K.  

In August 2019, the Government abolished Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu & Kashmir. It also moved a Bill to bifurcate the State into two separate union territories of Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. The UT in Ladakh will have no legislature like Chandigarh while the other UT of Jammu & Kashmir will have a legislature like Delhi and Puducherry. The move deserves high praise for it corrected a historical wrong. It’s easy to commit historical wrongs with a view to obtain some short-term benefits with long-term adverse consequences but correcting such historical wrongs really requires tough interior of leadership and political guts. A historical wrong existing for decades can be corrected only by a leader who has visionary qualities in him both: short-term and long-term. One of the most important consequences of abolition of Article 370 is now the veil covering J&K has evaporated. Article 370 that prompted separatist forces to feel enthused to indulge in separatism, including terrorist activities, will now not protect them. The monopoly of a few households in J&K to hold the Union Government to ransom ended and ended for good. Sunrays can now peep into J&K and transparency is very much already in place. Abolition will also help economically weaker sections. For example, during last one year, the Government issued domicile certificates to West Pakistani refugees, Valminki Community. This community, along with Gorkhas, was considered non-state subjects and thus was deprived of their citizenship rights. The process of assimilation of Kashmiris into the national mainstream has begun. 

Third, demonetisation. The concept of New India and digitisation cannot be achieved without demonetisation. Economists, by and large, believe that delivery of public goods through the systems before high-value currency notes were demonetised in November 2016 was imbued with corruption leading to huge delays and inefficiency. Black money implied parallel economy eating into the vitals of healthy economic relations. The objective of demonetisation was to curtail the black money running as shadow economy and to prevent the use of counterfeit cash to fund illegal activity and terrorism. The move was riddled with administrative hiccups which got overcome with the passage of time.

The audacity of the move sent out a strong signal about governmental determination to establish rule of law and pursue it firmly and vigorously. There has been a marked broadening of India’s direct tax base. The lesson learnt is that the premium on honesty has been restored. Demonetisation is the greatest financial reform aiming at tackling black money, illegal practices and counterfeit currency notes. The move has already helped the Government to track the black money and the amount collected by means of tax can be better utilised for the public welfare and development schemes. Most importantly, demonetisation has been seen as a move to place a drastic curb on terrorist activities. The funding of the terrorism because of inflow of unaccounted cash and fake currency in huge quantity has stopped. Money laundering will eventually end as such activities can easily be tracked and lawful action initiated. One key impact of demonetisation has been that more people have made digital payments part of their lives and loved moving towards a cashless economy. The end results have been successful digitisation, honest transactions and financial transparency both in public and private life by effectively pushing the transition from a cash-based to digitally enabled economy. Digitisation and demonetisation make excellent bed-fellow. Both encourage access to technological innovation, enhancement of digital financial services infrastructure and greater financial inclusion. For policymakers it is easier now to pinpoint areas relevant to designing policies needed to facilitate the adoption of digital payment systems. Coupled with tax and regulatory overhaul, demonetisation is set to boost economic growth and prosperity. Demonetisation is an essential measure to strengthen democracy.

In my view the most crucial element that has contributed to the end of “soft state” and “functioning anarchy” is massive empowerment of people particularly from lower strata of society. Those who listen to “Mann Ki Baat” programme of the Prime Minister, delivered on last Sunday of every month, must have noticed it is a mighty means for the Prime Minister to reach out to 138 crore people and equally mighty means for 138 crore people to reach out to the Prime Minister. This is real empowerment. Real empowerment brings national unity and collective prosperity. It ends vested interests and corruption. It allows sunrays to illumine people and society.

Before we finish and come to a conclusion, it is pertinent to highlight what Galbraith recorded in The Age of Uncertainty regarding his association with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Let me quote Galbraith, “For Nehru, the temptation to equivocate was especially strong. Nehru himself moved easily among Europeans, often with a poorly concealed sense of his own superior grace and education. Once he told me, again not quite seriously, that he would be the last Englishman to be Prime Minister of India… When Hitler became the great source of anxiety, Roosevelt faced that fear, as did Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Nehru did not have a similar capacity for change… In his last years his leadership suffered. A leader must be able to confront the anxieties of his time. He must also change as these changes.” Nehru did not change with changing mass anxieties, and thus his leadership suffered in his last years, so said Galbraith.

The three above cited examples which are only illustrative and not exhaustive answer very effectively whether India is still a “soft state” or “a functioning anarchy”? The answer is an emphatic “No”. India functions much better, it believes in sagacity and benevolence but it has done away with being a “soft state”. The signs of complacency, general inertia and propensity towards appeasement of certain sections of society prevalent in society have vanished. Hard decisions with positive consequences of far-reaching effect are being taken in the interest of nation and people. To draw an analogy from Galbraith who wrote in the same book “The greatest support to evasion comes from complexity. The problem seeming difficult, we postpone, compromise, yield to conveniences of politics.” That is simple hari-kari and Prime Minister Modi has simply put an end to such hara-kiris by not evading taking hard decisions. Thus the first requirement of India ceasing to be either a “soft state” or a “functioning anarchy” has been more than adequately met by the leader of the nation who with his visionary qualities not only “confronts the anxieties of his time” but also changes as these change. Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has successfully confronted the anxieties of 138 crore Indians. This in turn offers a New India which preserves and enhances human freedom, fosters prosperity, reduces inequality, discrimination and oppression and above all upholds the dignity of human beings. India is well poised at a great moment in its history. 

(Born in Gorakhpur in 1960, KK Srivastava did his Masters in Economics from Gorakhpur University in 1980 and joined Indian Audit & Accounts Service in 1983. He is a poet, writer and critic. His fourth book Soliloquy of a Small Town Uncivil Servant: a literary non-fiction published in March 2019 by Rupa Publications, New Delhi has been receiving international acclaim in literary field. He was Additional Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General in the office of Comptroller & Auditor General of India when he superannuated recently. Views expressed here are his own)  

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