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After the attack on the Indian Parliament on Dec. 13, the Indian public was roused to anger, the nation mobilized half-a-million troops along the Pakistan border, America and other powers deferred to India’s right of self-defense, and Pakistan vowed to stop what it had proudly called “jihad.” There can be no doubt that this sequence will be profoundly transformative. Also, the events reflect changes that came before. We must ask: is this unified front of government and people a sign of things to come in other spheres, or is it another illusion?
The swift and strong reaction of public opinion to a materially minor but highly symbolic event hints at a new freedom of action for the Indian state. The reaction of the Indian public, partially captured in urban polls, is a sign of heightened national cohesion. And this enhances the future ability of the government to react forcefully to state-sponsored terror. This heightened public reaction was likely to have been a factor in Pakistan’s decision to reverse its terrorist campaign, and also in the U.S. decision to defer to India’s mobilization. There is a larger question that arises from the events following Dec. 13. It is whether we are witnessing a more profound transformation of the Indian state. Is the democratic state becoming broadly stronger in its ability to reshape society toward the goals of economic development, social justice, and national security?
Strong states are those, which can mobilize and direct the efforts of mass society and can impose sacrifices on the most powerful social groups. The state in free India has been weak by the standards of Asian developing countries. Virtually all countries that have undergone faster development have had stronger states. This is true whether we look at post-1945 Asia or the West in preceding centuries. Stronger capitalist states have created a broad consensus on national identity, have been able to extract tax revenues, have educated their people, and have been able to persuade their masses to accept the hegemony of the ascendant social classes. They have also been able to persuade the ascendant social classes to limit their exploitation, and to accept moderate redistribution of wealth by various mechanisms and the rapid diffusion of knowledge.
A strong state is not to be confused with a dictatorial state or a socialist state. Dictatorial states may be the tools by which powerful social groups keep their power, and socialist states may not be able to limit the power of the new social classes they create. The U.S.S.R. under Gorbachev was a dictatorial socialist state that could not impose reforms on its own bureaucratic elite without drastically altering its basic structure. The Indian state faced a particularly difficult problem of national integration after independence, and has lagged behind its neighbors in Asia in most dimensions of state strength. Democracy itself has not been the cause of Indian state weakness, and may prove to be a relative strength in the coming decades.
A stronger state requires a more cohesive society. The popular response to the Dec. 13 attack is an extension of the response to the Kargil attack. This time, the government obtained mass approval for an attack into Pakistan. The same public that was barely moved by dozens of gruesome terrorist atrocities in Kashmir was roused by a failed attack on the seat of democracy. Cohesive and synchronized emotional responses of the Indian nation have taken place before. Not only was there strong public approval for the 1971 war, the victory paid dividends to Indira Gandhi at the polls. Nonetheless, now it is different. The public response is much faster now, and it is mediated by television, not by the exhortations of politicians. The nationalist middle class has attained a critical mass and has become the driver of public opinion.
There are several favorable social trends toward a more cohesive and egalitarian society. One bright spot is the educational levels among Dalit youths. In Uttar Pradesh, Dalits are entering colleges at rates above the statewide average. Anirudh Krishna of Duke University surveyed villages in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. He found that 72.4 percent of Dalits youths of 18-25 years had at least five years of education. This compares to 81 percent of the upper caste youths in that age range, and 69.6 percent of all youths of those ages. Of Dalits aged 25-35 years, only 40.4 percent had five years or more of education. For Dalits above 65 years, the number was 0 percent.
A remarkable leap took place during the 1980s in the education of Dalit children. Similar trends were found for tribal persons and backward castes. Krishna finds that this new generation of educated Dalits has moved in disproportionate numbers into positions of social leadership in their villages. He finds more broadly, that caste is a declining factor in politics in these villages. Several scholars and surveys have found evidence of the declining role of caste divisions in Indian politics. While Indians continue to marry within their castes, they are discriminating far less on the basis of caste in other aspects of life. This is a huge improvement in itself and also makes a stronger state possible.
In spite of recent events and favorable trends, there remain powerful forces limiting state strength in India. There have been sharp improvements in mass literacy and educational levels in the last decade, but India lags behind the rest of Asia. Mass education has been the fundamental tool deployed by modern states for national integration, and India continues to lag behind. The obstacle at this time is less an elite conspiracy and more neglect by elites and masses alike. This is a classic symptom of a weak state. No one seriously opposes universal education and literacy, but the state has not been able to mobilize the modest resources required to finish the job. Recently, education was made a “right.” This was an empty gesture attempting to substitute law for resources.
Central revenues have now dipped below 9 percent of GNP. Most of the least developed countries are doing better. Rajiv Gandhi used to do much better. The capitalist elite proposes precisely the wrong solution for the resulting fiscal stress—cutting spending. The right solution is to start jailing members of the capitalist elite who are evading taxes. The BJP is the party least likely to implement this solution since it has a strong base among traders, and they are among the worst tax evaders. Another need is to tax the services of the India economy at the same rate as industry. Most of India’s revenues come from excise taxes on factory output and customs duties on factory inputs. Factories, mines, and power plants form only a quarter of the economy. This imbalance alone retards industrialization.
India suffers from a prolonged shortage of electricity because states cannot bring themselves to cut off electricity to those who do not pay their bills. State electricity board workers are allowed to steal, industrialists are allowed to pay bribes instead of bills, and farmers are allowed the option of not paying. Most of the poor are not allowed electricity. The problem is well understood, but reform efforts have been halting.
A decade after the start of capitalist reforms, India lacks a capitalist labor market in industry. China has acquired a capitalist labor market through its reforms, and the Chinese people have reaped the benefits. The “basket case” of Bangladesh and war-torn Sri Lanka have made impressive strides in manufacturing exports in comparison with India. They have more capitalistic labor laws.
Indian labor laws have had devastating consequences for employment, productivity, and trade competitiveness. They require a job seeker to say to a prospective employer: give me a lifetime job or no job. The result has been stagnation in employment growth. The workers who have captured permanent employment form a small but powerful labor aristocracy in India. They have a vested interest in perpetuating the existing labor laws, even at great cost to the less privileged majority of the working class.
Finance ministers since Manmohan Singh have recognized the need for labor law reform, but have consistently failed to actually do it. The Vajpayee government has gone farther than any other in talking about labor law reform. But it is crossing the middle of its term and has lacked the courage to push it through. The weak state has sacrificed its most vital interests to the power of a small, but well-organized and politically conscious minority. It has neglected the interests of an unorganized and politically less conscious majority.
We can now recognize that the Kargil victory did nothing at all to overcome the main weaknesses of the Indian state. The sacrifices of the jawans inspired no one to make sacrifices of their own. A successful bout of coercive diplomacy against a state even less capable of controlling its elites than India will not do better. The battle for a strong state remains to be fought. It is vastly more difficult and vastly more important than the battle against terrorism.