To be republican is to be part of an honourable fraternity and an old one. Not as old as the word itself, whose meaning altered over the centuries: of the first systems to which it was applied, the Greek polis or city-state remains historically unique while the Roman republic was, properly speaking, an oligarchy. It is to the Enlightenment that we owe the republican ideal in its modern sense: by the time of its full flowering, in 19th-century Europe, to be republican was to be on the side of representative democracy (with suitable property qualifications to be sure) against arbitrary despotism; worked-out and voted-upon constitutional arrangements rather than custom; and civic union as opposed to arbitrary boundaries defended by autocratic rulers. Above all, republicanism signified political radicalism, even though its actual programme might range from institutional reform to outright revolution.
Almost by definition, republicanism implies new laws and administrative arrangements – republics endure when their basis is firm. The legal and administrative reforms enacted during the French Revolution, and systematised by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose name they bore, were exported to Europe by example and conquest: the ‘Code Napoleon’ outlasted the Bourbon restoration and the Orleanist monarchy to serve as the founding text for the legal codes of any number of countries. However in India’s case, the foundations were hollow from the very beginning. None of its founding fathers thought of themselves as republican, if their acts and legacies are anything to go by. B R Ambedkar is the sole exception, probably because his origins insulated him from that false pride in an ancient civilisation, which acted like a drug on the rest of his contemporaries. These, almost to a man or woman, were upper and middle caste, as well as class, in origin. This meant that they were, on the whole, comfortable with the Subcontinent’s complex systems of hierarchy, even while (often sincerely) deploring them. It was this ingrained conservatism that shielded, for example, those decorative, entirely parasitic rulers of ‘princely’ states, so thoroughly emasculated by the British that they represented no military threat at all, by giving them a gilt-edged retirement plan rather than the outright expropriation they deserved.
A troubled beginning
The failure of the Constituent Assembly to contemplate thoroughgoing administrative and legal reform revealed most clearly the limits of the founders’ ambitions and fears. Modernisation was to be achieved without radically upsetting the traditional social order and its hierarchies, and the underpaid, socially subordinated reservoir of labour that formed its base. A few of them hoped otherwise but what they did, and failed to do, guaranteed that the wider consensus would prevail. Jawaharlal Nehru’s easy acceptance of the institutions of the colonial state, his belief that they could be made to serve a sovereign republic as readily as they had served colonialism, was shared by his socialist colleagues such as Jayaprakash Narayan: for them, the sphere of politics and economics was divorced from any consideration of the state’s intrinsic character. There was a great deal of unconscious aristocraticism in this outlook. Its consequences were stark. The lack of institutional reform meant that the structures of political democracy were grafted to the coercive apparatus of the colonial state. This suited the inclinations of the governing elite, who saw the poor as rabble to be controlled and put to work in suitable ways. Between the quinquennial expressions of popular will (which could be managed in various ways), it made increasing use of the extensive coercive powers it had arrogated to itself with the tacit concurrence of a growing middle class.
A sense of crisis developed quickly. The fashionable nostalgia for the Nehru years amongst a section of the intelligentsia is nostalgia for a fictitious past. By the end of the first decade of independence, there was a palpable sense of unease. This was partly because competing views of economic strategy were still being fought out, and the stated aims of the republic continued to agitate its best minds. Whatever else India was or was not doing, poverty remained endemic, not enough food was being grown, the pace of industrialisation was sluggish and so on. This unease soon slipped over into crisis. By the 1970s, the viability of the country’s political system seemed under threat. That it did not succumb was due to the political farsightedness of its founders: federalism (which formalised regional control by regional elites), and linguistic re-organisation, not to mention the reservations system, served it well. Capitalism, partly directed by the state, and based on characteristically wasteful expropriation of natural resources and savage exploitation of labour in agriculture and the unorganised sector, tied regional elites together and nourished a growing middle class. The development of indigenous capitalism up to and beyond 1991 (when it felt strong enough to begin dismantling the regulatory structures that had originally nourished, and later inhibited, it) leads directly to the triumphalism of today, when the only question appears to be how far and fast India will rise in the global pecking order.
Over the past fifteen years or so, competing visions of India’s future have been fought out largely in the economic domain. On one side are those economists who argue that neoliberal economics, derived from the Chicago school and based on the trickle-down approach (for which John Kenneth Galbraith resuscitated an old American metaphor: stuffing a horse with oats so that some will pass through on the road for the sparrows), is the only prescription for India’s ills. On the other side are economists and social scientists who argue that neoliberal economic reforms aggravate inequality and disproportionately affect the labouring poor by diminishing food security, making access to health and education ever more expensive, and exposing them to corporate rapacity and greed by dismantling business regulation. Data sets – especially figures on poverty – are energetically fought over. But this is a losing battle, even though, or perhaps because, the bad faith of the proponents of neo-liberalism is so transparent. Economists of this persuasion seem to have no purchase at all on history – the advantages of protectionism, for example. The British shipping industry, cornerstone of its commercial and military success, was built up in the 17th century through fierce protectionism. In the same way, no developed country, not even the United States, has achieved anything resembling universal literacy without an efficient and well-funded state schooling system.
The case against laissez faire capitalism becomes especially strong when we move beyond macro-economic data to its effects on different sectors of society. In the Indian context, however, a dichotomy remains, which is that India before 1991 was never socialist in any meaningful sense of the term, and that the roots of the present crisis can plausibly be traced to the founding decade of the republic. Once this is admitted, the binary opposition between socialist past and free-market present can be seen for what it is: a chimera that disguises a disturbing pattern of continuity, one that advocates of either side usually fail to remark upon. For India’s economic policy up until the 1980s, based on laws that enabled the state to direct and regulate capital investment with the public sector holding the commanding heights of the economy, was essentially social democratic. The greater rigour of business regulation can be traced to the fact that it was a developing country with scarce capital and an agricultural sector in a state of crisis. This programme was put into effect in Britain before it was in India, under the post-war government of Clement Attlee, and maintained by subsequent administrations until Margaret Thatcher began briskly to wield the kitchen knife. Indeed, planning or state direction were indispensable elements in the post-war reconstruction of Western Europe as a whole, including France, Germany and Italy.
The nature of the state
A social-democratic programme is no bad thing – unfortunately, in India it was applied exclusively in the economic sphere. Universal literacy and health care were never priorities, either in the Nehruvian years or afterwards, which is why the state schooling system was run down through systematic neglect and underfunding, and the apparatus of rural health care proved dysfunctional from the beginning. Agricultural reform passed only the first, most basic test – the abolition of zamindari – before it was subverted in order to preserve the structure of land ownership and hierarchies in the countryside. Land-ceiling acts and redistribution were long and expensive failures. Labour regulation was confined to the organised sector, and a tiny fraction of the actual workforce: wages in agriculture as well as the informal and small-scale sectors, where the vast majority of Indian workers were concentrated, remained unregulated.
Meanwhile, the ‘green revolution’ launched agriculture on an explicitly capitalist path. One of its by-products was the almost complete neglect of dryland farming, on which the majority of Indian farmers depended. In every case, difficult social and environmental problems were ignored as far as possible in favour of technological solutions. The emphasis was firmly on the short term – a glaring example is the unrestricted use of groundwater through tubewells, which the state encouraged by providing cheap credit, a policy that continues to this day despite clear evidence of its catastrophic effects. All the while, heavy industry and mining uprooted Adivasi communities, even as the Forest Department kept them out of forests, which were chopped down anyway for commercial profit, or through a byzantine and deep-rooted process of corruption. Protective legislation in favour of Adivasis and Dalits was re-strengthened, only to be flouted with cynical disregard.
The reason for these failures can be traced, above all, to the nature of the state apparatus, opaque and unaccountable, and the complete powerlessness of the poor when confronted with it. The state was run on paternalist principles, its representatives displaying scant respect for the citizenry they were technically exhorted to serve. Civil servants were protected to the point where the state’s permission was required to prosecute them for corruption or almost anything else. The full panoply of repressive legislation devised by the colonial state was retained in the legal code. The cumbersome procedures of the judicial system were preserved, with no attempt to make courts work faster or more efficiently. The opaque appointment of judges, and the near impossibility of removing them, intensified the closed character of the judiciary. The police, understaffed, overworked and badly trained, was carefully insulated from oversight of abuse, producing an exceptionally repressive apparatus for a functioning democracy. Routine and systematic brutality was strikingly evident, not just in the normal working of the police but also the Forest Department. Everywhere, public officials – from judges and public prosecutors to police officers, civil servants and schoolteachers – were promoted by rote and seniority, without taking into account how or whether they performed their duties.
The composition of the administrative apparatus (including the police and the judiciary) remained overwhelmingly upper and middle caste. An inherent class and caste bias was built into the system. The neglect of primary education meant that the poor, especially those socially oppressed, could fill the places reserved for them only slowly and with great difficulty. Those who did obtain state employment behaved, on the whole, almost exactly like their upper-caste counterparts: the notion that the institutions of the state could be accountable to its citizens, or that they might serve as more than instruments of power and upward mobility, could scarcely strike root in a system built upon paternalist and authoritarian principles. The very idea of radical reform was smothered under thicker and thicker layers of procedure.
From this process, India emerged in the 1980s with a remarkably corrupt and repressive police force, an administrative apparatus that regarded itself as the fount of all power and authority, and a judiciary worryingly self-satisfied and powerful. Nothing much has changed since then, a few pieces of legislation like the Right to Information Act notwithstanding. The results? Endemic poverty, never mind the wrangling over figures. A largely privatised system of health care and education, appallingly expensive for the poor. A judicial system in which civil and criminal cases take years and decades to be resolved, and rates of conviction are derisory. A series of profligate judicial decisions (the Allahabad High Court judgment on classification of Muslims as a minority, the Supreme Court’s appeal against scrutiny under the RTI Act), and the continuous invasion of executive domain (with the complicity, it must be said, of the executive). An escalating war against Maoism that sees the central and state governments propping up a paramilitary force in Chhattisgarh. Encounters and killings, the detention of civil-liberties activists, the criminalisation of dissent, and the proscription or repression of legitimate democratic protest.
The material statistics make for appalling reading. The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau’s sample survey of households in nine major states shows 33 percent of adults with a body-mass index of less than 18.5, an indication of chronic ‘energy deficiency’; 42 percent of all Indians survive on less than 2000 rupees a month; and almost half of all Indian children are underweight. Certainly such figures should by themselves demolish any notion of India as a superpower. For the vast majority without money or connections, the country resembles the nightmare world of Kafka’s novels, rather than a democratic republic.
Reform and republicanism
Since those who are likely to read this piece are, by definition, neither destitute nor unconnected, some of them will doubtless find it difficult to grasp this elementary fact. Yet without it, no notion of reform is possible. Economic policy is, in a sense, a facade that hides the true heart of darkness – the character of the apparatus of government, its arbitrary unchecked power, its lack of accountability. The solution lies not in making government smaller, as deluded free marketeers would have us believe, but making it more accountable; not to the middle class, whose interests it serves efficiently on the whole, but to the mass of poor. And this can be done, in theory at least, by a set of practical reforms delinked almost entirely from economic policy. Many of them are so self-evident that they have been recommended by state-sponsored committees.
In the judicial sphere, a beginning could usefully be made by repealing the notorious law on contempt of court, and reforming the impeachment process to make removal of corrupt judges easier. The system of appointing judges could be reformed by appointing a National Judicial Commission to sit in permanent session to recommend judges for appointment to the High Courts and the Supreme Court, and also to examine decisions handed down by High Courts and the lower judiciary, so that judges with a proven record of incompetent or faulty judgments can be dismissed. Its recommendations for dismissing or elevating judges could be made legally binding, and appointments subjected to confirmation by Parliament. The Criminal Procedure Code might be amended and simplified, and court procedure overhauled in order to limit delays and unnecessary adjournments.
In the sphere of police reform, one might begin with a constitutional reform mandating the separation of the police into three separate wings for criminal investigation, law and order, and everything else. A synchronised intake of new recruits would bring strength up to the point where duties can be effectively performed without overworking and brutalising policemen. Above all, an independent institutional mechanism to redress the inbuilt tendency towards abuse of power must be put in place: perhaps in the form of a National Police Commission, the composition of which should be carefully determined to include a fair proportion of citizens. The procedure of promoting police officers and public prosecutors could be reformed to include an assessment of investigations and trials, providing penalties including non-promotion and dismissal for such elementary fudging as not filing chargesheets on time, losing (or planting) evidence, etc.
In the sphere of administration, the first step would be repeal of the need for the state’s consent for the prosecution of civil servants, and reform of the Official Secrets Act to limit government discretion in classifying documents. The state schooling system could be reformed to allow dismissal of incompetent teachers through a clearly mandated procedure. Independent boards to examine complaints against teachers and doctors might be created in each state. A programme of central investment in hospitals and schools, one to be built in each district, with adequate housing for their staff, should not be too difficult. In order to obtain doctors for them, a law could be passed mandating strict standards for hospitals in terms of equipment, total space, number of beds, auxiliary staff, etc, thus deterring doctors from setting up hospitals in residential flats and commercial chambers in favour of employment in properly run public hospitals. Pollution could be made a central subject, and pollution-control boards endowed with wide-ranging and binding powers to close down polluting industries. The consent of local communities to the setting-up of heavy industries could be made mandatory, to be ascertained by an independent tribunal through public hearings.
This list of piecemeal reforms could be extended ad infinitum. Some of them might not work in practice, or would be fairly easily subverted; there are doubtless others more effective. All of them involve the least possible tinkering with that holy cow, the basic structure of the Constitution. It is worth pointing out that state governments have proven notably reluctant to devolve any except the most cosmetic powers to units below them. Thus, a balance between judicious centralisation and institutionalised decentralisation needs to be struck.
A programme such as this might appear superficial at first sight. Yet the connections between institutional reform, social democracy and republicanism are deep and organic. Republics depend on what might be called ‘civic feeling’: the responsibility of each citizen for the neighbourhood in which he or she lives, rising in concentric circles to responsibility for the acts of the state itself. For the true republic is a state governed by laws, for the most part sensible, made by citizens on whom the duty of oversight devolves. This process cannot be left solely, or even principally, to the legislative branch: it must include autonomous bodies based on free association, of which unions are only one possible example. The unprecedented reach of the modern nation state and its complex bureaucratic systems generate an inbuilt tendency to reduce republicanism to representative democracy, but the two are not the same. Even less is it the simple absence of a constitutional monarch or elected dictator. Finally, the modern republic, unlike its forbears, must combine an active role for the state – in providing social services and a safety net, in regulating private greed and protecting the commons – with vigilant institutional mechanisms to safeguard the rights and liberties of ordinary citizens. That is what makes it so difficult to create, and even more difficult to defend.
These suggestions, of comparatively modest institutional reform, are made in the spirit of republicanism, a spirit that India’s founders were content to ignore in favour of paternalist direction. The problem with paternalism is that it quickly slops over into a kind of despotism based on contempt for the poor. This is the contempt that disfigures India’s institutions; and as the rabble begins to revolt, fed up with its steadily worsening condition, and Maoism grows stronger, the state, unsurprisingly, prepares to respond with a vigorous assault on civil liberties, already besieged by what passes for their normal working. It is a common error to believe that the rights and liberties of the poor can be flouted without making any difference to those of the propertied. However, a state encouraged by its middle-class constituents to make war on the poor by any and all means is unlikely in the long run to respect their rights either. If democracy in India is not to be fatally undermined, if the republic is to survive at all, it must be reformed – must, in short, and for the first time in its existence, be made genuinely republican.
~ Shashank Kela worked for many years in a trade union of Adivasi peasants in western Madhya Pradesh. He is now a full-time writer.