All through last week the Prime Minister vigorously highlighted the achievements of his government since 2014. These are varied and several and have been acknowledged. He has also said that his third term, which he seems to have taken for granted, would see many rapid transformative reforms.
He probably has several on his list but, in case he has missed a few, he should now consider focusing on reforming an important part of what Karl Marx called the superstructure, or the administrative and legal arrangements. Indeed, these form the basis of what the Europeans call social democracy.
Get them right and you get a just and kind society. But continue with the colonial style and arrangements and you get what India is today — brutal, unjust and unkind, which is the chief characteristic of underdevelopment.
The hardware of development doesn’t compensate for the absence of its software. As with computers it’s good superstructure software that will tell the world India is a developed country.
Therefore, there are two things Modi must fix. One relates to the provision of public goods, which includes services. The other relates to the relationship between the agents of the state like the bureaucrats, policemen and judges on the one hand and the citizens on the other.
The two are intimately linked. So far Modi has had very limited success with them. He has chosen to solve the problem with technology. That’s not enough.
Since these three agents of the state are the chief means of governance, they are an integral part of public goods, or two sides of the same coin. If Modi doesn’t fix them, his overall successes will be incomplete and, frankly speaking, no different from that of all the previous governments.
To truly shed the colonial holdovers, which he told the Rajya Sabha he was doing, he must recognise that welfare goes well beyond the successful provision of physical goods and changing street names. As economists say, those are necessary but not sufficient.
Three things must be his priority: a bureaucracy that’s not obsessed with wielding petty power; a police force which is not ill-treating citizens because it can; and a judiciary which is less erratic. These three elements are the most essential components of public goods.
Take the bureaucracy first. Modi needs to convert it, a la Europe, from an instrument of control to an instrument of service. Its ethos today is colonial: me ruler, you native. Likewise, the police. The same change of ethos is needed there, too. For instance, the fact that a constable is empowered to arrest a citizen on mere suspicion is, when you think about it, a truly extraordinary power. Suspicion? Arrest? Wow! No wonder our policemen are so scary.
As for the judiciary, it also presents a huge problem because it’s empowered itself to judge itself. Needless to say, it doesn’t do a very good job of it. As Arun Shourie pointed out 40 years ago, it’s flip-flop all the way.
What these three components of public goods have in common, though, is the lack of transparency and accountability. Unlike the politicians, none of them needs to explain their actions. All three can pretty do much as they please. Millions of citizens can go and smoke a pipe.
The Right to Information Act had sought to address this problem. But over the years it’s been made increasingly ineffective.
What’s to be done
At its very core, the problem is of extreme empowerment of the agents of the state. This lay at the heart of the colonial view of governance, the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ way. It was initially rooted in racial superiority. Now it’s just superiority.
If you work for the state you not only have power, you also get precedence, the “don’t you know who I am” attitude. The British didn’t have to ask that question. The colour of their skin said it.
Can Modi address this problem, especially after he talked at such length about the failures of the Congress in ridding the country of colonial vestiges and notions, which include attitudes?
Colonial attitudes shaped the tools of colonialism. Getting rid of the latter won’t be possible, except cosmetically, unless the attitudes are transformed.
Let me put it very bluntly. If the upper castes treated the others with disdain and demanded preferential treatment, in independent India it’s the agents of the state who do so. It’s the red light on car syndrome.
These people are the new upper castes to whom power and entitlement flows not from birth but from office. But the end result is the same.
Modi may well think of himself as the pradhan sevak but what about all those below him? How do they view themselves?