Gurcharan Das' new book "India Grows At Night" postulates a liberal case for a strong India, for a strong leadership and system that ensures swift governance and justice. Das' work is rooted in the enlightenment philosophy of 18th century thinkers like Adam Smith and John Locke. So Das' strong state is not the autocratic states of Stalin or Mao and not even Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew. The book is timely as the country seems to be embroiled in an endless web of financial irregularities and political uncertainties.
It draws from the original conception of the liberal state, essentially a product of the enlightenment thought process. In Das' own words, "It has three pillars: One, the ability to take quick and collective action; two, that action is bound by the rule of law and three, that action is accountable to the people. In India's case, these three pillars often act against one another. It is the mark of a weak state."
Das argues that the weakness of the state is at the centre of India's woes. "This is the singular reason why it takes 10 years to build a road where it should not take more than three. This is also the reason why people have to wait for 12 years to get justice from a court of law. This is also the reason why some people think that they are above the law. That is where corruption starts from," says Das in an interaction with IBNLive.
A strong undercurrent of the principle of 'Eminent Domain', the expropriation action of the United States government, runs in Das' work – one where government acts quickly and decisively.
This, Das argues, will lead to rule-based capitalism and not crony capitalism. In India's case, crony capitalists have captured the state and tweak and bend the rules to suit their vested interests, he says.
However, though Das makes a distinction between a government and administrative set-up being pro-market and one being pro-business (which he says is the case in crony capitalism-ruled India), one might argue that the line is a thin one, especially if one took into account the fact that pro-market rules very often do not take into account public good in developing countries.
Also, the principle of Eminent Domain has an inherently undemocratic component that it believes that the State knows best, and certainly better than the people it governs, about what is good for the citizens. In democracy, the citizen is paramount but the 'Eminent Domain' principle seems to downplay his/her judgement.
Das also talks about an inherent moral core or 'public dharma' which has to be behind the rise of the 'Strong State'. "The liberal ideals of the Constitution, the vision of those who founded the modern republic have been lost down the way. MK Gandhi was the last person who talked about it," Das tells IBNLive.
In that regard, Das sees a few silver linings. He says, "One, from the Jessica Lal murder case to the massive street protests inspired by Anna Hazare, the middle class has awakened. Street protests do not solve the problem but they make people aware. The middle class feel a lot more empowered today." This is definitely not disputable. Social media, higher purchasing power and exposure to the world via the Internet, travel and interaction has led to this notion of empowerment.
"Second," Das tells IBNLive, "is the notion of dharma. I have always held that the continuity of the Indian civilisation is more important than its antiquity and dharma is its most enduring legacy. If you followed the people's interactions and the media (and I write for the vernacular media too), you would know that there has been a leading refrain that the dharma has been wounded."
Now, Das comes to the third point, the actual bedrock of the "Strong State" that he calls for. "Emergence of a liberal party, in lines of a Swatantrata Party is an imperative to repair the wounded dharma. It has to be secular and needs to look at not just economic reforms but also institutional reforms."
But Das is not too hopeful about the political dispensation floated by Arvind Kejriwal and other members of India Against Corruption. "There is no coherent way of thought in this group and their idea of Lokpal, while being just one instrument to address just one problem, is a super authority which runs contrary to all liberal principles."
In his book, Das credits Nehru for being a builder of institutions and castigates his daughter of having been a destroyer of the same. "While the father wanted an efficient bureaucracy, a liberal judiciary and an impartial police force, his daughter wanted them committed. Indira Gandhi was a strong leader but she destroyed the liberal institutions. Even today, we are paying for her nationalisation drive in the shape of Air-India," says Das. There is not much to dispute this. To top it all, Mrs Gandhi even wanted a committed press. But of course, one has to take into account that India got sucked into the Cold War prim and proper during Mrs Gandhi's rule. May be, an iron hand was not so much a matter of exercise of choice but rather of compulsion.
Das posits China vis-à-vis India and says, "While China has a strong state, it has a weak society. India has a weak state but a strong society." So, he argues, India should build on this strong society, from its grassroots – power devolved to the gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas, so that people at the lowest end of the pyramid has a stake and say in their future. A democracy must have 'habits of the heart' instilled in its citizens. Das clearly favours more decentralisation but warns that a strong Central leadership would be necessary. "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is being castigated as weak by Mamata Banerjee. This should not happen."
While Das talks about the rising expectations of a middle class that has today grown from under 10 per cent in 1985 to almost a third of the population, he nonetheless concedes that India still has a huge number of poor people to contend with. Das says to IBNLive, "You can look at the glass one-fourth empty or you can see it as three-fourth full. Well the poverty line estimates are a contentious figure but we will have to concede that since 1991, every year around one per cent of the people are getting out of the poverty trap which is not an insignificant achievement. But having said that, the strong State I am advocating is one that ensures proper roads, access to quality education and healthcare which can pull more people up from the depths of poverty and under-development."
Das also responds to a question on the Maoist issue: "I see it as a combination of socio-economic-political and security issue. I am not in agreement with people like Arundhuti Roy who say that the 'Indian State is illegitimate' and neither I am with bleeding hearts who see it as something that has emerged just out of economic and political deprivation. But yes, the starting point is the government's failure to ensure proper nutrition, healthcare and education for the citizens of the country."
Every Indian surely appreciates that "India needs to grow at day" too (since it already grows at night while the government sleeps). But Das, throughout the book, refers to the American democracy as an ideal model. He tells IBNLive: "I am not an apologist for America. But being the oldest democracy in the world, the US can serve as a model for India. Especially when it comes to the spirit of volunteerism in the average American, I think we can learn a great deal." However, one needs to keep in mind that the democratic ideals of America and the spirit of volunteerism is steered by an uncompromising lifestyle, the preservation of which often entails disturbing peace and throwing life out of gear in different parts of the world.
Title: India Grows At Night; Author: Gurcharan Das; Publisher: Allen Lane (Penguin); Genre: Non-fiction; Pages: 307; Price: Rs 599