The coat needs alterations

Whither India? The election results would doubtless make discussion more realistic, the gun is jumped deliberately to emphasise that the basic problems run so deep, we are down to grim alternatives no matter who next misgoverns us.  At its root, the apparatus and methodology of government we adopted on independence have been becoming increasingly unsuited for our needs or to their own true spirit. We have driven ourselves into facing either authoritarianism or anarchy — or both. Can we avoid them?

Montesquieu, Hamilton, among other fathers of democracy, noted “government must be fitted to a nation as a coat to an individual, what may be good in Philadelphia may be bad in Paris and ridiculous at Petersburg”. Nowadays all governments, in all countries, are struggling, unable to cope with people’s expectations or even basic needs. We Indians, indeed most peoples, came to look upon Britain’s system as a model of good governance. Nobody has made a worse mess of itself than Britain today. The other great example, America, now suffers frightening influences. Not least of many reasons is the changed nature of their electorates: the coat needs alterations.  

In India, this has long generated urgings of presidential systems, sometimes also proportional representation. Advocates of either change don’t realise, unless legalising dictatorships, they seek forms negating their objectives: Presidential executives, separated from legislatures, provide diluted authority, not the strong governance really sought (for instance, America, even France); PR inevitably encourages more parties, not more decisiveness or cooperation (vide Europe). Some changes could make for better governance — for instance, no-confidence motions against existing rulers should, as in Germany, also name the successors, not just horse-trade in destabilisation. But marginal reforms cannot cure the fundamental causes of our system’s decay: the way we think, act, look upon and deal with each other — all the considerations that determine our management of our affairs, these are what vitiate our 1950 system.

Damnable colonialist canards about subject peoples being unready to govern? Consider how — and why — all our institutions, our legislatures, judiciary, administration, have decayed, shedding any standards of probity or professionalism. The usual blaming of our Constitution is no reasoning: just changing institutions or laws won’t change ways of functioning, but how to match the former to the latter? All societies, cultures, individuals, have their strengths and weaknesses. China developed one of the world’s greatest civilisations, but nobody looks to it for music or for metaphysical subtleties. The Cartesian mind developed governance in France markedly different from England’s. Islam’s correlation between religion and state inevitably distinguishes Islamic states’ political behaviour. It is thus natural that Indian ways should shape ours. But while our apparatus and methodology of government must suit our nature, they must also suit our needs; and that is where we are in crisis. The world and times we live in pose challenges which never enter our consciousness, let alone get attention.

One hackneyed question tells it all: revolutions, regime changes, wars civil and international, famine and ‘Cultural Revolution’ — notwithstanding such a turbulent century, how could China shoot so far ahead? Barely three decades ago, we and China were practically equal. While China made itself the second largest economy and military power, overtaking the USA in major scientific-technological fields, we, admirable achievements notwithstanding, lag ever further behind. (Symbolically, even our national obsession, the IPL, is sponsored by a Chinese firm!) The hoary excuse — they are authoritarian, we a democracy — is simply fooling ourselves. Leaving aside what we have done to our democracy, plenty of democracies do quite well. The real difference is twofold: having a sense of purpose, and choosing the right purpose — not right in moral terms, but in choice of objective. In a nutshell, China chose modernisation; we prefer looking backward. 

Obviously, government choices are crucial: “To govern is to choose”, observed French premier Mendes-France. But you cannot blame the form of government for wrong choices — or none. Institutions are worked by people, so back to us: we as a people have not done right. The way we think, behave etc, as mentioned above, determines governance. Doesn’t that make reform hopeless — how do you change a people? The people of successful countries are not better than us — far from it; ours actually have the inestimable innate advantage of producing the finest brains. Others do better for two reasons: they realise they have to live together, which means mutual accommodation; and they have kept changing with the times, meaning constant modernisation. Governments must lead right.

With us, modernisation has become a dirty word, like liberal in America. Often equated with westernisation, it is what many want to get away from (while dying to send kin West) — seek our future in our glorious past. Just why our glories passed mustn’t be asked. We knew everything when Westerners were primitives. Modernisation I use to mean simply using changes in knowledge to improve things. Certainly we were once ahead of the West in knowledge and its uses; they burned you as heretics for thinking the world is round, but they also then leaped ahead in science, technology, industrialisation. We reject their example of using new knowledge for new thinking, new ways of doing things. That is where China has beaten us: modernisation, rapid and wholesale. They aimed to reach the back of Mars; we aim to (re)build temples. 

Which is not to enter the banal shouting-match about secular vs Hindutva. How can multi-hundred million Hindus not want to order their lives according to their faith? But who defines that faith, what about other faithfuls with similar desires? The obvious questions have got lost in the slogan-mongering; worse, those professing secularism have not only failed to formulate any meaningful message, many deserve the sneer of “pseudo”. Worse still, roughly like-minded leaders and parties give narrow group interests priority over the fundamental necessity of cooperating to move India into the future. It is horrendously difficult. Put on that path 100 years ago: Turkey today finds obscurantism  negating the Ataturk revolution. But one has to keep trying. Anyone know how?  
/> The author is former secretary, external affairs ministry, and ambassador to Pakistan, China and USA