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India’s perverse political equilibrium

LiveMint logoLiveMint 29-08-2017 Livemint

One of the central concepts of modern governance is that only the state has the right to use violence. Indeed, as German sociologist Max Weber explained in his 1918 lecture Politics As A Vocation, only the state can claim “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. The state, in turn, may delegate the use of force to other agencies but if it begins to lose its monopoly over the use of force, say to crime syndicates, drug cartels or terror groups, its foundations begin to erode and its viability comes into question.

Yet, there have been innumerable instances in this country wherein the state has wilfully ceded its monopoly over violence, and in doing so, also stepped away from its primary responsibility to provide law and order to the citizenry. This was precisely the case last Friday when Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape and his supporters ran amok, spreading mayhem in Haryana as well as in parts of Punjab and Delhi that cost 38 lives and injured close to 250. The state was unprepared and inefficient, if not indulgent—though, admittedly, it managed to somewhat get its act together over the weekend, as a result of which the situation was much better handled on Monday, after the court handed down a 20-year prison sentence to the self-styled godman. Still, the fact remains that the state capitulated—yet again, and shamefully so.

The reason for this has already been discussed at great length. Singh is a powerful leader and commands the support of several thousand followers—who are viewed as captive vote banks by politicians. In fact, Singh’s dera reportedly has a political affairs wing that advises the faithful on how to vote.

This time around, much has been made of the fact that Singh supported the Bharatiya Janata Party; hence the government it leads in Haryana was seemingly reluctant to take strong action against his followers. However, other parties, including the Congress, have also been endorsed by Singh in previous years and they too have approached the godman with kid gloves for exactly the same reason.

The pattern holds true for other such quasi-religious figures too, be it an Asaram Bapu or a Sant Rampal, and indeed can be extended to just about every collective—a religious minority (think of the Azad Maidan riots) or an aggrieved caste grouping (the Jat protests last year)—that is a vote bank in the next election.

In effect, then, we have a situation where politicians are willing to trade the state’s monopoly over the use of force in order to secure new votes in the short run—even though any erosion in the state’s monopoly over violence threatens its viability in the long run, which in turn has an adverse impact on the citizenry. To break this pattern and ensure that the state retains its monopoly, politicians need to be incentivised to deliver on law and order.

The public needs to put this issue on the campaign agenda, and do so in a consistent manner. Sure, there have been isolated instances of public outrage coming to a boil and thereby compelling lawmakers to take strong action or make a policy change—for example, the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi or the Jessica Lall case in 1999, but that’s clearly not enough.

The problem here is that just like politicians use state machinery to dispense patronage and win votes, the Indian public, by and large, has also bought into this system. As Shruti Rajagopalan writes in Pragati, “There is much evidence from history that Indians seek a mai baap that will benevolently bestow economic or cultural favours... A democratically elected mai baap legitimizes this kind of dependency, and the excesses of the paternalist.”

It can be argued that it is because the electorate prefers a relationship of patronage with the state rather than one premised on the provision of public goods that politicians have little to no incentive to deliver the latter. As economist Ajay Shah elucidates, this is why the Indian state has “gone off on the adventure of building welfare programmes” that provide private goods to marginal voters (think of the rural employment guarantee scheme or the food security Act) while the provision of public goods, such as law and order, environment and sanitation, has been ignored.

Moreover, it does not require any stretch of the imagination to see how the state’s misplaced priorities, and its consequent inability to uphold its part of the social contract, have in fact led to the proliferation of deras of the sort that Singh and others lead. These institutions fill the gap left by the state—they provide a social security net, offer education and healthcare, and foster a sense of safety and belonging that binds individuals and builds communities. Then when the state comes in and supports these deras and ashrams and cults, it feeds into a perverse political equilibrium.

To change this, the Indian state and society need to reorient their relationship and focus on the provision of public goods. With regard to law and order, for example, once the issue is prioritized, other related problems such as poorly trained and often politicized police forces and an overburdened judiciary—that currently hamper law enforcement but are essentially symptomatic of a deeper structural problem—will begin to be reformed and resolved.

How do you think the Indian state can improve its law enforcement? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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