The centre doesn't hold
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The centre doesn't hold

There is an overriding and all-pervasive atmosphere of pessimism today. Even though it carries the risk of violence and chaos, a messy, decentralised and politically divided country could be the right catalyst for innovation. Amish writes.

columns Updated: May 31, 2014 18:56 IST

'We are going in the wrong direction!' How often have we heard this in the recent past when talk veers to India's future? There is an overriding and all-pervasive atmosphere of pessimism today. There are, no doubt, short-term political issues, and these have been analysed in detail by people far wiser in such matters than I can ever be. I'm sure that as a country, considering our voting record, we will find solutions to our political problems.

Let me focus instead on a longer-term issue in this article. It has been much lamented that the root of our governance problems is the coalition era we are forced to contend with. Even amongst rational, thoughtful people, there is a deep concern with the leaching away of power from Delhi to the states. We long for one-party dominance, because then, apparently, we will have results. Do I agree? Frankly, I don't.

How many times has it happened in India's history that some powerful ruler has stamped his mark over most of the subcontinent? Not often. In the last two and a half thousand years, more than 50% of our land has been ruled by a stable centralised power for not more than 800 years: under the Mauryas, Guptas, Mughals, Marathas, British and the first 40 years post our independence.

There have been some ridiculous interpretations of this historical fact to say that India was never a country and that the British created it for us. This is pure nonsense. The concept of a nation-state didn't exist anywhere in the world before the various treaties of Westphalia in the 17th century. In 16th century London, if you said you were loyal to England and not to King Henry, you would be beheaded as a traitor. In early and medieval history, countries existed as cultural and tribal concepts, not necessarily as political concepts. Culturally, India was always one country through all of history. Politically however, we were, more often than not, divided.

And that political division was our competitive strength, for it encouraged innovation, the most powerful tool for wealth generation. India was a hotbed of innovation through most of history, from millennia-impacting innovations like the place value of numbers and the philosophical concept of karma, to practical, earthy innovations in areas such as architecture, surgery, ship design and irrigation techniques. By its very nature, innovation is disruptive and rebellious. Our political divisions allowed our innovators and free thinkers to have options. If the Palas didn't like your ideas, you could go to the Cholas. If the Tuluvas of Vijaynagar didn't like your thoughts, you could go to the Bahmani Sultans. Since we were culturally one country, travel was easy. Decentralisation helped innovation and kept us rich.

So can we argue the opposite? Does centralisation harm innovation? More often than not, yes, it does. A Chinese emperor, who ruled all of China with an iron hand, banned maritime activities just a few decades after Admiral Zheng He's trailblazing 15th century sea voyages. Nobody in China dared to rebel against the anti-innovation decision of the emperor. The long-term impact was that it wasn't Chinese ships that colonised the world, but European ones. Examples like this abound in India as well during our few centralised eras, for example the rejection of the Gutenberg press by Emperor Akbar (otherwise an absolutely brilliant ruler) or our suicidal economic policies from the 1950s to 1991. If India had been politically divided or decentralised at these times, these unfortunate decisions could have been challenged.

So a decentralised, messy and politically divided land is actually good for innovation. The problem with political division, however, is the risk of violence and chaos. That has happened quite often in India's history. But now, our democracy has given us the tools to manage these political divisions without the possible violence that comes with it. So I say let power go to our states; let the centre become weak. The stunning progress in some of our states will set up a demonstration effect which can trigger a very healthy competition between different chief ministers. Ruchir Sharma, the author of Breakout Nations, said that if you want to be pessimistic about India, go to Mumbai and Delhi. If you want to feel optimistic, go to the states.

The forced decentralisation that is happening in India today due to weak coalition governments is good for us. We need to strengthen that trend constitutionally - too many constitutional powers still remain with the Centre. They can't get things done, but they can stop others from doing them. Many items from the union and concurrent lists in the constitution need to be transferred to the states list. If the states become constitutionally stronger, you won't find regional parties wasting their time battling for sops from the Centre - they'll actually spend their time governing their states. And our country will become a hotbed of innovation once again.

The ability to innovate is a far more potent and long-term competitive advantage when compared to raw efficiency. Ask America. Interestingly, the US constitution has focused on states' rights, keeping the federal government relatively weak. Equally interestingly, India's modern, golden-economic period (post 1991) coincides with a political era when no single party has won a parliamentary majority on its own. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Amish is the bestselling author of the Shiva Trilogy.
Send him feedback on @amisht
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 13, 2013 23:00 IST