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Home / Columns / Vikas Dubey: How India is dysfunctional by demand, writes Chanakya

Vikas Dubey: How India is dysfunctional by demand, writes Chanakya

And it is dysfunctional, because it suits everyone — including those meant to protect it — that it remains so

columns Updated: Jul 12, 2020 05:37 IST
The system is dysfunctional because different stakeholders have an incentive in ensuring that there remains a wide gap between the normative and the empirical. Dubey’s case is a classic example
The system is dysfunctional because different stakeholders have an incentive in ensuring that there remains a wide gap between the normative and the empirical. Dubey’s case is a classic example(PTI)

India had not heard of Vikas Dubey till 10 days ago. Every important Uttar Pradesh (UP) politician had, as had every UP police official who served in Lucknow and Kanpur; so had every gang lord in UP — but he remained unknown to most Indians.

This is not surprising. Every region has its own Dubey, who usually remains unknown outside it. And with over 60 criminal cases against him, the political-security-administrative system in the state could not but have been familiar with Dubey and his trajectory.

But the story of Vikas Dubey — his rise as a dreaded, but extraordinarily powerful, criminal; his act of allegedly leading the attack on policemen on July 3, killing eight of them; his subsequent run and arrest; and then the final act of his killing — is not just one about a gangster.

It is a story about India, and all that is wrong with a system that almost seems dysfunctional by demand.

Dysfunctional by demand refers to a situation where different stakeholders in the system have an incentive in ensuring that there remains a wide gap between the normative (what ought to be) and the empirical (what is).

The normative blueprint is clear. Dubey should have been caught long ago, perhaps after his first crime. He should have been subjected to the due process of law. And he should have been in jail.

Dubey should never have been in a position where he could kill police officials; he should not have been able to flee and, as it appears, choose the timing and location of his surrender/arrest. And he should not have been dead but alive, being interrogated to reveal his vast network and the form of patronage that allowed him to escape the law so far; and he should have, after due process, been convicted and locked up for a long time (perhaps even life).

The fact that none of this happened — and in fact, the very opposite happened — is an indictment not just of Dubey. He was what he was. He chose a path of crime, killing people, defying both law and humanity, and wreaking destruction. It is a greater indictment of the others in the system, who promised to uphold the law, but quietly — sometimes not so quietly, but brazenly — did the opposite.

But beyond the outrage at what has happened, the question is why did these stakeholders act the way they did? And in that lies the story of a dysfunctional system.

The motivations of political players in the system are clear. Their sole aim is to win elections and exercise power. In this quest, they have to cultivate vote banks of particular castes and musclemen who can provide both finances and boots on the ground ready to engage in physical clashes, weaken, and sometimes, hurt rivals, and send out a message of dominance. This shock and awe strategy does not deter voters — in fact, it adds to the allure and power of the candidate. In turn, the candidates — when they are not criminals themselves — offer protection to the influential crime lords of the area. It is a win-win. The politician gets formal power; the criminal exercises informal power. This happens across parties — a reason why gangsters such as Dubey continue to thrive through changes in government.

The motivations of the police official are obvious too. The local cop is interested in maintaining equilibrium. There is, however, often a distinction between maintaining equilibrium and maintaining law and order. Cracking down on those who are outside the pale of the law can disturb social peace, given that these criminals also often have loyal constituencies of their own; it can also invite political retribution — a transfer perhaps, an unfavourable performance report — from the political masters of the day. But choosing to turn a blind eye and aiding this equilibrium can yield dividends. It is a win-win.

But what happens when things go wrong, which is what happened with Dubey? He crossed a line with the killing of the policemen.

The incentives within the system changed. For both the politician and the police official, letting him operate was no longer viable — he could no longer perform the services he did. In fact, letting him operate would be a high-risk strategy, because, often, information is power. And Dubey had information. It was also politically costly, for there had been a very public challenge to the State’s monopoly over force and a question over the effectiveness of the ruling dispensation.

And so with the changed incentives, the actions of stakeholders within the system changed. Dubey was more valuable dead than alive. While only a full-fledged, thoroughly independent probe can lead to definite conclusions, the timing and circumstances of Dubey’s killing on Friday morning leaves ample room to believe that the “encounter” was, like most encounters, born out of a decision to close the case altogether and portray it as decisive action.

But the reason that the political-security system can get away with this is because of the motivations of another constituency — that amorphous category called the people. If responses on social media, and the general tea-shop chatter in the towns and villages of UP are any indicator, the encounter is being widely applauded. The argument is simple — Dubey was a criminal. The government is strong. He didn’t deserve to live. The judiciary would have taken too long. This is what punitive action, retributive justice should look like.

This desire for instant justice — where justice is arbitrarily defined — and the glorification of those who are seen to be delivering this instant justice, be it the strong chief minister or a tough cop, creates the political environment to kill Dubey and his type.

The incentive of the politician is in preserving power through all means, including patronage to criminals. The incentive of the police system is stability over peace and justice, and, perhaps, personal aggrandisement.

Together, these explain why we have Vikas Dubeys. But, these incentives can easily change when someone who has received patronage is no longer valuable. Then, given that the commitment of citizens to the tedious and slow, and the legitimate process of law, is weak, it’s easy to see why we have encounters of the type that killed Dubey. The system is dysfunctional, because it suits everyone — including those meant to protect it — that it remains so.

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