India’s quest for a strong, high-end State
The descent into anarchy on the streets of Delhi on Republic Day, due to the unruly protests of a set of farm unions, has sharpened the focus on the frequent eruption of protests in recent times. This has spawned a sense of uncertainty and flux. Yes, there is a churn underway, but its reasons are far deeper than recognised.
For most of its history, India has not had a unified pan-Indian State. There have been few short-lived episodes of a single State ruling most of the Indian subcontinent, but, usually, different political entities have ruled various parts of India. In India, 100-150 years of a strong Centre would give way to centuries of fragmentation, unlike China, where centuries of a strong, centralised State would give way to 100-150 years of fragmentation before the rise of another centralised State.
India has had what can be termed as low-end States — marked by the absence of an effective centralised salaried bureaucracy, a salaried army, and direct tax collection from the vast portions of the area under their rule. Instead, these States depended on kinship networks to govern their territories, and on regional satraps to provide troops and collect taxes. This weakened State effectiveness, and unlike the pharaohs of Egypt or emperors of China, India’s rulers could not govern people at the grassroots.
This also meant that they lacked the capacity to annex and govern distant regions from the core, and preferred the acceptance of suzerainty and tributes from defeated rulers. The Indian tradition of reinstating the defeated rulers or their kin to the throne was a mere acknowledgment of the lack of State-capacity to annex those regions.
So, whenever we had a pan-Indian State, it was a low-end State, and numerous autonomous regional satraps would overthrow the central ruler sooner than later. Another important feature of Indian Statecraft was the influence exercised by bodies such as the Buddhist Sangh, merchant guilds or the Brahmin priestly class on the polity.
There were a few attempts to create a high-end State, but they did not last long. The 16th-century Akbar-Todarmal reforms in revenue administration, tax collection, and documentation of the population was the last attempt.
It was the British who created a unified pan-India State with an extensive bureaucracy impacting lives even at the village level; a census; a unified judicial system; a central army; and the systematic co-option and suppression of local elites. But it, too, was a ghost empire with only two-thirds of India under its direct rule, and a minimalist bureaucracy interested only in extracting revenues and suppressing the population.
The process of consolidation accelerated greatly under the Republic of India when, for the first-time, the central government could exercise direct control over the population and assert its power. But the process also caused resistance and backlash, manifesting itself in the form of secessionist movements, religious extremism, and a form of federalism, which often descended into a tool of blackmail by regional elites to extract concessions.
The Indian polity tried to overcome this problem by co-opting local elites — first, under the Congress, as an alliance of the urban upper-caste elites and zamindars from local dominant castes and, then, by coalition politics. But it could never discipline local power centres and deep caste lobbies undermining State power.
The rise of Hindutva has disrupted the status quo, as it represents a centralising, though not homogenising, force in Indian polity. The clash between the centripetal and centrifugal forces has been a constant feature of Indian polity through the millennia. One way to look at Hindutva and its vision of a unified Indian State, is as the modern avatar of centripetal forces that have found an effective vehicle in the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The march of the BJP even in non-traditional regions is unsettling the old arrangements and challenging the rule of regional elites of dominant castes. Its push for projects such as Aadhaar, Goods and Services Tax and National Population Register-National Register of Citizens; attempt to assert control over the Byzantine bureaucracy; modernise the armed forces; and crack down on tax-evasion promises to build on the gains of the past two centuries and transform India into a high-end State. This is unprecedented and will require cutting the aristocracy or the traditional regional elite out of the equation.
This is what is leading to a substantial pushback, with even allies representing regional elites walking out and taking a hostile stand. It is fuelling anxiety and unrest, and manifesting itself in the forms of protests. The most difficult challenge is the one posed by the agrarian power centres in the countryside.
However, this time, India’s transformation might be irreversible. It is witnessing an economic transition, urbanisation, social change, the rise of Hindutva and increasing support for a strong Centre — all interlinked processes, leading to a strong, high end, unified State. The attempt to hoist a flag at the Red Fort is a symbol of the battle over the nature of the State.
Abhinav Prakash Singh is an assistant professor, economics, Sri Ram College of Commerce
The views expressed are personal