The welfare state has made governance a one-way street, offering citizens a sense of entitlement without any commitment to nation-building
Last Saturday, a biker lost his life when the police opened fire to tame an unruly group of stunt motorcyclists near India Gate in New Delhi. The biker’s death is the tragic denouement in a rather recent phenomenon of rowdy bikers proclaiming a part of the city as their ‘zone’ and having a good time on their own terms, and, in the process, cocking a snook at the policeman, armed with the simple lathi. Fellow motorists and other users of public spaces have found themselves at the receiving end of these bikers’ boisterous energy. As week after week the bikers insisted on celebrating their peculiar entitlement to thrill and danger, the public mocked the policemen at their helplessness in the face of these daredevils on powerful machines.
Still, whenever a life is lost, it is a matter of regret and sadness, more so when the life lost is so young and so unlived. Saturday’s loss, too, is to be mourned. Since the police have come to be perceived as an unreasonable and uncontrolled force, there is the predictable accusation of “police brutality.” Accounts of how the death occurred would differ and once again the police will come in for a scathing indictment for their presumed lack of finesse in using force against “innocent” citizens.
One of the close relatives of the dead biker was reported to have argued that the young man was neither a terrorist nor a thief and if he was being a social nuisance all the police had to do was to arrest him. In the limited logic of the case, this is a valid point — but, not so valid in the inherent logic of the defiance that the bikers had persistently flaunted. Beyond being a thief or a terrorist, there is indeed much more space in the arena of citizenship.
The larger issue goes straight to the heart of one of the major failings of our democratic quest: we have collectively ignored, that too at our great disadvantage as a nation, that the rites of citizenship entail rights and privileges as well as duties and obligations.
It is obvious that we have invested too much time and energy and intellectual capital in the nation-building processes without emphasising the citizens’ obligations to fellow-citizens as well as to the state. We have definitely neglected the task of society-building and of nurturing habits and attitudes, which enjoin every citizen to do his bit for the larger good, enhancing social capital and collective well-being.
An established order rests on a social compact, in which everyone undertakes to observe restraint on his freedom in exchange for a minimum expectation of security of life and liberty. For instance, a motorist halts at a red light in the reciprocal expectation that the other motorists too would observe the traffic rules; and, then, there is the traffic policeman to see to it that everyone gets to use the road safely with minimum of inconvenience. A protocol of mutually beneficial restraints and responsibilities is at the heart of the social compact. The “authority” has a duty to protect the citizens from harm from other nations, as also to impose reasonable restrictions in order to ensure an ordered and just social existence; in return, the citizens offer allegiance to the nation-state and undertake to “obey” reasonable laws, reasonably crafted and reasonably enforced.
At the beginning of our national journey, Jawaharlal Nehru had the self-assurance of a true national leader and the conviction of a freedom fighter to preach to the citizens the virtues and necessity of self-sacrifice if India was to attain its national destiny. He would mince no words in reminding the students of the “highest degree of self-discipline, the capacity for working together, selfless devotion, and a sense of the practical combined with the enduring passion of a noble idealism.” He would often proclaim at public meetings that “I would like to remind you that you and I have together to bear the burden of the tasks before us.”
Rights & obligations
Somewhere in the mid-1960s this sense of a fine balance between rights and obligations of the citizens got lost. The state proclaimed that it could do anything and would indeed do everything for its citizens. The welfare state and its (politically elected) operatives spelled out for themselves a maximalist mandate, and enticed the citizens (the voters) to support them in this venture. Except for a token of support at the election time, the state and its managers promised to bring sunshine into every life in every hamlet. Perhaps it was a natural extension of the Gandhian promise of “wiping every tear from every eye.” However, while this caring state project was undertaken, nothing was asked of the citizen, except docility and a nominal obedience; no corresponding duties to contribute to social capital, or self-discipline or self-sacrifice for the larger glory of Mother India.
And, in good time, political ineptitude, bureaucratic arrogance and personal corruption combined to sour up the caring state project. As soon as the “Garibi Hatao “ promise faltered, the political opposition closed in, inciting a challenge to the status quo and stagnation, but never summoning the moral clarity to demand the re-building of the broken down capacities or insisting on the re-capitalising of the depleted social assets.
The JP movement in fact elevated this proclivity for social irresponsibility to a moral high. Instead of asking students to be observant and diligent seekers of knowledge, they were instigated to be concerned observers of good governance. Street power or Lok Shakti was deemed as the magical cure for all our deficiencies and difficulties. Since then, it has become an acceptable form for this or that group to invite citizens to “non-co-operate” with the government; the naxals and the jihadis are extreme manifestations of this rejection of the social compact.
Liberal societies thrive because sites of social capital — schools, churches, universities, playgrounds, community projects — reinforce the rigours of citizenship. In our country this task of social renewal has been traditionally undertaken by the religious functionary, at least the enlightened one. The neighbourhood priest or the maulvi or katha-vachak had the skill and the acceptance to de-wean the congregation from social evils and harmful social practices. Unfortunately the social leader too has joined the politician’s partisan animosities. The likes of Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have not been able to resist the temptation of partisan politics and have, in the process, lost their credentials to read the riot act to their followers, devotes and audience.
Democracy and its imperfections have taken a toll on society’s morals. And because we ask nothing of our citizens — not sacrifice, not restraint, not moderation — we have ended up creating a morally unappetising divide between the haves and have-nots: under instigation from the bogus vendors of “good governance’ the haves have started asking why they should pay taxes if “their” wealth was to be wasted on giving food or medical care to the poor. A most extreme version: why should we pay taxes to a government that we have declared to be “corrupt?”
This is part of an unending and ever expanding narrative of the Great Helmsman. Instead of stressing the importance of collective and individual responsibility for looking after our schools, neighbourhoods, public transport, rivers and forests, we insist on searching for a great transformer who will magically fix every broken pipe and fill every pothole.
It is not enough that a citizen not be a terrorist or thief; it is very essential that the citizen fulfils with responsibility and diligence his part of the social compact. In no society is the rule of law or good governance available off the shelf; citizens have to earn it. Without practices and precepts of a responsible citizenry, there will be neither a responsible market nor a responsible state.
(Harish Khare is a senior journalist, political analyst and former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He is currently a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow)