Not much more than a pamphlet

INDIA GROWS AT NIGHT — A Liberal Case for a Strong State: Gurcharan Das; Allen Lane/Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Enclave, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 599.

Gurcharan Das's book is better read as an Indian political pamphlet of the 21st century

In India Grows at Night Gurcharan Das sets out on a path that is, in a very fundamental sense, ambitious. At the very outset, when identifying the context in which he would like his book to be read, he insists that it "is a moral essay that belongs to the tradition of the eighteenth-century English pamphleteers". It would be churlish to treat this as a call to be compared with the great writers of that tradition. The best of those pamphleteers were able to deal with the most profound ideas in a manner that was simple and accessible. All that we can say about Das's work is that it is simple and accessible.

Das is too experienced a writer not to have other reasons for setting the bar so high. And the most tempting reason must have been that the style of a pamphleteer does not call for too much attention to a rigorous statement of the argument. Inconsistencies in the structure of the book are expected to be glossed over. Even as he claims that this "is not a 'how to' book with five quick answers to what India should do in the next five years", it has a chapter titled 'What is to be done?' The reader is expected to pass over such matters of detail, and the rather uneven evidence, to mull over the underlying argument.

With the freedom of a pamphleteer Das moves swiftly across centuries and continents, between anecdotal evidence and occasional factual detail, to outline his liberal case for a strong state. The essence of this argument is that while India has grown over the last two decades the state has not kept pace. And he does not see this as a recent phenomenon but a part of a longer term reality. In Das's words, "While the state has always been feeble, India has been held together by a sturdy society".

Despite Indian society's record of having remained strong despite a weak state, Das now believes that this situation cannot continue. He argues that India "cannot take growth for granted. Optimists think that is the country's destiny to reach the high income levels of the West and Japan. That will not happen unless the country fixes its institutions of governance. If it doesn't, it will more likely be caught in a 'middle-income trap' like some Latin American countries which lost decades mostly for the same reason."

Concept of Dharma

The way forward for Das is through a rather materialistic interpretation of the concept of Dharma. He sees Dharma as the underlying essence of the market system. "The reason that strangers are able to trust each other in the market is, in part, due to dharma, which represents the underlying norms that are shared by members of a society. But since not everyone in society will follow these norms, "Dharma needs to be enforced through the power of the state." And to this end he advocates the re-emergence of a liberal political party.

It is possible to pick holes in this argument from a number of directions. It could be argued that Dharma is essentially a personal belief and any norm would cease to be so if it is enforced by the state. Others could find fault with his interpretation of recent Indian economic history. Would the high growth rates of post-liberalisation India have been possible without the middle class that emerged from the earlier era of public sector employment and state investment in higher education?

The more serious problems with this argument are at the conceptual level, in particular his tendency to treat the state and society as if they are completely independent of each other. He thus has no time for the struggle of different sections of society to gain influence, if not control, over the state. He ignores the influence of the rising middle class on the functioning of the state. The presence of the middle class in the policy-making bureaucracy and the Westernised segments of the political class have passed completely under his radar. Needless to say, other middle class influences such as the aggressive media find little mention in the book.

We could treat this as no more than an academic error, a matter that can be set right with greater rigour. But the consequences of this error to the entire argument of the book suggest that this may be more than oversight. Once we see the problem as one of different groups seeking influence on the government we need to recognise that the middle class is not just the victim of corrupt politicians but also an active participant in the battle for political power. Since they do not have the numbers to actually win elections on their own, their rise to effective power is based on a demonisation of the politician as well as a reduction in the role of the elected representative.

Gurcharan Das takes the first requirement of politicians lacking credibility for granted and focuses much of his attention on reducing the discretionary power of the elected representative. He sticks to the old adage that reducing the role of the government will reduce the extent of corruption. This does force him to confront the reality that the biggest scams have occurred after the liberalisation process took root. His answer is that the scams occurred only in the areas where government control still exists; that an open market auction of spectrum would have prevented the 2G scam. The fact that such an auction would have almost certainly raised the cost of mobile telephony, and hurt its extension to the poor, is not something that Das has time for.

In placing this book against the backdrop of the English pamphleteers of the 18h century Gurcharan Das has given himself the scope to make grand arguments. But given what Das chooses to emphasise and what he prefers to ignore, the book is better read as an Indian political pamphlet of the 21st century. INDIA GROWS AT NIGHT — A Liberal Case for a Strong State: Gurcharan Das; Allen Lane/Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Enclave, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 599.


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