While exchanging our views on the Future of the Indian Republic, both Nitin and I lamented the loss of individual liberty in our flourishing democracy. Jayaprakash astutely observed that our institutions and laws are resistant to change while technology leaps swiftly, and our future depends on bridging this gap. Shashi shed light on the ‘Idea of India’ – perhaps the greatest experiment in pluralism – and how to keep this idea intact.
Is this the darkness before dawn?
While each of these insights throw light on different challenges, I was most struck by the perspective and tone of my colleagues’ writing. Amit, our editor, posed quite neutral questions that could take one in many different directions. While Nitin, Jayaprakash, and Shashi clearly detailed the problems and challenges that lie ahead, they seemed optimistic about the future. They concluded their essays with ideas to resolve these problems and reform the institutions, leaving the reader hopeful. I noted that this was quite distinct from my own, quite cynical perspective; that such positive reform seems unlikely in India.
I had always imagined that academics, like myself, surrounded by students and great books, tend to be optimistic; while practitioners on the ground, faced with the harsh reality of the situation, and the nature of political actors, tend to be cynical. The reverse can be said of this set of essays. So I ponder our differences in perspective.
With great respect and admiration for my colleagues, I have two thoughts that might explain the differences. First, that there is, in fact, much to be hopeful for, and dealing with Indians from both politics and everyday life has inspired my colleagues and led them to believe in positive change. I, on the other hand, am only connected to the masses through English media and opinion, and am perhaps ill-informed about the instruments of change from the bottom up. A second possibility is that we have self-selected into these groups. It is so difficult to work within the political system and push for any kind of change, that only those who are inherently extremely hopeful even attempt such a task. Nitin, Jayaprakash, and Shashi, have all worked in different ways to catalyze this change, and their conviction of a better future is one of their many strengths. Irrespective, I am grateful for their faith in the future, because it made me question the source of my pessimism.
In the rest of the essay I want to discuss what makes me believe the future of the Indian republic is bleak, and what makes me hopeful.
Teach Your Children
As Nitin points out, we don’t have a homegrown set of liberal values, and Indian liberalism is a foreign import. As population growth outpaces the spread of these ideas, it even harder to create a new generation of liberals. The solution, he suggests, is scaling up advocacy. While I agree with the diagnosis, I think scaling up any kind of advocacy will be hard if not impossible for the following reasons.
First, we have an education system that is stifled and controlled by the state, both in its provisioning, and its curriculum. It hasn’t been easy to scale up provisioning of education, let alone liberal education. The students who grow up reading ideas of political thinkers, especially liberal ideas, are few and far between.
The first problem is simply capacity and enrollment in schools to accommodate the hundreds of millions of students in India. The second is the incentives of the state system actors to actually provide an education even when a school and students exists. Public school teachers rarely show up, the schools are crumbling, and students from these schools often fail basic literacy tests – like writing their name. The state control over education makes it near impossible to scale up private schooling through legal channels. And yet the Indian entrepreneur prevails, and India has the largest number of private schools in the world. Although private schools have mushroomed across the country, they usually cater to the demands of students who need to pass the state board set standard to gain a valid high school certificate.
Which brings me to curriculum – the other casualty of the Indian education system. Even though I come from privilege, and had the opportunity to attend excellent educational institutions in India, I cannot say my liberal education was a consequence of Indian schools and colleges. In fact, it was despite the Indian education I received. I grew up at a time where history and civics books devoted one paragraph to the Indian emergency, and concluded that it was necessary for the smooth functioning of the Indian republic. As an adult, thanks to the economics curriculum at Delhi University, I studied only the Lange-Lerner defense of the socialist calculation problem faced by central planners. Even as late as 2004, when I wrote my third year university exams, the curriculum only listed materials arguing socialism was possible, desirable, and successful. Those, like Hayek and Mises, who argued that such calculation was impossible, were left unmentioned.
Only during my graduate studies abroad did I realize that it was the socialist calculation debate – having read only one side. I am sure future generations will read some other whitewashed version of real and fictional events – like the birth of Ram, Godhra riots, demonetization, or even the invention of nuclear weapons in ancient India. State actors are not interested in loosening this grip on curriculum, or expanding and scaling private education. It is the greatest means of control – a chance to brainwash yet another generation.
If we manage to fix school provisioning in India, even with the compromised state-set curriculum, it will help India prosper (which must be the first priority over learning liberal political thought). But these are not the ingredients conducive to developing a liberal society. Any reliance on formal education in India to create a generation of liberal thinkers will likely end in disappointment.
This brings me to the second way of scaling advocacy – using the media, which technology has made much more accessible. With the internet, mushrooming of news channels, and social media outlets like Twitter, one begins to feel that the medium will solve the problem of advocacy. And there is some truth to that – technology has significantly reduced costs, and also enabled systems of bilateral, and multilateral engagement, in contrast to old style broadcasting through radio and television. However, it is not the medium that is under threat, but the content.
Reaching a message to the masses requires ideas to be formulated and captured in a way that is actually consumed by the masses. Movies, television entertainment, songs, comedy acts, news and radio shows etc are usually the main formats of mass content – even if the content is dispersed by new media like Twitter, or watched on a mobile device. But each of these types of content is heavily policed and gagged by the state or the mobs. One cannot show the true state of addiction in a movie (Udta Punjab), or call the great city Bombay (too many to list), or discuss female sexuality (Lipstick Under My Burkha), or base it on the most significant events in India (Black Friday), or make documentaries on Indian tragedies that show the state and society in poor light (India’s Daughter).
Even jokes cracked by comedians and movie stars on each other without discussing the problems in society (as was the case with the AIB roast) will be censored. We can forget about cracking any jokes on our politicians and national idols. Either the state comes after the producers with a rule book, or more commonly now, the mobs precede the state. We are now seeing a kind of self-gagging among individuals with mass reach – the only way to survive. The only people that can speak their mind, with no restriction, are the political class — protected by goons in rallies, and privilege in Parliament.
Liberal outlets like the online magazine Pragati have little cause to worry. But this essay will, for that same reason, never be read by the masses. We are now living in a society where any content (and content creator with mass appeal) is immediately vulnerable to attack by the state, or the mobs. Protection of free speech exists only for those complicit with the status quo, and everything else is driven underground. Can the underground movements mushrooming across India scale?
Without free speech, how does one scale the advocacy of a liberal society?
Surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions
If we cannot educate ourselves out of the spreading illiberalism, then what can be done? While I am deeply cynical about reforming political institutions, I have the greatest conviction in the ingenuity of the human mind, and in human nature.
In 1776, in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote:
The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations.
I share this faith in the individual, specifically in the individual entrepreneur.
There are two ways of tackling the problems discussed in previous essays. The first is to reform state institutions like democracy, judiciary, federalism, etc. And the second is to reduce the reliance on state institutions by making them irrelevant through entrepreneurship. I am deeply cynical about the former, and extremely hopeful for the latter.
One of the most important state functions is to provision public goods, and the first that comes to mind is roads. Bijli, sadak, paani were the trifecta of electoral demands in the nineties. Indian road connectivity, especially between rural and urban areas, continues to lag behind population growth, and cannot keep up with economic growth or migration. But the mobile phone revolution has reduced rural reliance on roads, and done far more than state schemes to increase prosperity in the Indian countryside. Mobile phones make roads less necessary for some tasks, and rural entrepreneurs and farmers are now more easily connected to the Indian and world markets despite the lack of physical infrastructure. I have argued with Alex Tabarrok that private entrepreneurship can sustain entire cities in India.
And it is this kind of decentralized entrepreneurship that may also help scale advocacy. When the AIB roast was shut down by the state – a few hundred versions of the video proliferated on the internet through YouTube, torrents, and various legal and illegal websites. The Indian state can hardly keep up with this kind of decentralized revolt. It is just one example of the “million mutinies.”
The mutinies in India are not just about laughs and illegally distributed movies. Dilafrose Qazi was deprived of an education by separatist groups in Kashmir. She responded by starting part time vocational classes for women in Kashmir, who like her couldn’t make a livelihood due to lack of education. Not surprisingly she faced much opposition, and her family members were kidnapped by militants, but Qazi persisted and eventually started the SSM College of Engineering – the first private engineering college in Kashmir. She now has a second college for Kashmiri women in Haryana.
Arunachalam Muruganantham, is a rural entrepreneur who invented low-cost sanitary pads for women, in the face of family opposition and social censure. Muruganantham never received a proper formal education, dropped out of school at fourteen to support his family, and worked a number of different jobs in the agrarian economy. When he realized his wife could not afford sanitary pads and relied on unhygienic rags during menstruation, he spent more than two years to design a simple machine to produce low cost sanitary pads. Muruganatham’s entrepreneurship will do more to educate young women in India than any state-led Beti Bachao Beto Padhao scheme.
Qazi and Muruganantham make me hopeful, and I hope millions of Qazis and Muruganathams mutiny in India.