Over decades, the talk about India being a soft state has found reasons to persist – only becoming more visible in a pixelated world and reinforced through a clumsy or meek state response to street violence in recent months and years.
First used by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1968 to refer to several infirmities in South Asian countries, the phrase has been handy for commentators discussing state capacity in everyday India; more glaringly in matters of rule-enforcement and public obedience. It’s ironic at the same time because India, like most of these countries in the region, is a post-colonial polity inheriting an “overdeveloped state” – to use Hamza Alvi’s pithy phrase.
The last few weeks threw up a microcosm of the actual and possible challenges to this: by anti-Agnipath protesters, by groups protesting over offensive remarks about prophet Muhammad or use of force by “anti-Shiv Sena rebels” in Maharashtra governor to write to the union home secretary to keep central forces ready. More significantly, the last few years have also seen other protests where mobilisation of unruly crowds challenged the state’s key mandate of securing law and order for millions of its citizens before any issue is addressed.
Amid many dangers that the perception about state frailties in dealing with violent protests pose, there are two concerns which straddle the immediate and the seminal. First, the public distrust in the state capacity to ensure a citizen’s routine mobility, work and commerce in the public space, in the face of obstructive stirs undermining the citizen-state social pact. A citizen’s expectation, if not claim, of a peaceful shared space is in no way less than the right to agitate. The persistent failure to ensure that public mobility and safety aren’t held hostage to violent eruptions or inconvenience caused by an agitating group chips away a basic guarantee that state power represents.
Additionally, the inability and incompetence in punishing violent acts erodes faith in state capacity. This partly explains why in recent years some political leaders have sought political capital in acting tough on alleged perpetrators of street violence and vandalism. Even at the cost of being accused of going overboard or resorting to knee-jerk measures, they have eyed popular appeal in shaking-off perceptions about weak state capacity.
Further, an insidious risk of the violent orchestration of these protests has been the shift in focus from the discourse – making it possible for small, vocal and violent groups to replace meaningful conversations on contentious issues with a self-righteous show of victimhood on the streets. In times when civil society, social media and news media are split in thesis-proving echo chambers, these voices are often less representative of a wider array of opinion than they actually claim.
The recent violent stir, for instance, took the focus away from sustained and well-rounded discussions on the Agnipath scheme as entry point reforms in the lower rungs of armed forces. The violence instead made interested political actors, opposition parties and the news media curiously focussed on the outrage and vandalism. This violence was pitched as a democratic argument against the scheme, as if the recruitment requirements of the defence forces and the human resource acquisition for security forces have to be democratically vetted. In the process, a broad-based and informed scrutiny of the scheme was a clear miss.
This wasn’t different from how the discourse on even minor reforms – much delayed – in the civil services examination initiated by the union public service commission last decade was shaped by agitations and not informed discussions. While the previous government largely succumbed to the sway of protesting voices, the current dispensation hasn’t shown much political will to carry those reforms forward. In early 2014, when the central government overlooked the recommendations of various expert committees and commissions formed over decades to suggest changes, it carried the stamp of a threat of disruption, not actual violence, and a populist response.
Even then the agitation had seduced the media commentary away from a need for more holistic understanding. Then, for a media watch portal, I observed:
“There has been a failure to appreciate the important difference between a competitive examination for hiring administrative professionals and a regular certifying examination for academic credentials or educational empowerment. It’s dangerous to see the state as a job-dispensing machinery at the cost of governance efficiency. Imperatives of seeking efficiency in governance has to outweigh the misplaced claims of a convenient pattern of recruitment which fallaciously sees it as a democratic entitlement.”
The fear of the agitations snowballing into something bigger as well as the protesting groups being seen as a potential voting bloc had then combined to sidetrack the merits of the proposed reforms. Something that – in a more aggressive, and partly violent form – returned to haunt the next government. Both governments couldn’t resist; the first for far more populist reasons and the second compromising in a soft state mould when the stir was on the cusp of turning violent.
With this backdrop, even if it concerns elite or other levels of hiring, it is critical that the law of the street doesn’t substitute a fair and balanced look at the Agnipath scheme.
The spectre of soft state has continued to haunt India, even as lumpenisation, violent stirs and street bullying find new amplifiers through social media and flash mobilisation. In wake of the dangers of thuggish street legislation, the state capacity to pre-empt, counter and punish violence is being tested again. In the midst of these challenges, the government can’t lose sight of the fact that a well-rounded look at policy imperatives and reforms can’t be dictated by the orchestration or threat of street thuggery and disruptions.