A Book Review of “A New Idea of India: Individual rights in a Civilizational State” by Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri
- In Book Reviews
- 10:06 AM, Oct 18, 2020
- Mukul Asher
This is one of those rare books by Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri, which not only exhibits impressive scholarship, (there are 68 pages of notes, nearly one fifth of the book), concerning economics, governance, political, social, cultural, and economic institutions, and public policies in India, but it embeds these discussions in India’s civilizational ethos, captured in the word dharma.
In his Forward, Sanjeev Sanyal argues that a working definition of Dharma in the Indian context could be “… to mean ‘good’ conduct in the service of uncompromising national interest” (P.xxix). The authors state that Dharma constitutes “…a civilization that is built on absorbing and being absorbed so long as all sides approach one another with mutual respect” (p.37)
Integrating historical narrative in discussing issues and institutions sets this book apart from the conventional books which are ahistorical and ignore India’s civilization heritage. India is a continuing civilization with a rich heritage. But colonization of the mind, which is among the most pernicious, prevents many to draw from this civilization.
The title of the book is illustrative of the approach and thinking of the authors and the subsequent discussion amplifies in a scholarly way the title.
First, part of the title is ‘A New Idea of India”, not ‘the”. This suggests that they adhere to the Indian civilization’s tradition of openness and scepticism, and therefore open to refinements, and extensions of their view. This is a welcome departure from the certitude and dogmatism of those who have advocated “The Idea of India” under Nehruvian world view, though Nehru was much more aware of India’s civilization ethos.
Second, their focus is on the individuals and their rights and not on group identities, very significant departure from current policy assumptions. The authors quote Dr Ambedkar, a key figure in drafting of the Constitution, as remarking that “Daft Constitution has … adopted individual as its unit” (PP 48-49)
In the second chapter, titled “From Civilization to Nation” the authors argue that, “…government …should not force an individual to self-identify as belonging to a particular group” (p.48-49).
The authors argue that “… a critical piece of post-liberalization social reform project is to … enshrine equal individual rights for all Indians, irrespective of their religion” (p. 109).
This implies that all laws should be applicable to all citizens. In the current public policy debates, this strongly suggests that uniform civil code has become essential.
Another major public policy implication of the individual rights is the need to “a shift from identity-based to need-based welfare”. (P67).
In Chapter 3, “Saving Secularism from the Secularists”, the authors quote Yogi Adityanath, current chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state with a population of 220 million, that “I believe that the word secular is the biggest lie since independence…you can be sect-neutral but not secular” (p 77).
Third, they make subtle and crucial distinction between the state, government, and society. They argue that a nation state can be secular or theocratic. But society has to be separated from the state. In a democracy, a government is entrusted responsibilities of power for a limited period, till the next election.
They quote Lal Krishna Advani to the effect that “India is a Hindu Rashtra, but can never become a theocratic state…a Hindu rashtra and a secular state are virtually synonymous”. (p.7)
They however do acknowledge that a certain section of the Hindu nationalist spectrum is straying from the tradition of scepticism and openness, and this need addressing through persuasion.
The authors argue that “…a functional State is the authority that has a legitimate monopoly on conducting violence” (p. 192).
The fourth aspect implicit in the title is the emphasis on economic freedom of the individuals and economic agents (subject to prudential but minimum regulations, competently and impartially enforced.). They argue that:
“The networks of trust and cooperation that high capital catalyses help to bind together a society in myriad ways and thus encourages intercourse rather than distinctions…the degree of economic freedom determines the type of social capital, and the greater the economic freedom, the more likely it is that communities not tied exclusively to social. Linguistic or ethic identity will emerge” (P.6)
The title of Chapter 4 of the book, “Profit is not a Dirty Word” makes a strong case for economic freedom, capitalism, and its consistency with Indic values. To quote the authors, “capitalism is the economic analogue of the philosophy that pervades and defines the highest traditions of India’s spiritual life. If once agrees that Indic traditions are rooted in pluralism. It also follows that communism and socialism are antagonistic towards these traditions…while some may understand this intuitively, many who espouse the cause of India’s cultural renaissance don’t see capitalism as philosophy in consonance with Indic values…votaries of economic liberalism have failed to see India’s spiritual heritage as complementary to economic liberalism and reflexively revolt at any discussion of spiritualty or religion” (p.149).
While their broad point is correct for India’s current juncture, there are however many types of capitalism, and these have evolved over time. The authors (and others) are encouraged to develop the type of capitalism which is suitable for India at this juncture.
An important, but often ignored point in public policy debates, the authors note is that “.. free markets and a competent state are seen as opposite…the two (however) can not survive without each other” (p.182).
These four interrelated propositions constitute their “New Idea of India”.
The authors amply realise that India’s trajectory since independence has not been consistent with the above ideas. To progress towards their idea of India is therefore a huge undertaking, and the process will be uneven, and will take time.
This is not to imply that in a book with wide scope, suggesting reforms in economic, social, cultural policies, and in political, judicial, and governance institutions, there should not be debate about particular proposals. Indeed, the authors make it clear that they would indeed welcome such debate and alternative proposals.
As an example, their rather uncritical acceptance of benefits of health saving accounts is not borne out by careful research. But that is to be expected in a book of such vast canvas.
This book represents one thread in progressing toward constructing through painstaking process of reforms, and mind-set-behavioural change to implement reforms consistent with the proposal in “A New Idea of India”.
Those who are persuaded by the need to incorporate elements of “A New idea of India”, and the need to embed them in India’s civilizational ethos, has a major challenge in continuing to contribute to refining, extending, and mainstreaming in every area of economic, social, political and cultural life in India the discussion imitated by the authors
The last paragraph of John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in February 1936, is still very relevant for India at this juncture:
“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood…the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not indeed immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economics and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories…so that ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current evens ae not likely to be the newest. But sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous, for good or evil”
The Nehruvian idea of India has kept India much below its potential in many spheres, particularly in economic and security spheres, and has implemented policies not consistent with individuals at the centre, as the book convincingly demonstrates, restricting economic freedom, and given insufficient weight to India’s civilizational ethos.
In economics, as elsewhere, when existing set of ideas, a paradigm, are unable to resolve challenges facing a society, there is greater receptivity to alternative set of ideas.
The time is ripe for “A New Idea of India”. But to build consensus around its core propositions, and then transforming current policies and arrangements with a new set consistent with “A new Idea of India” will require much academic and policy related scholarship, patience, maturity, competence, and political skills.
The task of generating consensus will also require resources, and leadership by non-government organizations as well. Some organizations are doing commendable work in this direction, but education, media, and entertainment sectors, vital in shaping narrative, require more robust strategy and resources.
Any transition from point A which needs reform to a more desirable point B has transition costs. These are often substantial and losers from change have much greater incentive to prevent change, as the opposition to beneficial farm laws illustrates. The ‘best’ therefore should not become enemy of the ‘good’. Political management a, patience, and trust in those bringing about change, i.e. leadership is needed.
The book provides many examples of desirable reforms undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi led government. But also, points to areas where deeper and wider reforms are needed. Having demonstrated its intent to move India towards direction advocated by “An Idea of New India”, a degree of trust and patience in political management of reform, often overlooked in the literature, is essential.
In the concluding chapter, chapter 6, titled “India’s Moment” presents an optimistic view of India’s future provided broad contours of reforms contained in the book are pursued with focus, persistent and competence, and sound strategy and tactics.
A short review such as this cannot do justice to richness and breadth and depth of discussions, including concrete proposals to “Decolonizing the Indian state” in Chapter 5. In this chapter, their discussion of reforming the education system (pp 210-221), and on reforming the judiciary system (pp 231-247) provide lot of insights as well contain a rich research agenda.
The authors argue that:
“As home to a sixth of humanity, India can and should stake claim to be a world power…the tide of heightened aspirations has created a singularity exerting insurmountable forces that are crushing and inescapable… India, would…be best served if there were an intellectual and political consensus on the criticality of economic growth and individual rights, along with the recognition that India is a Civilizational state that can lead to a new universalism without homogenizing humanity” (p.261).
To conclude, this book fully deserves to be an integral part of the consensus building dialogue about how India’s millennia old civilizational ethos, captured in the word Dharma, can be built into developing a modern state and a global power based on individual rights and economic freedom.
There is a strong case for academic programs and think tanks in political economy, governance, public leadership, and public policy to make this book a required reading for a critical analysis and refinements. Policy staff of political parties and legislative and judiciary branches will also greatly benefit from reading this book.
There are host of research questions that would be suitable for policy exercises, thesis, and dissertations, as well, as policy studies and briefs. The academic community and the research organizations are strongly urged to take up this exciting task.
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