Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wanted: An authoritarian rule

In one of his lectures, Francis Fukuyuma summed up “Asian values” ( as popularized by leaders like Lee Kuan Yew) as “a system in which people are born not with rights but with duties to a series of hierarchically-arranged authorities, beginning with the family and extending all the way up to the state and emperor. In this world, there is no concept of the individual and individual rights; duties are not derived from rights as they are in Western liberal thought."

“Indian values’ too have the same elements. In an essay titled. “Authority and Identity in India”, T.G.Vaidyanathan, an English professor and regular columnist in The Hindu in the 80s and 90s, showed that 'in the Indian ethos, the guru-sishya relationship is the paradigm of all relationships. Whether it is the relationship of a devotee to his creator, of a servant to his master, of a friend to friend, of lover to beloved, of parents to children, and even of enemies to each other.'

Few principles, he says, are exempt from the influence of the guru principle, including games. In fact, to be Indian means to respect authority- all the way down the line. It is not surprising, concluded Vaidyanathan that for many Indians insecurity is nearly always a consequence of the withdrawal of external authority but never of its presence.

So, counter-intuitive as it may sound, a western system of constitutional democracy that we adopted after independence and that promised us freedom and liberties, may have been completely incompatible with our genetic make-up. To function as a cohesive nation, perhaps,we need the reassuring force of an authoritarian rule. Denied the guru-sishya framework that is hardwired in our brains, we tend to get disoriented, undisciplined and to slip into complete chaos. We simply need an 'authority' to submit to. Without a teacher watching over us in the classroom, there is mayhem. Without a traffic cop around,  we will just not bother to stop our vehicles when the signal turns red. "Shame of punishment if caught' rather an 'innate sense of guilt in breaking rules" is what shapes our behaviour.

Would a more authoritarian system have worked better for us? One that took away a share of our individual rights but, as a trade-off, ensured a more disciplined, orderly society? Would the Singapore model work in a large country like ours?

This question need not be just a hypothetical one. Results of an experiment performed in India are available to corroborate the theory. I am talking about the Emergency period from 1975-1977.

The imposition of the Emergency was based on dubious arguments, but few would dispute that it resulted in a period of absolute calm. Just four months after the Emergency was imposed, Time magazine would call it a ‘needed shock” and report :

These days India is engrossed in a frenzied campaign to encourage discipline, punctuality, cleanliness, courtesy. Placards appear everywhere, some of whose messages of inspiration are attributed to Mrs. Gandhi but most not. On a street corner in New Delhi: ECONOMIC OFFENSES BRING STERN PUNISHMENT. Another, quoting Mohandas Gandhi: A BORN DEMOCRAT IS A BORN DISCIPLINARIAN.

The campaign for discipline may be having some impact on the country. In Bombay, for instance, streets are no longer littered with debris, telephone repairs are made promptly, and state ministers are arriving at their offices at the hitherto unheard-of hour of 9:30 in the morning. Police claim crime is down 10%, largely because they no longer have to spend so much of their energies controlling political demonstrations. One veteran foreign observer of Indian affairs believes Mrs. Gandhi "administered to the country a massive punch in the jaw, which it probably needed." He adds that if the government can bring the emergency to an end within six months, "the retrospective view will be that it has benefited the country and given a badly needed shock to a society whose values were crumbling."

On the first anniversary of Emergency rule, Time would again report:

Thanks to a record wheat harvest of 114 million tons last year—which in turn was produced by the most beneficent monsoon in modern history—the country is enjoying a period of rare prosperity. As a result of a two-year-old tight-money policy and a very tough economic reform program imposed during the emergency, India last year may have been the only major nation in the world with a negative inflation rate (-6%). India's educated classes still lament the suspension of civil liberties and the continuing detention of thousands of people without trial, but the country at large is reasonably contented.

Well, we all know that the rule did not last. It became evident that there had been gross abuse of power. Gory details of ‘excesses’ and high-handedness on the part of police officials and bureaucrats in North India surfaced– and the Govt was thrown out of power.

But, the part that is forgotten is that, the same Congress swept the elections in all the Southern states, losing just three of the seats. How did this polarisation take place?

It was argued that perhaps only the ‘beneficial’ effect of the authoritarian rule was felt in the South- which mercifully was spared the ‘excesses’.

I endorse that view. I lived in Chennai during the Emergency and remember that period for its ‘orderliness’. Trains ran on time, labour Unions did not resort to strikes at the slightest provocation, colleges were not closed due to students’ agitation and there was general contentment. The Emergency was welcomed. Most people agreed it had injected a much needed ‘dose of discipline’.

It is worth analyzing that phase more objectively? What was done right in South India? How was that optimal balance between discipline and ‘freedom’ struck- without resorting to ‘excesses”? Can we challenge the popular belief that ‘individual liberty" is sacrosanct and an inviolable right that Indians will not compromise on, even if it is for the common good?


CodeNameV said...

While introducing "Electro Motive Force" or EMF at school, my teacher told the class:

"Consider a metal. It is like a School. It has free electrons like how a School has children, who will do what they want if left as they are. Now introduce a teacher and all students would quietly sit and align in the class room. In the world of Metals, teacher's role is played by Electro Motive Force. Just like a teacher would introduce discipline among students and drive them in a direction, EMF would introduce order and drive electrons from negative end of voltage to positive end of voltage, thus resulting in a current of electrons or electricity"

Dont know if we can say "Subatomic Particles" behave like this and so Macroscopic 'I's and 'We's should fundamentally behave the same way.

Raj said...

Codename V: Good metaphor.

Viyoma said...

Superb!! A few hours back, i tweeted
"The canvas of #Emergency75 is dark shaded – with Sanjay. Light colours of Indira are bound to be missed"

You elaborated the whole point, very beautifully.

Sanjeev Sabhlok said...

Dear Raj

I wish you could see the huge dangers of centralisation by government. The emergency was a serious violation of liberties, and entirely consistent with Nehru/Indira Gandhi's desire to centrally control India. This always leads to really bad outcomes, such as poverty, illiteracy and death.

Consider reading my book available here: