India as restrained elephant

A balanced narrative presents alternative points of view via 708 references - or nearly three per page

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Caged Tiger: How too much Government is Holding Indians Back

Caged Tiger: How too much Government is Holding Indians Back
Author: Subhashish Bhadra
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 301
Price: Rs 799
A tiger locked in a cage is constrained by the external world. India’s constraints are primarily domestic and self-imposed to moderate the pace of redistribution of social and economic power. The metaphor of an elephant, held captive by the simple artifice of an emotional and physical bond with its keepers, its brute power disciplined by just a notional rope or chain looped around a stump in the ground, seems more readily applicable.

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This is the burden of the author’s song, sung evocatively across a longish introduction and nine artfully curated chapters with pithy titles such as “Economic Restraints: What ails the Indian economy”; “The Panopticon: The surveillance state”; Controlled Cacophony: The status of citizen freedoms and safeguards”; “His Masters’ Police: The internal security apparatus”; “Cultural Revolution: Nationalism as culture; “Crumbling Temples: The decaying political architecture”; “Regulatory Tentacles: Still born autonomous regulation”; “Peering into the Crystal Ball: The future of India’s institutions”; and, finally, “A People’s Reinvention: Hope in the people of India”. A cross-cutting political economy lens examines institutional resilience buttressed by anecdotal evidence.
Written in an engaging, easy style the book is a pleasant but intensely informative read. Time-constrained readers can access standalone chapters, though it would be a pity if they missed the introduction. A balanced narrative presents alternative points of view via 708 references — or nearly three per page. It is a sign of our polarised times that extensive referencing is also the best insurance against lawsuits dragging publishers and authors to the courts.

On the other hand, increasing recourse to the courts by both government sympathisers and dissidents is surely institutional progress. Enforcing author liability by using bottom-up, caveat emptor principles rather than top-down, administrative fiat that simply censors a book or delays its publication illustrates maturing rule of law and institutions. This should meet the author’s approval given his preference for light touch regulation, popularised in the administrative mythology around the efficiency of western democratic systems.
This brings us to one glaring omission. This is the missing discussion around the judiciary and its share in the disrepute in which the rule of law sector finds itself. References to the judiciary are supportive and complementary, whilst shortcomings in the bureaucracy, autonomous regulatory agencies, politicians, political parties and Parliament are dealt with comprehensively. This is a departure from the author’s otherwise balanced approach.

A discussion on judicial injudiciousness is limited to its prickliness with overt challenges to its judicial dignity associated with its vast adjudicatory and plenary (constitution defining) powers, as evidenced by a Supreme Court Bench holding senior advocate Prashant Bhushan in contempt of court in 2020, for publicly questioning the appropriateness of an unmasked, previous chief justice riding a motorcycle even as Covid-19 restraints shackled the country. Mr Bhushan refused to yield or apologise. This ended with a classic in-house compromise. The bench upheld the principle of inviolability of the court from public scrutiny, by levying a notional fine of Rs 1 which the reputed senior advocate paid, thereby retaining his reformist, public persona within the cozy confines of the informal rules of the legal fraternity.
In general, the book swims against the tide of current events on three counts. First, the era of light-touch regulation and globalisation has been substituted by protection and active trade and industrial policies enhancing government intervention. Improving the quality of governance becomes even more critical. 

Second, the imagined world of western democracy is less compelling because the associated economic influence has waned. Third, western democracies have not managed the transition to a multipolar world or economic slowdown well. Growing domestic inequity in their distribution of wealth and income questions the validity of associating sustainable or equitable growth with western templates. The most dynamic economies currently are either authoritarian, electoral or flawed democracies. China and India are estimated to contribute one half of global growth this year with the rest of Asia and the Pacific contributing an additional one fifth.
The quality of political institutions remains closely related to the quality of the underlying social structures. Social inequity, including caste and gender-insensitive empowerment, perpetuates economic inequity. The adoption of laws, regulations or processes templated for their success elsewhere is a lazy and ineffective way to reform India’s many ills. Our Parliament can never be a copy of the British Parliament, nor can we replicate the cultural ethos of US-style politics in India. Solutions have to be incremental, sequenced and home grown, and linked to the science of the possible, rather than ideological best practice.
One reason Indian laws and regulations are not as “tightly” worded as is desirable could be because, at the Union level, they are written in English, which is not the first language of decision makers but is a bit like the UK trying to legislate in Latin. Politicians continue in office despite criminal charges because convictions— in most cases— are abnormally delayed. Government officers dominate regulatory agencies because comparable private professionals are not attracted to the terms of service offered. India is constitutionally a quasi-unitary democracy, with a dominant Union executive versus state governments and a dominant state executive versus local governments. Templates from federal constituencies do not apply.
Nevertheless, kudos to the author for confirming that political and associated reform is possible and requires little more than relentless determination.

First Published: May 16 2023 | 10:02 PM IST

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