Nation-building and the Myth of Homo Auctoritas

Nation-building and the Myth of Homo Auctoritas

by Jaideep A Prabhu - Mar 20, 2012 06:47 AM +05:30 IST
Nation-building and the Myth of Homo Auctoritas

In its fullest sense, nation-building refers to the process of creating a national identity – administrative as well as cultural – such that a new state is politically stable and viable. However, more commonly, it refers to the efforts of newly independent states (India, African states) or states that have undergone radical transformation (Germany, Japan, Eastern Europe, former Soviet republics). This is primarily because, while all states need to be built, it is only these new ones which have the task remaining. Nation-building is a long and arduous task, with many difficult decisions to be made – the nature of government, the function of government, lines of authority, civil liberties, limitation of powers, a machinery for self-correction, infrastructure, and so on. These are not decisions that can be entered into with passion or prejudice, but with a rational and logistical head.

Prerequisites for nation building

India, gaining independence in 1947, set about ordering her political space with gusto. Despite some of the finest minds in the country being appointed to the Constituent Assembly, the final product –  the Constitution of India, and indeed, the country itself – has the markings of a lethargic has-been than a dynamic new state looking forward and ready to face down its challengers. To be fair, India was severely handicapped in her (ongoing) process of nation-building. Most successful nation-states – Denmark, the United States, Canada, France, to name a few – evolved slowly over centuries and had time to build up the necessary prerequisites to statehood. The general trajectory of these states has been an evolution from authoritarian systems to liberal democracies. During their authoritarian days, Western Europe and its derivatives (Australia, Canada, the United States) had to answer the same questions of statehood and address the same problems – illiteracy, religious identity, linguistic cohesion, credibility of institutions. Motivated by revolutions when subjects were dissatisfied (Magna Carta, English Civil War, French Revolution, 1848), monarchs shaped their nations without too much interference from a self-interested public. As a result, when Europe turned to democracy, states already had a high degree of literacy (France had approximately 95% literacy in 1881). Furthermore, as European states had remained independent and not been colonised, development of infrastructure and institutions had steadily been taking place. India, however, inherited a literacy rate of 12% and an economy that had been, in real terms, stagnant for 190 years with little to no development of infrastructure (if one doesn’t count the railroads from the mines to the shipyards).

India’s compromises with nation-building

The compromises India made in the Constituent Assembly for the sake of a united nation today threatens that very nation. In the early years of the republic, Jawaharlal Nehru set a bad precedent by cowing down to bad policy recommendations backed by the coercive force of populist politics. The failure to implement a uniform civil code has divided communities in India; the introduction of reservations based on caste has solidified caste lines rather than eliminate them, and has given birth to vote banks and minority politics; the flippancy with which the constitution is amended has made the document a foil to be wielded by any half-skilled operator. What shred of dignity was left was torn away by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, in her declaration of the Emergency and the systematic decimation of institutions, from the judiciary and presidency to her own party. Once the Congress Party let the genie out of the bottle, the propensity to reuse those same methods did not go away and in fact expanded.

It is little wonder, then, that many Indians are frustrated and cynical of politics. It is not uncommon to hear in India that the country needs a strong leader to cut through the frivolous politics and bureaucratic inefficiencies and propel the nation to greatness. As an outsider to the Indian experience, this has always struck me as odd and, frankly, ass-backwards – while most peoples yearn for freedom and liberty, Indians seem to desire authority and control. However, as most psychologists would tell us, it is an instinctual human reaction to lean to the Right in times of crisis – Adolf Hitler in Weimar Germany, Winston Churchill after the outbreak of World War II, or Menachem Begin after the Yom Kippur War, the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team, and the Entebbe hijacking. Similarly, watching India free fall into chaos at all levels – economic, social, and political – has created an upsurge of authoritarian yearning, an admiration if not outright desire for Homo Auctoritas.

The myth of Homo Auctoritas in Indian garb

Howbeit, nothing is simple in India, and neither is the Indian’s taste for a strong leader. While scholars of dictatorial rule have studied systems in the West as well as East and agreed that totalitarianism is different from authoritarianism in that the former is more statist while the latter represents merely a high concentration of authority, India presents a unique case. The Indian conception of ‘strong’ rule is better classified as Bose-ism (alas, the credit for coining the term must go to Krishnalal Shridharini, writing for the Milwaukee Sentinel in April 1944). But what is Boseism? Ideologically, Subhas Chandra Bose advocated a fusion between socialism and fascism, what he called Samyavada.1 In his own words,

I would say we have here in this policy and program a synthesis of what modern Europe calls Socialism and Fascism. We have here the justice, the equality, the love, which is the basis of Socialism, and combined with that we have the efficiency and the discipline of Fascism as it stands in Europe today.

The concept emphasises a charismatic leader who is more functional than individualistic, rejecting personality cults and positioning the leader as merely the head of the party in pursuit of a greater cause. Because the accrual of power is not for personal gain, there would be less corruption. Contrary to Nazism, Boseism was not at all racist and Bose himself had a falling out with Nazi officials in the mid-1930s over their treatment of Jews and description of Indians and Slavs in Mein Kampf. Boseism, informed by a Hindu ethic, was, oddly for a totalitarian system, remarkably pluralistic. Programmatically, Bose wrote,

  1. The party will stand for the interests of the masses, that is, of the peasants, workers, etc., and not for the vested interests, that is, the landlords, capitalists and money-lending classes.
  2. It will stand for the complete political and economic liberation of the Indian people.
  3. It will stand for a Federal Government for India as the ultimate goal, but will believe in a strong Central Government with dictatorial powers for some years to come, in order to put India on her feet.
  4. It will believe in a sound system of state-planning for the reorganization of the agricultural and industrial life of the country.
  5. It will seek to build up a new social structure on the basis of the village communities of the past, that were ruled by the village “Panch” and will strive to break down the existing social barriers like caste.
  6. It will seek to establish a new monetary and credit system in the light of the theories and the experiments that have been and are current in the modern world.
  7. It will seek to abolish landlordism and introduce a uniform land-tenure system for the whole of India.
  8. It will not stand for a democracy in the mid-Victorian sense of the term, but will believe in government by a strong party bound together by military discipline, as the only means of holding India together and preventing a chaos, when Indians are free and are thrown entirely on their own resources.
  9. It will not restrict itself to a campaign inside India but will resort to international propaganda also, in order to strengthen India’s case for liberty, and will attempt to utilise the existing international organizations.
  10. It will endeavour to unite all the radical organizations under a national executive so that whenever any action is taken, there will be simultaneous activity on many fronts.2

Two things stand out in Bose’s agenda – the first is, as Bose promised, that it truly does sound like a fusion of socialism and fascism, the language a mix of ‘workers’ and ‘military discipline’. But then, there is no hiding that Bose was a Leftist throughout his life. The second, and perhaps the most unacknowledged thing, is that Boseism was meant to be temporary (point 3). This feature is essential in understanding the Indian approach to authoritarian rule; it is not an insane desire to lose liberty, nor is it a drive towards thanatos (as Sigmund Freud may have commented). It is a cry for doing the job right.

But here is the kicker – it cannot be done. As much as it may be demanded, successful Boseism is the next thing to impossible. The time in which India could have been readied for democracy is long by, spent creating an independent nation-state that resembles fairly well the boundaries that an idea of India held. Had Mohandas Gandhi or Vallabhbhai Patel agreed with Bose and implemented his system, it may have been accepted…for a while. Nonetheless, today, there is a deficit of trust between India’s citizens and her leaders. Memories of the Emergency, the last time an Indian leader tried to impose authoritarian rule upon India, are still fresh. Multitudes opposed Indira Gandhi then, and the same will be the case today. But more important than the fact that it cannot be done, there are important reasons why dictatorships are not worth the glitter.

Going by the numbers

If success were based on human development and quality of life, there are no dictatorships that could match liberal democracies. In a 2011 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) report, the first country that even resembles an authoritarian state is Russia at 39th rank. Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, is at 61st rank, and genuine totalitarian regimes fare far more poorly. Even counting among the recently (post 1945) decolonised states, Cyprus, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka – all democracies – take top spots at 27, 53, and 58 respectively. According to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, a 2005 Quality of Life Index (QLI) put the first non-democracy at number 18 – which was Hong Kong, part of China that enjoys significantly more civil liberties than the mainland. The first proper dictatorship was Qatar, at 41. And like the IHDI report, even recently decolonised democracies rank fairly high, Cyprus (23) and Barbados (33) coming in ahead of the oil-rich kingdom of Qatar.

However, if success were based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth alone, it is obvious that totalitarian regimes do quite well too. It would be silly to deny that a dictatorship can boast sound economic results – any political system, free or unfree, that removes obstacles to entrepreneurship, investment and trade, and makes a credible commitment to safeguard property rights to a certain extent will trigger a virtuous economic cycle. Spain’s Francisco Franco and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew discovered that in the 1960s, as did China’s Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s, and many others at various times. Explosive GDP growth is of particular relevance to the Indian case, as Boseism is meant to be a short-term phenomenon anyway. The argument would be that two decades of Boseism would propel the economy at rapid rates, after which a return to democracy could be made. Leaving aside the structural problems with such a theory for the moment, let us look closer at the two indicators – GDP Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) per capita and GDP rate of growth.

It would stand to reason that developed countries would grow slower than developing countries; after all, the former have already put in place much of their physical infrastructure and a percentage increase for them would be much larger and harder while spare capacity and unrealized potential tend to allow developing nations to grow faster than developed nations. The fastest growing GDPs in 2011 that are not based on mineral wealth exports belong to Lebanon (19%), Jordan (10.9%), China (9.1%), Argentina (9.1%), Estonia (8.4%), Turkey (8.3%), and Sri Lanka (8.2%). Among these, the only complete dictatorship is China with a Democracy Index ranking of 141. While Lebanon and Jordan are at 94 and 114, the remaining are all democracies, with Estonia ranked the highest at 34. In terms of GDP per capita too, Estonia is the highest among the fastest growing economies, ranked at 47.

Since her economic liberalisation in 1991, India has been living in China’s shadow and the two states have been compared again, as they were in the early years of the Cold War. For the outside world, the India – China rivalry represent a most fascinating experiment, an opportunity to compare democratic growth and totalitarian growth. Given China’s breathtaking economic performance, it has been suggested that the real advantage the authoritarian state has over its democratic neighbour in the southwest is the nature of its regime. Clear and short lines of authority and fear are supposed to have facilitated quick decision-making and bypassed vested local interests. Although this reasoning is seductive, it does not entirely bear scrutiny. Governance is a difficult quality to measure, but the World Bank has decided upon six basic characteristics to measure governance – voice & accountability, political stability and lack of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption. For a better picture, things get extremely complicated: there are too many variables within each indicator that are peculiar to a region, criteria between surveys are arbitrary, ‘good governance’ is difficult to define universally, or there may be biases in the sampling. To be sure, there exists much criticism. However, the individual country data reports for Indian and China released by the World Bank, according to their World Governance Indicators (WGI) index, tell an unexpected tale. Not surprisingly, India ranks higher than China in voice & accountability every year (the report gives percentile data from 1996 to 2010). China ranks higher than India in political stability but the two are fairly even in government effectiveness. India is ahead of China again in regulatory quality and rule of law but the two are about the same in control of corruption. So despite the common perception, China’s totalitarianism gives it no advantage over democracies. It needs to be pointed out that because of its totalitarian nature, much of what happens in China is censored to the outside world, and official Chinese economic statistics have often been rumoured to be fake. Tourists, journalists, and diplomats are carefully kept on the rosy path, forbidden to travel to the interiors of the country.

What this picture really tells us is that stability and reliability are most important when it comes to economic prosperity over the long term. Spain, a success story until the Eurocrisis, has seen its wealth double since 1985 and yet at no point in the last quarter-century did the Spaniards achieve annual growth figures comparable to those of China. Similarly, the US economy has grown by a factor of fourteen since 1940, but never experienced “Asian” growth figures. When the environment in which the economy breathes depends on the commitment of an autocrat or a party and not on sound institutions, development cannot occur with any certitude. Furthermore, liberal democracies like Peru and India, albeit flawed, have maintained a 7% GDP growth rate over the past few years and kept up with totalitarian growth without its attendant disadvantages.

Sick India

The evidence therefore points to not less, but more (or better) democracy. Authoritarian states, thought they may have the potential for success, have not done so well overall – one look at Africa should clear all doubt. Better democracy can only come through better transparency, through which institutions can be built. Transparency streamlines processes and transactions as well as reduce the space in which corruption can occur because it puts procedure in the open. Yet the Indian government has barely paid lip service to this so far. The most recent example is the Union budget, released less than a week ago – despite many calls for transparency in terms of funds allocation to various schemes, the Finance Ministry has chosen to remain silent on the issue. The budget document has only a mention of the funds allocated to each department and 20-25% of the outlay will probably remain unspent in 2012-2013 as it did the previous fiscal year, creating a huge pool of money to be siphoned off. Another reason for resistance to wards transparency is that budget opacity allows the distribution of state monies by ministers to preferred districts and persons. This, in effect, creates a mechanism for punishment by officials of districts whose voting records were ‘less than exemplary.’

India’s laws are so complex and impenetrable that they are a breeding ground for corruption too. Shortage of qualified judges, suffocating bureaucracy, and interminable delays in the disposal of cases has raised a veil over the legal system that citizens can pierce only by offering inducement. At all levels, the judiciary is implicated in scams and other misconduct but the process of reform is, again, buried under suffocating bureaucracy.

In business, Ajay Piramal, an Indian billionaire, refused to invest in India citing corruption, bureaucratic red tape, unstable government policies, and a complete lack of transparency. There is no need to recite examples from the umpteen sectors of India’s institutions to demonstrate the abysmal state of affairs but to put it in numbers, approximately $18.5 billion are lost in corruption annually, or 1.3% of the GDP. According to an Economist article in 2008, the ‘democracy tax’ in India is quite high, with over 120 members of parliament having criminal charges pending against them. Admitted the article of the Congress regime, “A BJP-led government would offer India a better prospect of reform than the current arrangement.”

Quoi faire?

Unfortunately, the solution evaded much of India during Anna Hazare’s tantrum in 2011 in support of a Jan Lokpal bill. The answer to the country’s sickness is, it seems, is to create more laws, more bureaucracy, and consequently more corruption. But this has been already been tried and is why India is where she is today – the country has the longest constitution in the world and a hodgepodge of laws, some universal and others applying to different sections of the body public. Had Hazare instead put his energies into declassifying government documents as per the 30-year rule, pushed for the availability of public records online, a stronger Right To Information (RTI) Act, integrity pacts, and other such transparency-enhancing procedures, he might well have been a true Indian hero. The nature of these procedures is to put under the public eye much of what happens in government. If citizens had easy access to land records, police case progress reports, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) transfer history, information on their parliamentarians (the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s fabricated educational history comes to mind), it would at least shift the onus of good governance through informed voting more onto them.

If, on the other hand, a totalitarian – Boseist – regime were established, these issues would never see the light of day. Bose held the curious belief that he was accountable to the public, but not necessarily answerable. For example, Bose proclaimed the formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind in October 1943. While retaining his post as Supreme Commander of the Indian National Army (INA), he announced that he was naming himself Head of State, Prime Minister, and Minister for War and Foreign Affairs.3 These appointments involved no democratic process or voting of any kind. Further, the authority he exercised in these posts was dictatorial and often very harsh. He demanded total obedience and loyalty from the Indians in south Asia, and any who opposed him, his army or government faced imprisonment, torture, or even execution.4 His INA troops were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to both the Provisional Government and to him personally. He ordered the summary execution of all INA deserters, and also prepared (but was never able to implement) law codes for the entire population of India. These laws, which stipulated the death penalty for a range of offenses, were to come into force when the INA, together with the Japanese Army, entered India to fight against the British.5

Transparency is not a panacea to India’s woes. Institution-building takes trust – citizens must be able to trust that the institutions they go to for help, be it the police, the post office, or the municipal office. In a case that horrified the nation in 2002, a disabled girl was raped in a train compartment in full view of other passengers – not one raised a finger to save the girl. While we may castigate the passengers on that train, it must also be realised that the passengers probably did nothing because they feared the harassment of the police and the courts, or worried that the rapist had some underworld associations and afraid that the police would not protect them from the wrath of the rapist’s friends if they accosted the rapist. As much as we’d like to loathe the bystanders, consider this: in a very strange incident in 2008, a 22-year old youth committed suicide within five hours of scraping former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda’s SUV with his car.

The hollowing of institutions in India has been so thorough that it has affected even the moral fibre of her citizens. The restitution will take time and effort, and no totalitarian regime will prove a shortcut – even East Germany wasn’t. There is a story of a man who was searching for a key under a lamp post. When a passerby asked the man where he had lost the key, he replied that he had lost it some distance away from the lamp post. Astonished, the passerby asked, ‘Why are you searching under the lamp post?’ The man replied, ‘Because there is light under the lamp post.’ Indians are looking at the form of government, not because that’s where they have lost the key, but because there appears to be light there. To create a government that is accountable, a citizenry that is discriminating, imaginative and tolerant, institutions that effectively deliver public goods, and laws that are properly enforced and institutionalised, India requires transparency that can heal the rift between the rulers and the ruled; reinforcing it with an absolutist system will not help. The changes required are many, and the tired cliche that Rome wasn’t built in a day comes to mind. But Robert Frost also comes to mind:

“But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”


1: Bose’s inaugural speech as mayor of Calcutta. Leonard A. Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose (New York: 1990), p. 234. [TOP]

2: S.C. Bose, The Indian Struggle 1920-1942, Compiled by the Netaji Research Bureau (Bombay and other centers: Asia Publishing House, 1964), p. 312-313. [TOP]

3: Hari Hara Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Movement (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1983), p. 367-370. [TOP]

4: Hugh Toye, The Springing Tiger: A Study of a Revolutionary (London: Cassell, 1959), p. 112-115. [TOP]

5: Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Movement, p. 371-376. “If any person fails to understand the intentions of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind and the Indian National Army, or of our Ally, the Nippon Army, and dares to commit such acts as are itemized hereunder which would hamper the sacred task of emancipating India, he shall be executed or severely punished in accordance with the Criminal Law of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind and the Indian National Army or with the Martial Law of the Nippon Army.” These punishable acts include such things as spreading rumors “disturbing and misleading the minds of the inhabitants,” spying, destroying material resources controlled by the Provisional Government, and all forms of rebellion against the Provisional Government or the Japanese Army.” [TOP]

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
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