The murder of Bengaluru journalist Gauri Lankesh and other regional journalists in various states in recent times, the violence unleashed by gau rakshaks and cow smugglers, the murder of various Right to Information (RTI) activists and Sangh parivar karyakartas in some states, and many other such incidents of murder and mayhem have rightly been seen as the failure of law enforcement by many. There is no doubt that police reform and streamlining of the criminal justice system should be India’s number one priority, more important than almost any other reform, whether economic, social or political.
All freedoms guaranteed in the constitution, whether it is free speech, privacy, or religion, flow from the state’s ability to guarantee safety of life and limb. If this is not guaranteed, all other freedoms are irrelevant.
However, while we know the remedies – better policing, freeing the police force from political interference, higher investment in crime detection technologies and faster judicial redress - none of it will happen if we don’t build a consensus on one big idea: that “public goods” must precede the provision of “private goods” by the state.
“Public goods” can be defined as those goods whose consumption by one or more citizens does not reduce what is available to others. A “private good”, even if provided to a large number of people by a state, is defined as one whose consumption by one group can often come only at the cost of another.
For example, when we offer farm loan waivers, it may be good for farmers who are in debt, but the money used to write off loans is money not available for building infrastructure, or for investing in hospitals where children die, or improving primary education.
Law and order is one public good we must prioritise because it protects all citizens, and not just some. But what we have done is reduce law and order to a private good, where it works only for the influential or the rich, or the party in power.
An independent judiciary is a public good and in everyone’s interests, but we have made it accessible only to the vested interests, or special interest groups favoured by politicians, by making the delivery of justice both time-consuming and meaningless. A rape verdict that can take more than five years to reach the final stage – the Nirbhaya rape is still to reach its logical conclusion despite “fast-tracking” it – is essentially an advertisement for judicial delays. It cannot deliver justice to the families of the victim, nor convince anyone that the system is fair to women who become targets of sexual harassment and assaults. All women lose, and all men are diminished, when the public good of fast justice is denied by systemic delays.
The reason why private goods get priority over public goods is vote banks.
If you can win an election with 30-35 per cent of the vote, politicians will try and see what benefit they can offer to a critical mass of voters – whether farmers, or castes or some religious communities – and not what benefits they can offer to society as a whole. If giving job reservations for Jats or Gujjars or Patidars or Marathas will help you win the next election, why bother about creating a larger environment where plenty of jobs are created for everyone?
If high-cost land acquisitions, as mandated by the UPA-era Land Acquisition Act, are beneficial for a small class of powerful landed interests, why should anyone address the larger question of making property a fundamental right, or making farming viable by higher state investments in irrigation, cold chains, and infrastructure? In the name of the farmer, it is vested interests that benefit from this “reform.”
Our political system has been gamed by politicians who have realised that it does not pay to prioritise public goods over private goods, and till this realisation is internalised or forced down the throats of all political parties, we are not going to get sensible law and order or good education or higher investments in primary health care.
Murders and violence by vested interests are a booming business because the voter is narrowly focused on her short-term benefits. The voter is now paying the price for this short-sightedness.
Sooner or later, if the major political parties do not realise this, we are staring down an abyss.
Indian politics is pitted against majorities since it allows any government to be elected on a minority of votes. This needs fixing, and maybe a shift to some form of proportional representation will help. At the very least, if you will need 51 per cent of the vote to win, you will stop thinking that giving special benefits to 30 per cent of the people is enough to get you re-elected.
In the Gauri Lankesh murder, politicians are happier trying to assign blame to their favourite foes rather than address the root cause of an undermined law and order machinery.
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