Not for the first time, let it be pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has more to fear from his friends than his foes. Given that the sobriquet “Modi’s India” has now become widespread, actions of theirs damage perceptions of the individual who won for his party a Lok Sabha majority in May 2014, the latest being the Victorian effort to ban several hundred internet sites for “offences against decency”. Learn from the people of Gujarat. Although for the record there is prohibition of alcohol in the state, as well as a ban on activities such as ladies dancing in restaurants before the gaze of customers in apparel more virtual than real, the fact remains that the people of Gujarat are among the most forward-looking in the country, and allow themselves considerable latitude in their lifestyles. Certainly the Global Gujarati has scant regard for individuals who seek to impose on him or her the legal dress, diet and social restrictions found in Iran or Saudi Arabia. India is a young country, and the young are no longer willing to allow themselves to be dictated to in every particular by a Bully State. Although commentators refer to our country as a “nanny” state, such a term would do disservice to that profession. It is the task of nannies to take care of the very young, and to protect them. The Indian state, with its low standards of public administration and social security, does neither. Public housing is — in effect — non-existent, unless we were to define slums and “unauthorised” hutments as such. Health facilities provided by the state are as reminiscent of the conditions in hell as educational institutions. Security for those lacking influence (including that bought by access to money) is inexistent, and futures dim. There is little of the nanny in the Indian state, except where it looks after those in government and their favourites.
A more accurate description of a country where the legal and administrative system has been unchanged since the colonial era would be the “Bully State”. A thicket of laws and regulations ensures that getting a citizen into trouble is the work of an instant for any factotum of the administration. Since the Manmohan Singh decade, when the Narasimha Rao reforms got rolled back under the onslaught of Kapil Sibal and Palaniappan Chidambaram, only those suffering from masochistic impulses would strive to set up a business in India, or pursue an occupation in this country, unless there were no other options. Most of those seeking to replicate a Yahoo! or a Google in India have by now migrated elsewhere, in contrast to the 1990s, which spawned such world beaters as Wipro, Infosys and TCS. Although weakened, the reformist impulse continued during the six A.B. Vajpayee years, so much so that companies controlled by citizens of India became feared in boardrooms in Europe for their acquisitive nature. That changed with the swearing in as Prime Minister of Manmohan Singh, who oversaw a torrent of restrictive laws and edicts, in the process making the country lose out on an average of 4% of GDP each year. Those who backed Narendra Modi for Singh’s job, expect him to abolish the Bully State, thereby ensuring that the people of this country get empowered to change their lives in a positive direction rather than remain weighted down by a governance structure that makes the use of the word “democratic” to describe it as an exercise in Orwellian logic.
For those who trust Prime Minister Modi and have confidence in his capacity to bring a 19th century system into the 21st century, it has been dismaying to watch so many in his team uncritically approve the numerous restrictions and control levers that belong to the period of the British raj and not to a country which is regarded as free. In the Bully State, the primary “freedom” is that of the minions of the state to ensure that as many activities as possible be subject to their control. Most of the rules and legislations passed have their impetus not in the public good, but in ensuring the most effective way to collect bribes. The greater the weight of government, the bigger the likelihood of corruption. Hence the need to adopt the pattern found in those countries where — overall — people of Indian descent do superbly, in contrast to India, where they lag behind. In particular, the Knowledge Economy mandates freedom of thought and action, a stipulation that has eluded those who defend such anachronisms as the criminal defamation laws and information technology laws that make India a risky location to get online in, provided of course that such a step is possible in a country where internet speeds are at the levels found in North Korea or Afghanistan.
In the 21st century, personal behaviour — except the most toxic varieties, those involving physical harm to others — is regulated not by law but by social conventions. Standing by the Victorian edicts of our former British rulers and adding to rather than subtracting their prohibitions and control systems may lead to doubt about the commitment of the elected government towards a future defined by modernity in thought and moderation in governance. The rolling back of the slapdash effort at banning internet sites or standing by 66A of the Information Technology Act will hopefully get followed by the government opposing rather than supporting the provisions for criminal defamation. The people of India have had enough of the Bully State, albeit dressed up in the flowery language of “morality”, “order” and “decency”. They will not be satisfied except by a rolling back of the illiberal colonial impulse and its replacement by an operating system for the state that recognises the primacy of civil society and protects the rights available to it in mature democracies.