Jawaharlal Nehru, free India’s first Prime Minister, retained the entire construct of law and practice left over by the departing British. Those laws and practices — which have only been preserved and added on to over 66 years — were fashioned by the colonial power for a people in chains. They ensured that the administrative authority (whether chosen by London or through the ballot box) retained absolutist power over the lives of citizens. Post-colonial regimes ensured that any structure that had the potential to challenge the authority of government was weakened or eliminated. After the passing away of Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950, Nehru fashioned the economic and foreign policy of India largely on his own, relying on personally selected acolytes for advice. Despite his idealism and his commitment to country, Nehru failed to ensure that the population of India be gifted a legal and administrative structure that treated them to be adults and not children in need of constant chastisement and monitoring. By relying on the state sector rather than giving equal attention to private industry, this country’s economy has dwindled to less than a fourth the size of China’s, while it was double that country’s economic size in 1949. While Nehru sought to maintain the civility of democracy save for exceptions such as the 1959 dismissal of the E.M.S. Namboodiripad ministry in Kerala, his daughter Indira Gandhi launched a cultural revolution as fullscope in its effect as the one unleashed on China in the 1960s by Mao Zedong. Covenants were torn up by her, institutions weakened and political and personal expediency made the driving force behind the ship of state.
The savage destruction of the rights of the private citizen — especially in the economic sphere — had as its base the presumption that he or she was still a “child”, and that the “adult” (i.e. the state) was the fitter of the two to exercise discretion. Had Nehru given large-scale private industry in India the same degree of support that Tokyo or Seoul gave their own businesses, it would have been Indian rather than South Korean or Japanese companies, which emerged as world beaters. As for the individual, what opportunities there were got ignored by the state. Even to get a passport or the bare minimum of foreign exchange needed to emigrate, for instance, was so difficult that more West Indians than Indians settled in the UK, and several times more inhabitants of Dacca and Lahore than of Mumbai and Chennai. Activity was made as difficult as possible.
But there was method in such madness. The more obstacles there were to innovation and enterprise, the more possibilities for politicians and officials to get bribes. A system got created that was geared towards the necessity of bribery, and towards the generation of income outside the tax net, which was substantial. Pranab Mukherjee has the distinction, while looking after the finance portfolio, of levying a tax rate of well over 90% on income that by international standards was meagre. Tax receipts grew very little, and not only because of evasion.
There was simply no incentive to do better, if the sole beneficiary was a government not exactly proficient in the quality of the services it provided. Whether such rates were the brainchild of India’s present Head of State or that of his then boss, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is not known. However, in a display of consistency, taxes rose from what they were during his most recent stint as Finance Minister, even higher than the steep rises caused by his predecessor — and successor — P. Chidambaram. Paying out more and more tax for a constantly diminishing basket of services has remained the norm.
While in more advanced democracies, systems have evolved which seek to make life and work easier for the average citizen, in India the system is designed to increase the number of chokepoints slowing down the citizen from his tasks. In a context where potential opportunities are multiplying, as is the need for speedy and effective reactions to them, the claustrophobic hold of a bureaucracy ill-equipped for change across the spectrum of Indian life has ensured that the talent of the Indian citizen is denied the chance to be utilised the way it is in countries where the laws and the administration regard the people as mature enough to take their own decisions.
The power to take away the property and liberty of a citizen is vested in an unconscionably large number of authorities. Unless a fairer balance gets created between the rights and powers of civil society and those vested in the mechanism of governance, this country cannot be termed a democracy. If we are to ensure that the freedom enjoyed by the citizen is present not only in law but in fact this is only possible by trimming the powers concentrated in Delhi and in ensuring that the residue get more fairly distributed down the line, to state, district, zilla parishad, city and panchayat. It is time that India freed itself from its post-1947 colonial master, Delhi.