Why The Liberal Opposes The Big State - By Sagarika Ghose

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Why The Liberal Opposes The Big State - By Sagarika Ghose

Cover of Sagarika Ghose's book Why I Am a Liberal


Throughout India's post-Independence history, the Big State or Big Government has constantly sought to increase and centralize its powers at the expense of citizens' individual freedoms. Jawaharlal Nehru, even though he was an idealistic constitutional democrat, created the policy and intellectual space for the Big State because of his belief in a socialistic centrally planned economy. Indira Gandhi used agencies of state power, such as ministries and parliamentary institutions to push her 'Indira revolution'. The Narendra Modi-led BJP has taken state power to new maximalist heights to create a government that pushes its own socioeconomic ideological priorities, through many government agencies. The administrative prowess of the Big State inevitably tends to weaken due to gross government overreach.

As Mahatma Gandhi warned, the danger with the expansion of the powers of the state is that it comes with the expansion of the government's capacity to use coercion. Coercion takes various forms such as denial of various permissions and harassment of citizens by officials. The government is the only entity in a democracy that is legally empowered to use force and carry weapons. Thus, when the power of this legally armed entity increases exponentially, citizens have reasons to worry. Those of us enamoured of the 'danda' to rule India only need to wait until the blow of the danda falls on our own heads to really understand what it feels like. The Big State's capacity for violence needs to be powerfully checked by the rule of law and solid constitutional safeguards on the limits of power. If it is not, then violence tends to become normalized, even legitimized, with the continuous expansion of the state because the state or government begins to coerce citizens to impose its own priorities. 

Also, once it has expanded, since the state still can't satisfy everybody, some groups are inevitably left out, leading to disaffection - as we have seen in the Jat, Patidar and Maratha protests. This sense of injustice and frustration begins to grow when some groups get state benefits and some don't. 

The Big State is invariably in the grip of the ruling party, and when the government or state becomes too powerful, politicians who control this Big State gain enormous powers over citizens' lives. As Gandhi believed, the more power is centralized in the government, the more is the government's potential for unleashing violence and coercion on its own citizens. 

Government powers can be used to arrest cartoonists, imprison dissenters, harass citizens through government agencies, deny the cause of justice when ruling party politicians are involved in illegalities (as we have seen in riot cases), give government agencies the power to stage armed 'encounter' killings or killings outside the judicial process, deny passports, cancel FCRA licences for NGOs, slap sedition charges on students, writers and intellectuals and come up with policies that take a severe toll on citizens' well- being. 

Censorship can be imposed, hate-speak can be deployed from the bully pulpit and public places can be summarily shut down. Amartya Sen has called the demonetization drive of the Modi government a 'despotic act...an act that undermines notes, undermines bank accounts, undermines the entire economy of trust.' 

Why does a big government tend to cause alienation? This is because a Big Government creates a feeling of loss of individual agency and that one is being controlled by vested interests, elites, power brokers, et al. Citizens feel powerless. Citizens also experience a growing sense of frustration that even though theoretically in a democracy they are told they are the masters of the government, yet in reality, they are not able to get the government to deliver for them or meet their expectations or make politicians fulfil their promises. 

This leads to even greater support for populist leaders to rise, on the plank of the disaffection created by the Big Government, which in the end only benefits those in power. Populists seize on the inability of the state to deliver, but when they come to power they put in place their own set of controls. The end result is that the scope and arbitrariness of state power or government power only keeps expanding. 

What's the answer? What's the right combination in the role of the government? The liberal, like the thinkers in Hindu traditions, believes it is the quest for answers which is more important than the answer itself. When we seek answers, we don't deny that knowledge is not possible but that it is contextual, so even if we hold strongly to our beliefs, we cannot become blind or dogmatic; we should be willing to test our ideas, respect the right to dissent and not forcibly impose ideas. This is why liberals, as a first principle, seek a limited government, not a Big Government which curtails individual freedoms in personal, social, economic and political choices. Often, absolute certainty among central planners or despots inevitably leads to disruption of individual freedom and economic markets. Choice becomes redundant and citizens are deemed nothing more than sheep to be guided and deployed for whatever reason the planner or supreme leader thinks appropriate.

The answer is not in Big Government or statist solutions or in asking for government protection but in ourselves and the power of what we can do together. This means realizing the importance of liberal, democratic citizenship. The idea of India as we have seen is neither nationalist nor political, instead it is civilizational. It's an idea that harks to the pluralist ancient genius of a subcontinent where freedom, iconoclasm and rebellion have always been celebrated, an idea that tries to be a beacon in the world. The subcontinent's long tryst with individual liberty and autonomy was a tradition that Gandhi and our liberal ancestors reignited for the modern era. 

Brilliant minds down the years - scientists, doctors, engineers, social scientists-have often believed they had the ultimate answers and should refashion society according to their ideas. A belief in certainty led to many ways of ordering society - along communist or fascist lines. Yet, in subcontinental Hindu, Bhakti and Sufi thought, it has always been the search that was primary, the quest for knowledge; the humility that we do not have knowledge and must constantly seek it was the core belief. Hinduism doesn't provide answers, it provides only ways to seek answers; the quest for answers prevents us from being trapped in blind certainty. Similarly, liberal democracy is a way of dialogue and argument and counter-argument to create possible answers. 

The expansion of the Big State triggers authoritarian impulses among people and a political player soon turns up, willing to ride that authoritarian horse and gallop to power. In many ways, Congress-led dispensations have been 'soft' Big States that failed to adequately devolve power. These 'soft' Big States laid the ground for the rise of an even greater statist force like the Modi-led BJP or the Hindutva-led 'hard' Big State.

Excerpted from Why I Am a Liberal: A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe in Individual Freedom by Sagarika Ghose with permission from Penguin Viking. Order your copy here.



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