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Sunday, December 07, 2003

Obligations of governance

This post is a little off topic. In a comment responding to Vivek's remarks on the recent state elections in India, I expressed my distaste for pretty much the entire line up of national parties. Let me first reproduce here the key points that I made:

"I am NOT a fan of Sonia Gandhi's leadership. My support of Congress is grudging and lukewarm - for lack of anything better. This is largely because, post Gujarat riots, with BJP, we would always run the risk of something really terrible happening.

I like the communist parties even less. I am familiar with the impact of the destruction of the public school system, the flight of industry and the utter, utter hopelessness that forces the rural youth to join the communist parties in Bengal today. I would have to be dragged by a mad elephant to support them.

So; Sonia Gandhi. It is much more fundamental than your or my like or dislike of Sonia Gandhi. With her on the masthead, The Congress will always lose a huge chunk of the electorate unless of course BJP screws up really gigantically.

I also think that caste based politics has the potential to destroy whatever little social fabric is left to non-Metro India. Congress needs to find a soul and a leader who really actually believes in that tired cliche''when you reach for the stars, you dont settle for the trees' Unless it gains that, it is gonna remain business as usual ...."

With so many caveats, you may wonder why am I rooting for the Congress anyway; since the economy has started responding under BJP's stewardship. It is actually quite simple. A year back, one of my favourite writers, Amitav Ghosh wrote a column on the subject. He said it much better than I could. So let me simply reproduce part of it:

"There are certain obligations of governance that admit of no dilution for ideological purposes: they are binding and absolute. The first of these is the obligation to maintain the rule of law..... But in choosing instead, to encourage retribution through mob violence, the government has permanently endangered all its citizens, including those whose interests it endeavoured to advance. .....

Secondly, a modern State is by definition under an obligation to establish a monopoly of sanctioned violence within the territory under its control. Any State which attempts to dodge this obligation, for no matter what purpose, does so at its own peril. There is no better illustration of this principle than the fate of our neighbour, Pakistan. Zia ul-Haq attempted to tighten his grip on power by creating extra-governmental militias: in the end this policy undermined the very foundations of the Pakistani state ....

Finally, one of the least remarked but most important foundations of government lies in the ethical authority that is vested in it. Citizens look to their government not only to maintain order and deliver goods and services, but also to serve as a forum for the conduct of a collective ethical life: it was in this sense that Hegel called the modern state a ‘conscious ethical institution’. This unacknowledged duty is in fact one of the invisible pillars of legitimate government: it was precisely on ethical grounds that Mahatma Gandhi challenged, and eventually toppled, the British Raj. In publicly endorsing the actions of a mob, the present government has undermined the Indian state’s ethical claims to legitimacy. "

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