1 Reflecting on the Indian State's Origins

22 March 2023

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Who is that one ancient Indian you will find on city billboards, newspaper advertisements, and self-help books sold by the street


Kautilya or Chanakya, of course.

While his insights are now commonly invoked to sell real estate or to derive a listicle for corporate management, we forget that the Arthashastra at its core is about one abstract political institution that affects us in profound ways: the State.

The Beginning

Kautilya writes that in the absence of an effective king, matsyanyaaya-the law of the fishes-prevails. By this, what he means is that when the law is kept at abeyance, 'the strong do what they can and the weak suffer as they must'.' In that scenario, power becomes the only determinant of survival and success. Big fish eat small fish, and that's just the way the cookie crumbles.

Kautilya argues that it is only in the presence of a king who upholds the law that the weak can resist the strong. The king's dharma then is to ensure that the powerful do not trample over the disadvantaged. The king is duty-bound to punish the powerful who run amok. This primary function of the king is referred to as dandaniti (literally, the policy or practice of punishment) in the Indian philosophical tradition.

In this conception, the freedoms-'rights' in contemporary parlance-of individuals are not naturally ordained. They are a consequence of a political institution called the State that will use its power effectively and judiciously to protect these freedoms. Kautilya wrote:

People suffering from anarchy as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one (matsyanyayabhibhutah prajah), first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their king; and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Fed by this payment, kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yogakshemavah), and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishments and taxes has been violated.2

In this imagination, individuals metaphorically enter into a contract with a political institution. The terms of the contract are such that they submit some of their freedoms in return for the promise of security and well-being offered by the State.

In Western philosophy, this trade-off forms the basis of social contract theories. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argues that individuals cede all their rights in return for protection to a sovereign who is himself above the law. John Locke, writing after Hobbes, is more moderate. In his view, individuals surrender only some of their rights (liberty) to a government that rules by the consent of the governed. The primary role of the State then is to prevent the strong from harming the weak and ensure that every person is given an equal opportunity to succeed.

Even though we no longer have kings who 'rule' over people, what hasn't changed is the purpose of the Indian State. It exists to prevent matsyanyaaya. A lofty goal, isn't it? For this reason, the State as an institution is unparalleled in human society. Understanding it is key to understanding ourselves. That's where this book begins.

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Missing In Action
Think of this work as a 'pop' public policy book. Like all books of this genre, we let stories of Indian experiences take centre stage. That's because context is king in public policy. There are very few immutable, universal rules that apply across all countries. We believe that our discourse on government is anchored way too much on the stories and experiences of other countries. The result is that public policy books end up discussing distant and unrelatable stories. For instance, you too would have come across a popular quote on WhatsApp. Attributed to Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogota, the quote reads: 'A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation.' Reading about Bogota's transformation can give a misleading assessment that spending more on Bus Rapid Transit systems alone can bring about a similar change in India as well. However, what gets missed in transplanting such ideas unthinkingly is that context matters. Bogota's public transport success is also about changing social attitudes, individual incentives, and guiding market behaviour. Many not-so-apparent, context-specific things need to fall in place to replicate successes from other policy environments. For this reason, this book is about Indian public policy centred on India's experiences. Any individual is a part of three meta-institutions, each with its unique characteristics, follies, and strengths. Each chapter discusses a prevalent idea, story, or myth in the popular discourse on Indian governance. We hope, dear reader, you will find something useful in this book, something that will contribute to your understanding of Indians governing themselves. And we also hope you have fun while reading it.