The Ruler and the Ruled
The constitution had promised India's citizens justice, liberty, equality and dignity. We haven't been able to ensure that. We have failed the Constitution and its promise.
In the Valmiki Ramayana, there is an incident in Ayodhya Kanda. Rama has been banished to the forest. King Dasharatha has died. When Bharata returns to Ayodhya from his maternal uncle's house and hears that Rama has been banished and King Dasharatha has died, he goes off to the forest to try and bring Rama back. They meet. Rama still doesn't know Dashratha is dead and starts to question Bharata about the state of affairs in Ayodhya.
There are several different Sanskrit texts of the Valmiki Ramayana, with minor variations between them. Between 1951 and 1975, the Oriental Research Institute in Baroda, now part of M.S. University, collated all these different versions, sifted through them and prepared what is called a Critical Edition of the Valmiki Ramayana. If one follows the Critical Edition, the incident I have spoken about occurs in the ninety-fourth chapter of Ayodhya Kanda. Rama's questions are about the duties of an ideal king. The most common word for a king was rajan and a king was known as rajan because he delighted the subjects through his good rule. Today, we call this good governance. Though socio-economic contexts are different, it is remarkable that many strands of good governance have remained constant over time, with a king now replaced by a government. This is what Rama asked. I have selectively quoted bits that are relevant even today and the English translation is mine.
"I hope you have appointed as ministers noble ones who know about the signs, those who are brave, learned and have conquered the senses, those who are like your own self. The foundation of a king's victory lies in good counsel, from well-trained advisers who are accomplished in the sacred texts and can maintain secrets. …I hope you do not seek counsel from a single person, nor do you seek counsel from too many. I hope your secret counsels with ministers do not spread throughout the kingdom. I hope you determine whether an objective has minimum cost and maximum gain and having decided, act swiftly, without delays… I hope your debates and discussions, within your own self, or secretly with your advisers, are not divulged to others. I hope you prefer a single learned person over one thousand foolish ones. To accomplish an objective, a learned person can bring about great gain. Even if a king engages one thousand foolish people, their help will not bring about any benefit. A single intelligent, brave, accomplished and skilled adviser can bring about great prosperity to a king, or to one who aspires to be a king. I hope the best servants are engaged in superior tasks, medium ones in medium tasks and the inferior ones in inferior tasks. …I hope you give the appropriate food and wages to the soldiers when the time arrives, without any delays. It has been said that if the right time passes, salaried servants, even if they are devoted, are angry at their master and censure him, thus leading to an extremely great calamity… As ambassador in any specific habitation, I hope you have appointed a person who is learned, accomplished and talented, speaking what should be spoken… Earlier, Ayodhya was inhabited by our brave ancestors. …I hope it is happy and prosperous and that you protect it. In the habitations of people, I hope hundreds of altars are properly laid out. I hope the temples are adorned with stores of drinking water and lakes. I hope assemblies and festivals are decorated with happy men and women. I hope pens for the animals are laid out well and they are not subjected to violence. I hope the agricultural land is excellent and free of predatory beasts. I hope the habitations are prosperous and happy places of residence. I hope that people who earn a living from agriculture and animal husbandry are cherished by you and are indeed happy. I hope that everything is being done for protecting them, maintaining them and tending to their needs. Following dharma, the king must protect all those who reside inside his kingdom. I hope you comfort the women and protect them well….I hope all the forts are stocked with riches, grain, weapons and water and full of machines, artisans and archers. I hope the revenue is a lot and that the expenditure is limited. I hope the treasury does not reach those who are undeserving. …I hope that when there is a dispute between a rich and a poor person, your extremely learned advisers resolve it impartially, without differentiating because of the relative prosperity. …I hope that through gifts, thoughts and words, you please three categories of people – the aged, the children and the foremost among those who are learned."
We gave ourselves a Constitution in 1950 and the Preamble promised us a sovereign democratic republic that would ensure, for every citizen, social, economic and political justice; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and opportunity; and fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual. The Preamble was subsequently amended through the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976 to make India socialist and secular and to bring in "the integrity of the nation". Let's leave aside the 42nd Amendment. For present purposes, we promised India's citizens justice, liberty, equality and dignity. We haven't been able to ensure that. We have failed the Constitution and the Constitutional promise. We have introduced policies that haven't ensured justice, liberty, equality and dignity.
Let us ask the following questions. First, are people willingly poor? Do they not wish to better their lives and improve their standards of living? At best, there can be a qualification for the old and the disabled and households where the head of the household happens to be a woman. These apart, people in working-age groups do not wish to be poor. Second, even if people do not wish to be poor, they may be stuck because they do not have access to education and skills, health services, market information, technology, financial products, roads, electricity, water, sewage and sanitation. But then, the answer is to efficiently provide these public goods. If such people continue to be poor, that is because in almost 70 years, these goods and services haven't been efficiently provided, notwithstanding colossal amounts of public expenditure. Third, are there sections in the Indian Constitution that prevent such integration? For instance, Articles 370 and 371 of the Constitution ensure that certain parts of India will never be integrated and mainstreamed. If that is the case, how can we ensure that people who live in these regions will ever be mainstreamed and become part of the growth process? Fourth, this kind of mindset also ensures that we look at the problem of poverty with a distorted lens. In any table of poverty, there will be categories of SC-s, ST-s OBC-s and Muslims. But are they deprived because they belong to these collective categories? Or are they deprived because they lack access to the public or collective private goods? Poverty is an individual household characteristic. By equating it with a collective category like SC, ST or Muslim, we commit a double kind of mistake. We assume that everyone inside this collective category is poor, by virtue of being a member of a collective category. And we also assume that everyone outside this collective category is rich, by virtue of not being a member of this collective category. Neither of these propositions is true.
Towards the beginning, I deliberately quoted a conversation between Rama and Bharata from the Valmiki Ramyana, because that's not that well known. The more familiar one is a similar conversation between the sage Narada and Yudhishthira from Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata. If we read these texts, we will realize that thousands of years down the line, the delivery issues for a king/government are very similar. It is just that different words are used now.