By Bhanu Dhamija
Founder Divya Himachal newspaper, author Why India Needs the Presidential System

India is experiencing an ominous rise in statism. Our governments are hyperactive in centralising controls, abusing investigative agencies, doling out public funds in welfare schemes, and trying to control private lives. It is time we re-examined what role we want our governments to play.

“India needs a strong hand to run it” has always been a common refrain. But what makes a government strong is not how much power it has, but whether it has willing participants. A strong-armed government can never win people’s hearts, or unite them. Its attempt to rule by force, instead of govern by persuasion, fails to create enthusiasm. And its agenda never gets adopted by the citizens as their own agenda.

Even worse, people become engaged in fighting their government instead of building their nation.

Centralisation doesn’t Strengthen Democracy

A strong-armed, pervasive government may have been necessary in the years after Independence, but today it’s a hindrance. Now, India needs a government that unleashes people’s creativity and ambitions, rather than feeds their dependence on government handouts.

It needs a government that recognises people’s merit and talent, instead of their caste or economic status. Today’s India needs a nurturer of citizens, not their guardian.

The truth is our forefathers’ thinking about the role of India’s government is no longer valid. While Gandhi’s approach of decentralised village-based governments was half-baked, Nehru’s copying of the British centralised system has proven to be ineffective. Gandhi talked about “every village… a republic with full powers,” and every citizen engaged in “self-regulation” or “enlightened anarchy”.

For good reasons, Nehru thought this was all “delightfully vague”. He pushed for an all-powerful, pervasive government. To India’s Constituent Assembly, he wrote, “the most satisfactory” arrangement was to copy the exhaustive lists of governmental powers from the British Government of India Act of 1935.

Gandhi had already declared that “if India copies England, it is my firm conviction that she will be ruined”. Even inside the Constituent Assembly, many derided Nehru’s formula of an extremely powerful government. Algu Rai Shastri commented that “if such a control continues, the initiative will be gone”.

Lokanath Misra remarked that “this constitution really tends to make the people irresponsible”. And TJM Wilson said, “Many people mistakenly think that strength lies in centralisation and a strong Centre… I repeat that the democracy of conscious effective citizens is much stronger.”

Concept of Limited Government

An all-powerful centralised government began to fail almost immediately after Independence. In 1957, C Rajagopalachari noted that it was “both ridiculous and alarming.” In 1958, Nehru himself was writing to chief ministers that without “decentralisation and devolution of powers” there was “no other democratic way to deal with the multitude of problems.” But by 1963, Justice Sarkaria, who was appointed to study the centre-state relations, would report that “the Centre was drunk with power”.

It’s time India jettisoned this idea of a ‘strong’ centralised government. The notions of a small, decentralised, limited government have been around and successful for centuries. In fact, Gandhi understood their value as far back as 1931.

He said that “ideal [of self-regulation] is never fully realised in life. Hence the classical statement of Thoreau that that Government is best which governs the least.”

He was quoting from Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 paper entitled Civil Disobedience. But the concept of limited government was forged nearly two generations before Thoreau by the drafters of America’s Constitution in 1787.

That man’s real nature is moral and decent, and suitable for self-government, are the premises behind the concept of a limited government. These were the ideas that the British philosopher John Locke first propagated, and which led to the English Revolution of 1688. He believed in “men living together according to reason”, and that the government was based on an agreement between free individuals, not between the rulers and the ruled.

The Americans took Locke’s views to mean that government must be controlled, so it doesn’t become too intrusive or oppressive on the people. They gave their government very specific, limited rights. And they placed on their government the history’s most severe restrictions in the form of a Bill of Rights.

Minimising Government’s Role

There is no doubt that Indians also desire limited governments. They are fed up with unlimited powers given by their system to bureaucrats and politicians. This is the biggest reason behind the popularity of Modi’s slogan, ‘Maximum governance, minimum government””.

People also don;t want the government to be involve in running many businesses. That’s the reason behind the popularity of Modi’s other slogan, ‘’The government has no business to be in business”.

In fact, people want governments out of many services they currently provide. They are totally dissatisfied with the pathetic quality of government schools, hospitals, transport services, banks, etc.

Hence, they are increasingly supportive of privatisation. Similarly, the Indian people also want their governments power to be restricted. They have seen enough abuses of investigative agencies like the CBI for political purposes, and many infringements of people’s fundamental rights in the name of security.

Taking a Cue from the United States

India might begin by asking what ought to be government’s chief aim. Our constitution says it is to “secure” equality, justice, liberty, etc.; the American constitution merely wants to “promote” general welfare. We should ask if an Indian government can ever deliver such lofty ideals, or can it only help citizens make progress towards these goals.

The answer clearly points to a government with a limited role. A government that is empowered only in areas suitable for its role: Defence, the justice system, monetary policy, international trade, and interstate affairs.

But India’s Constitution grants the central government a huge leeway, assigning it more than 140 specific powers; the US grants only nine, and reserves residuary powers for the states. An Indian government can embark on any number of new programmes without anyone raising questions about its authority, or about the programmes’’ suitability.

Indian governments have become our people’s master rather than their servant. The common man calls them sarkar, and thinks of ministers as his mai-baap. This is not befitting a great nation. It’s time for us to restrict and limit our governments.

This article was first published on the quint on 17/01/2017.