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[email protected] : ‘A Chanakyan State By 2047’

Acclaimed author, economist and urban theorist Sanjeev Sanyal talks to Suman K. Jha on India’s rise, and the future trajectory the country may well be following in the years to come. He hopes that by 2047, India would be modeled on the Chanakyan state, rather than Ashoka’s model of welfare state, which Jawaharlal Nehru sought to champion. Edited excerpts:

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma

Q: We are talking about ‘new India’ in the next five years, but not just that. How do you see India’s overall future?

The term ‘new India’ is widely used as of course, the prime minister uses it, but I think there is a need to bring some degree of clarity to it. I think among the various elements, there are a few things that surely a ‘new India’ must be. One is to shift India from a patronage-based economy to rules-based political economy. Second is a related point, a political economy, and a society that is comfortable with the idea of churn or change. When I make that point, it means many things; churn can be the churn of ideas.

Manthan (churn), in actuality means the churn of ideas — new ideas of various kinds, it can also mean a social churn in terms of social mobility, it also means an entrepreneurial economy; so, basically an economy that is based on risk taking rather than rent seeking. These are all broad ideas. The idea is to carry out reforms in a systematic way and create a society based on the rule of law as opposed to patronage and one that is comfortable with the idea of manthan — as I mentioned churn in terms of social mobility, churn of new ideas, and also economic churn.

Q: So, this is really the new India that the prime minister is referring to. But when we talk about an India that we foresee in 2047 when India turns 100, what kind of India do you visualise?

One of the important things that I keep talking about is that whatever this India is, it must ultimately be both moving forward, absorbing new ideas, and at the same time, be recognised as a manifestation of the civilisation of the nation of Bharat — our constitution says India that is Bharat. That they both exist simultaneously and they are closely related to each other. They are not the same thing and we are not unique in this — the border of China is not exactly the same as the civilisation of the state of China. No doubt there is a close link in how China thinks of itself, but this is also true for India, Iran, and Israel. All these countries have a very strong sense of being a civilisation, while also being a nation state. When we are looking at 100 years of India’s independence, it would be good to have a new India that I just described, but at the same time, the India that continues to be rooted in the civilisation that we are so proud of.

Q: You were a member of Singapore’s committee on the future economy. Now, we are talking about India’s future that will be rooted in its civilisational ethos while being a modern nation state. What would India’s future economy look like and what would be its salient features?

I do not know where the society will be in 50 years from now, and I do not pretend to know. So the idea is, you look at second order issues that allow for continuous change. The things that are needed to allow adaptation of continuous change is rule of law, but also enforcement of the law. One of the very important building blocks for long-term prosperity has got to be clear property rights — and I mean it in the broader sense and not in the narrow sense — and a judicial system that enforces contracts, enforces laws; that is a very important part of what new India must have. Similarly, internal orders are an important part of it and so on. But the question that arises is this: what is the role of the state in that? I have argued in many places that the role of the state is not to bring a wise man who tells you where the world is going, but to work on a state that is basically what I would call strong but limited. By the way, I don’t mean a libertarian state. Libertarians are more about the minimal state. I say a strong and limited state in a sense that there are many things a state actually does well, like for example, the delivery of justice, the maintenance of internal security, external security, taxation, basic infrastructure and so on. So, there are many things that a state should do and the state should have enormous powers and resources to carry out those things. However, the state must also be limited because if it extends itself, it will start to impinge upon the freedoms of the citizens. Also, absolute power corrupts the state. In this context, it is quite interesting to look at Indian ideas of political government. So, you go back to looking at Chanakya for example. He argues for a strong but limited state.

He is obviously a great votary for strong state in terms of keeping internal security, talks about huge investment on highways and all these kinds of things, but he also says that the state and the power of the officials must be limited and he gives a very interesting reason for it. He basically says that the state must be limited because just like when a fish is swimming in water, it is impossible to tell, how much water the fish is drinking. In the same way, it is impossible to tell, how much a government official is mis-using his official position.

So, this is the reason to limit a state in Indian tradition. I will contrast it with the idea of Ashoka. In his writings on edicts, Ashoka says, “I instituted officials who are like the parents’ hands over the child for the subjects of my state whom I look upon as my children”. Literally, he is describing a nanny state. This is in complete contrast with what Chanakya thinks on this matter. Ashoka has a much more welfare-istic view, but in this context, I would like to add that Chanakya created the empire and the empire collapsed under Ashoka. So, let me be clear on which side my sympathies lie on this debate.

Q: So, do you think that will be India’s future in 2047?

Well, as I said, I do not know, but I would rather have the Chanakyan state and not the Ashokan state, whereas Nehru wanted an Ashokan state.

Q: You are also an urban theorist. How do you look at the urbanisation trajectory of India? Where do you see it going in 2047? Will we be a completely urban nation?

We will certainly be an urban majority country by 2047. The problem is, of course, we need to re-think the way we think about our cities. Again, going back to how we built our cities in 1947. So, the idea is embedded in rigid planning. Our idea was Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh was ideal. So we built similar kinds of cities across India in Dispur, Durgapur, etc. Even today, most of our successful cities are still those that were built with urban chores of British era. Why is it that we have failed to build even a single new city to really, genuinely succeed? I mean we have expanded old cities, but not built completely new cities Why is it? My argument is that we have approached it in the same rigid planning approach. We are very proud that we are still stuck with the original plan of Le Corbusier. The master plan of Le Corbusier was made in 1950s, but the requirements today have changed. Yet we have stuck to it because in our view it is some sort of an ideal. In my view, success lies in adaptation and organic feedback loops that allow you to take feedback. So, this is how for example, Singapore functions. Singapore re-invents itself every 15 years.

Also, our mental construct has taught us that the straight roads of Harappa were somehow actually superior to the lanes of Varanasi. But Varanasi has proved that it is a more successful design by the fact that it is still around. The reason it is around is because it is organic and able to adapt. In its long history, Varanasi has seen many changes.

Q: So, the larger point that you are making is the ability to adapt is more important than having a great vision?

Yes. And yes, there is a need to think about the future. But the thing is that we need to invest into not our first-order vision for the long-term, but the second order, enabling the state that allows us to keep this flexibility. The second order things are the points that I am making about the strong but limited state because second order things will allow us to have basic infrastructure, rule of law, and delivery of justice.

Without all of these the natural energies of churn will not take place.

Q: You have written extensively about the rise of the middle class, and we have also seen that the rise of PM Modi has been accompanied by the rise of a new wave of the middle class. How do you see this exponential growth in size and the larger context of the rise of the middle class in future?

This new middle class will rise further in the future and it’s a very good thing because it brings new ideas and energies. This is the point about churning that I am making. This is the social part of the churn; you cannot have a renaissance based on a small group of elite thinkers. It is a much more widespread generalised phenomenon. This has happened many times in the past. Say, the re-emergence of Europe in the 18th and 19th century is also about the new middle class that brought new energies, ideas, etc. You have also seen that happening in East Asia in the second half of the 20th century and we are now seeing it in India. It is a very different kind of an approach as so far, India has been a patronage-driven society. So, as you can see at every place, the thing that I am arguing for is about fluidity, it’s about organic evolution. This is not about rigid five-year plans or rigid master plans for cities and so on. To create structures of the state that allow fluidity to happen within some peaceful way, organised way, is basically what the role of the state is. All these ideas I am talking about are interconnected to each other.

Q: Now, if I could come to specifics, people say that by 2050, India will be among the top two economies in the world?

I hope so, but growth is not a God given right. It is something that has to be earned. Yes, we have an opportunity to be one of the world’s leading economies, but it’s something that we have to work towards to achieve. It is not something that drops from the heaven just because our demographics allow it to happen.

Q: Will we become the Vishwa (World) Guru?

I hope we can become one, but in the end, we have to earn that right, it is not something that will be given to us because of the fact of being Indians or because of an old civilisation. As with everything, it is something that we have to earn and there is no pre-determined track on which India is running.


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