Governance in South Asia: States and Robber Gangs

We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia.

Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the soil escape and sprout. Repeated rearrangements only yield outcomes that are labeled ‘sham’ democracies by new patrons in the guise of democrats who restart the process promising ‘true’ democracy with yet another twist of the cap.

The experience is the same in virtually all post-colonial countries which vary only in the particularities of their sub-structures. Not surprisingly the mismatch with democratic governance is a constant feature of post-colonial countries ranging across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The distortions of democracy – praetorian here, kleptocratic there – are like the bizarre images in a hall of mirrors.

In South Asia, the manifestations of this mismatch are most obvious in Pakistan and least obvious in India where at least the formal appearance of democracy has remained untarnished. In terms of benefits flowing to the majority of the population, however, the results are not strikingly different. This is not to discount the importance of the democratic process – the hope is that at some point the adjustments in the shapes of the bottle and the cap would yield a fit good enough to yield a significant change in the status quo. However, this point still seems far away and the distortions of the moment can be readily discerned beneath the appearances.

Let me now support this thesis with the help of the review of a new book on European history. The book is The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government by Thomas N. Bisson (Princeton University Press). The review (Lords of ‘Pride and Plunder’) is by Robert J. Bartlett (New York Review of Books, June 24, 2010). In what follows, I will use selected excerpts from the review (excerpts in italics with emphasis added to critical points) to highlight some features of European history and its transition to democratic governance in order to shed light on the situation in South Asia. Hopefully, this would spark a discussion that would help improve our understanding of the nature of democracy and its interaction with governance in our region.

One of the major institutions of pre-industrial society, and one that makes it hard for people in the modern Western world fully to grasp the past, is lordship. Lordship means a personal bond, reciprocal but not equal, tying inferiors to superiors, bringing the latter a power over the former that modern democratic and egalitarian ideologies would abhor.

Of course modern Western societies are not communities of equals. Vast differences in wealth and access to education exist. But the world of lordship embraced and endorsed those differences. Hierarchy was a valued ideal, and some people considered themselves better born than others… The aristocrats (“aristocracy” means “rule by the best”) did not court their inferiors. They ruled them, and, if they were just and well disposed, they protected them and furthered their interests. This is what “good lordship” meant. Not all lords, of course, were good. Submission to cruel, arbitrary, or unhinged masters could mean misery or death. Much of the savagery of the French Revolution is to be explained by the fact that thousands of peasants had suffered just such a submission.

Lordship was a building block of most societies until relatively recently—serfdom was abolished in Russia only in 1861. Such societies were distinguished by extreme inequalities, made visible by costume and gestures, like bowing and doffing of hats, and often supported by belief in hereditary superiority and inferiority of blood. Collective groupings existed, but were not powerful, and conflict and ambition were channeled more by vertical than horizontal solidarities: retainers, servants, and other followers and dependants sought patronage from the great, not action alongside their peers. At the highest level, lesser aristocrats became followers of great aristocrats, who themselves would be competing for the ruler’s favor.

Bisson repeatedly uses the far from standard formulations “lord-king,” “lord-ruler,” and even “lord-archbishop” to convey the point that every ruler of this time was also a lord, a master of men, a patriarch of some kind, possessing his position as inheritance or property, rather than (or as well as) holding it as an office—indeed, he writes, “there is no sign that European people in the twelfth century thought of lordship and office as contrasting categories.”

Kings were lords, but also more than lords. Like the great barons, their power was patrimonial: that is, inherited, dynastic, based on ideas of property we might call “private.” A king’s kingdom was his in the same way that a baron’s landed estates were his. Transmission of power was through father-to-son inheritance, not by election. Hence marriages, births, and deaths were the great punctuating points of medieval politics, not caucuses and ballots. Yet a king was also more than just the greatest of the barons. Both the Church and a long secular tradition saw him as having special duties as a ruler, duties that might be called “public.”

This dualism of lordship and the state meant that medieval rulership had two distinct faces, which were close to being opposites: on the one hand, the grand promises made at coronation by kings and emperors, to ensure justice and the protection of the weak and the Church; on the other hand, the reality of being a warlord trained in mounted warfare, a leader of proud, hard men, used to wielding lethal edged weapons, and the center of a court full of envy, ambition, and suspicion.

The rulers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were trained in, and glorified, war, and expected to live off it, as well as off the tribute of a subjugated peasantry. If such rulers formed “the state” of their day, what are the implications? The state engages in violence; it takes away our property. How then does it differ from a criminal enterprise? This was a question that went back at least as far as Saint Augustine in the fourth century:

What are robber gangs, except little kingdoms? If their wickedness prospers, so that they set up fixed abodes, occupy cities and subjugate whole populations, they then can take the name of kingdom with impunity.

Augustine’s ponderings stem from the worrying doubt that states and kingdoms, indeed all lawfully constituted governments, are just the most successful of the robber gangs. This idea, that the state and the criminal gang are but larger and smaller versions of the same thing, was one recurrent strand in medieval thinking.

… in Bisson’s view, the people of that time lacked any understanding of the state as distinct from lordship, but also because there are certain criteria for government, as distinct from lordship, that the rulers did not meet. He identifies three: accountability, official conduct, and social purpose.

accountability means official responsibility, answerability… And true government is “the exercise of power for social purpose,” “social purpose” perhaps to be glossed here as “the common good.” It is the emergence of “official conduct aimed at social purpose”… that signals the shift of the balance from lordship to government in the thirteenth century.

Bisson adds to this traditional account by thinking deeply about the benefits and disadvantages of government. He is very aware of the inhumanity of the past he studies. He refers, with allusion to the words of the twelfth-century cleric John of Salisbury, to “hunter-lords.” John was talking about the way that aristocrats were obsessed with the chase, but we might apply his phrase in a wider sense. Since some theorists believe that human society is imprinted with its origins in hunting packs and the mentality of the pack, the predatory lordship of the central Middle Ages could be conceived of as just such a hunting pack—but its prey being fellow human beings, rather than beasts.

Confronting this world of hunter and hunted, Bisson is inspired by attractively humane impulses… And he looks for public, accountable, official remedies for suffering and oppression. He seems sympathetic to the idea that “power is rightly oriented towards the social needs of people.” “If ever government was the solution, not the problem,” he writes, “it was so for European peoples in the twelfth century.” Is the modern world so happy in its governments? Whether we should endure the violence of the state, as a defense against the yet more fearful violence of our neighbors, and whether there comes a point where the violence of the state must be resisted are great recurrent questions of moral and political life. The questions raised by Bisson’s book remain open.

There is a lot of material to think about here. We can see these patterns in South Asian society – lords, inequality, dynastic rule, the conflation of lordship and state, electoral promises divorced from reality, the politics of vertical solidarities, the lack of accountability, official conduct and social purpose, the violence against fellow human beings – in a word, the ‘state’ as the most successful of robber gangs.

These conditions pose for us, just as they did for twelfth century Europe, the great questions of moral and political life. It would be naïve to think that they have disappeared because we have somehow leapfrogged all the intermediate steps and arrived at the nirvana of democratic governance. Rather, we should look at the incredible distortions of democratic governance in the light of these persistent characteristics of South Asian societies. Only when we do so shall we realize that our struggle is not to conjure up a ‘true’ democracy from above but to remove from below the obstacles that stand in the way of democratic governance – the exercise of accountable power and official conduct for social purpose.


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15 Responses to “Governance in South Asia: States and Robber Gangs”

  1. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian is right in concluding that

    “our struggle is not to conjure up a ‘true’ democracy from above but to remove from below the obstacles that stand in the way of democratic governance – the exercise of accountable power and official conduct for social purpose”.

    And, as Arundhati Roy has rightly pointed out in her recent sequel to the storm-raising article (both in Outlook magazine), she, like all human rights activists, stands on the side of resistance, but, also underlines the need to ask the questions to those like Maoists, who are on her side of the divide.

  2. Vikram Says:

    Two of my friends are in Bhilwara, Rajasthan working with a person called Tara Ahluwalia and the community. One of them had this to say in an article,

    “They call the sarpanch their “maalik” (master) which suggests a mentality that must have existed during the times of big zamindars, or landowners. The pradhan is a divine figure, far-removed, whose benevolence when shown is something to be grateful for but never expected. These government servants are never thought of as servants, but instead as masters, who have “won” elections and therefore the right to rule over the people for 5 years. The high levels of illiteracy and lack of education and continued marginalization since independence have meant that the feudal mind-set has sustained. It has prevented the people from really making their voices count in a democratic way.”

  3. Vinod Says:

    SA, have you read the section ‘Global Origins of Democracy’ in Sen’s the Idea of Justice ? Does that demand any nuance to the assertion made in this blog post?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: I am traveling and won’t have access to my copy of the book for a while. If you can summarize the key point in that section, I will relate it to the argument in the post.

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, I’ll try to articulate, very feebly, what Sen has. Sen quotes another author, whose name I cannot recall, who stated that democracy is the institutional manifestation of a historical and pervasive social impulse, common to all societies. Democracy, if viewed in broader sense than the institutional forms in which it is today defined (balloting, parliament etc), that is, ‘rule by Public Reasoning’, then every society is and has been a candidate for a democractic political setup because the impulse of public reasoning has always been there in all societies. This idea gnaws at the starting premise of this blog post.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: Thanks. I will have to re-read Sen to be fair to his argument but I can respond to the point you are making. If by democracy we signify the desire of people to have a voice in how they are governed, it would be right to say that it represents a pervasive social impulse over time. At the local level, this impulse could be observed in the institutionalized forms of panchayats and jirgas. But institutionalizing it at the national level has always been problematic and remained impossible for the majority of recorded time. Asides from the brief experiments in Athens (even there slaves, women, and foreigners were unable to wrest a voice in governance), the institutionalization of democracy has had to wait till very recent times. This was not because nobody had the impulse or nobody thought of the idea – surely slaves and serfs would have chafed at the conditions of their lives. My argument would be that translating the impulse into a representative form of supra-local governance required certain preconditions to be met. The most essential amongst these were the acceptance of the political equality of individuals and the ability of the disenfranchised to make their numbers count. This was the context of all the social revolutions in Europe that did away with the aristocratic forms of governance.

        The bottom line is that the post does not question the social impulse for a voice in governance. It argues that the preconditions for democratic governance at the national level in South Asia have not been fully realized. In a more nuanced argument one would have to contend with the fact that even the form of the social impulse is shaped by the dominant ideology and often leads to an acceptance of the status quo. Had this not been the case, the caste system would not have had such a long life in India.

      • Vinod Says:

        SA, I think your response adds the necessary nuance to this post.

  4. Vinod Says:

    Only when we do so shall we realize that our struggle is not to conjure up a ‘true’ democracy from above but to remove from below the obstacles that stand in the way of democratic governance – the exercise of accountable power and official conduct for social purpose.

    From my readings of the thought of the founding fathers of India in Bipan Chandra’s work ‘India Since Independence’, the founding fathers did have such a view as quoted above. They had no illusions of the work needed in the society. But along the way, the parties and politics got too engrossed with working the formal institutions of the system to retain power than to work at grassroot mindset reform.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: Most of the time good intentions are not enough. Once a competitive process is initiated who would have the incentive to work for reform while others compete for power? Unless the path is articulated clearly at the beginning the chances of things going wrong under the pressure of political competition is very high. It would be interesting to discuss why competition in politics works so differently from competition in a free market economy.

      Here is how a New York Times article today has described India: “It may be the world’s largest democracy, but a vast and powerful bureaucracy governs. It is an imperial edifice built on feudal foundations, and for much of independent India’s history the bureaucracy has been largely unaccountable.”

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, pondering upon why competitive power races do not generate good governance I can only think of one possible avenue of explanation. I need studies from behavioural sciences, on how power acts as an incentive. There is sufficient research done by economists and sociologists, both in the western world and in India, on the peculiar way in which money acts as an incentive. Are there equivalent studies on power as an incentive? Once we understand how power influences people we can perhaps find an explanation and a future direction to ensuring that reform programmes are pursued even within competitive power processes.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: I would think that at an individual level power acts as an incentive the same way as money – i.e., in most cases an individual would prefer more of either to less. It is the rules of the game that determine the implications of these incentives. For example, without the rule of law one can get more money by foul means more easily than by fair. A good picture of this can be found in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.

        In the case of power, the competitive process works in the general interest when there is a balance of power among the parties involved. This is not the case in South Asia – the elites are all powerful and the masses are virtually powerless. What we see as political competition is really competition to rule amongst factions of the elite but all the factions end up exploiting the powerless masses. This is well explained in an old classic by Barrington Moore, Jr. – The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Modern World.

        Reform requires finding ways to shift the balance of power towards the people – the Right to Information Act is one example. The other way is through social revolutions. When societies don’t make such choices consciously sometimes they get made for them. I suppose the elites figure that it will be a long time before there is any kind of social revolution in South Asia but one should look at Nepal to pick up clues as to how things might evolve.

      • Vinod Says:

        SouthAsian, I’m not sure that characterizing the issue with the elite-masses narrative is useful. Who are the elites and who are masses depends on what the issue or whose issue is being discussed, no?

        Here’s where I initially meant to post the comment. Sorry for the confusion.

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    Vinod: Thanks for the clarification. I feel the argument I made earlier remains valid. In every specific situation there are groups with unequal power and this identification provides a good starting point to understand the dynamics of the situation. Let me know if you disagree with this proposition.

  6. omar Says:

    I am perhaps too harsh on Arundhati Roy. I look forward to being enlightened…

    • SouthAsian Says:

      omar: We have had a very extensive discussion re Arundhati Roy on an earlier post. You will find some answers there. If you feel there are further aspects worth discussing you can add to the commentary.

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