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India in Transition

The Specter Haunting India

Devesh Kapur
December 14, 2008

The horrific terror attacks in Mumbai are a harsh reminder of a grim reality stalking India, which portends a disquieting prognosis for India. The troubles in India’s neighborhood have been increasingly spilling over into India, the result of acts of commission and omission by its neighbors. Despite the obviousness of this reality, the recent tragedy in Mumbai has harshly exposed the multiple failures of the Indian state to combat this growing threat. It has also brought into stark relief just how enfeebled the Indian state has become and which despite two decades of heady growth, has shown little sign of renewal.

Over the past decade, India has been wracked by dozens of terrorist attacks. Once confined to Kashmir they are now widespread across India. A recent report by the Indian government documented that in the last five years the numbers of civilians killed in Kashmir (1883) has been less than in the North East (1909) and deaths resulting from Maoist related violence (2281). The number of security personnel killed in the Maoist violence now exceeds that in Kashmir, many killed by sophisticated IEDs and landmines. 

While the causes of such violence are obviously complex, the capacity of the Indian state’s response has been severely undermined by a corrupt and demoralized police force that has become the handmaiden of India’s politicians whether in Marxist West Bengal where they often refuse to file a case unless approved by local communist party bosses, to BJP ruled Gujarat where the police did little to protect Muslims from communal violence. India’s politicians aspire to a coveted “Z” status, which gets them protected by a highly visible specially trained force called the Special Protection Group.  After the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, was denied this status by the central government last year, she ensured that when she moves around the streets of the state capital Lucknow, she has 350 policemen in attendance, an assortment of 34 vehicles, and the streets are brought to a halt. Even India’s British viceroys did not enjoy such trappings.

India has one of the smallest police forces in the world when measured by policeman per million population. Poorly trained and equipped, a large number of policemen are made to guard India’s politicians, while many others are forced to contain street violence organized by India’s politicians. The public and the police bear the brunt, while the politicians reap votes and signal their capacity to wreak havoc, which is important for their protection rackets. Prior to the recent Mumbai blasts, a local politician in Mumbai had unleashed a wave of violence against migrants from Northern India. The state government, in which the ruling Congress party is a member, simply looked away hoping that it would undermine another chauvinistic opposition party.   

Police investigations routinely use torture in their interrogation techniques, and in recent years proudly use narco-analysis, a tool discredited in most democratic states, to get “evidence.” Convictions are rare in cases against the powerful, with even lawyers in the Supreme Court bribing witnesses, and getting away with a mere slap on the wrist. Honest police officers are transferred at will if they do not act as per the politicians bidding. This is one reason why across the country, a fifth of the positions at the sub-inspector level are vacant and nearly a quarter at the mid-rank level.

Anti-terror and intelligence gathering suffers since it rarely brings the massive financial pay-offs of banal venality that is so deeply ingrained in much of the police force and their political masters There is no Indian equivalent of the FBI. A competent and independent federal investigative force is simply too threatening to India’s politicians. Better to let the country bleed than risk their lucrative rackets. At the central level the Intelligence Bureau is routinely used to snoop on the opposition. All parties do it when they are in power and protest when they are out of it. The principal claim to fame of the minister in charge of internal security was his fealty to sartorial elegance. Despite wide acknowledgement of his incompetence, he continued to hold this most sensitive position only because he was a Gandhi family loyalist. It took a tragedy of this magnitude to force him out.

The dreadful condition of India’s police is symptomatic of the tattered condition of the Indian state. India is not a failing state, but it has become a Wizard of Oz figure, what the economist Lant Pritchett has called a “flailing state.” Yes, it can organize elections for 700 million voters more effectively than the United States, send a successful mission to the moon in an extremely cost effective way, but it fails miserably in providing the most basic public services such as education and health care, despite intense official rhetoric to address these issues.

The sad reality is that basic public administration and the rule of law in India has corroded deeply. It is not because of a bloated bureaucracy – public sector employment has remained largely unchanged over the past two decades and in most public services India has a low ratio of public employees per capita. The key problem is the complete absence of any accountability. Despite getting paid more than their private counterparts, teachers and health workers are often absent, and they know they can’t be fired. India’s intellectuals rail against neo-liberal reforms but never against public employees who don’t show up to work, and even when they do, barely work. 

At every level, the Indian state is suffering from a shortage of talent, as better opportunities, growing politicization and corruption drives talent away. Even India’s army, one of the most professional and apolitical armies among developing countries, is now suffering a severe shortage of officers. At the lower officer ranks, almost a fourth of the positions are unfilled. Last year, nearly half of those admitted to India’s elite National Defense Academy (India’s equivalent of West Point) did not join. And corruption is seeping in the army as well, with the first court martial of an officer of the rank of lieutenant general for corruption.

The Indian state has always suffered from considerable infirmities despite the veneer of an extremely sophisticated bureaucratic elite. But there is something much more troubling that has been occurring in recent years. The sheer brazenness of India’s politicians in leveraging public office for private gain is without parallel in the history of independent India, underpinned by a culture of complete impunity of India’s political class. The original sin goes back to the infamous emergency in 1977 when Mrs. Gandhi was not held accountable for the gross constitutional improprieties she had inflicted on the country. Since then, India’s politicians have realized that as long as you can win elections, nothing else matters. India’s growing political fragmentation has amplified these trends since coalition governments have to rely on numerous regional parties for whom ministerial appointments are a right akin to tax farming.

The good news of India's heady growth story in the last two decades has led Indian policy makers and its business elite to publicly downplay these realities. Unfortunately, like Humpty Dumpty, the Indian state has fallen and cannot be easily repaired. It is a specter that is likely to haunt the country's future.

Devesh Kapur is the Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Madan Lal Sobti Professor for the Study of Contemporary India. This article first appeared in India Abroad, December 12, 2008.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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