Saturday, 5 August 2017

How To Govern And Misgovern A Diverse Country - The Akbar And Aurangzeb Models

A recent news article reported that the BJP, which has had a comfortable majority in India's lower house of parliament, had just emerged as the single largest party in the upper house. In time, as the upper house numbers begin to reflect the strength of the party in newly elected state legislatures, the BJP could acquire an outright majority there too. With a weak and divided opposition, the BJP is expected to continue its winning spree into the indefinite future, leading many to conjecture that it will only be a matter of time before the party has the wherewithal to amend the constitution itself, and begin to institute fundamental changes to the nation's very charter.

Indeed, the party's vision, as enunciated by its president Amit Shah, is to dominate every elected body "from parliament to panchayat (village council)". It is a winner-takes-all, take-no-prisoners philosophy that seems to be spectacularly successful at present.

What will a future under such a powerful ideological dispensation look like?

Numbers do not always tell the whole story, and I believe the BJP will fail to hold the country in its grip if it ignores some fundamental governing principles that have nothing to do with raw power.

A diverse country is governed by a combination of hardware and software. The hardware is the physical apparatus of government -- the organisational bodies at the union, state and local levels, the office-holders, the machinery of reporting and communication, the means of enforcement, etc. The software is the set of protocols governing the functioning and interaction of these hardware components. The constitution and the set of laws on the statute books spell out these protocols.

The system of elections is the most critical element of software, because it bestows all-important legitimacy on every other element of software and hardware.

It is my contention that next to regular elections which constitute the fundamental protocol of representative democracy, the protocol governing centre-state relations is the most important element of the software of governance. The constitution of India divides the portfolios of government between the centre and the states by defining a Union List, a State List and a Concurrent List, and this is the basis of a federal system of government. My contention is that only a federal system of government will work in a diverse country like India, and any attempt at over-centralisation will backfire. Attempts at centralisation are a form of misgovernance, and will be punished by the electorate.

To illustrate that these contrasting models of federalism and centralised authoritarianism are not new, I will go back into history.

Indian history is ancient, and there are possible examples like the Maurya and Gupta empires. However, I will use a more recent pair of examples from the Mughal empire. Not only is a more recent example likely to be more relevant than an ancient one, but having two models from the same dynasty provides a more effective contrast. Besides, as we shall see, the two were in existence for an almost identical duration, which makes the comparison between them more meaningful.

The two governance models I will use are those of Akbar and Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was the great-grandson of Akbar, and their reigns were almost exactly a century apart, aside from being of the same duration. Akbar ruled for 49 years from 1556 to 1605, and Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years from 1658 to 1707.

Here is my first exhibit - the extent of their respective empires when they died.

Akbar (top left) and Aurangzeb (top right), and the extent of their empires at the time of their deaths (click to expand). Aurangzeb's empire is nominally larger, but size doesn't tell the whole story.

A history of Akbar's reign reveals that the early years were characterised by tumult and challenges to his rule, but the latter half was remarkably stable and peaceful. A history of Aurangzeb's reign reveals that he was almost constantly at war throughout, not just conquering new territory but also putting down rebellions that seemed interminable. His empire was nominally larger than his great-grandfather's, but also far more fractious.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Akbar's empire and Aurangzeb's was in the area of durability. Akbar's empire lasted more than a century after his death. Aurangzeb's empire did not long survive his death. It broke into multiple parts a few years later.

It would appear that in spite of its smaller size, Akbar's empire was held together by much stronger software.

Much has been made of the difference in tolerance between Akbar and Aurangzeb. Akbar is widely believed to have been more tolerant of difference (especially religion), while Aurangzeb was believed to have been more hardline. However, the real difference between their regimes was the protocol that governed "centre-state relations", or in the language of the time, the relationship between the empire and its vassals.

Akbar instituted a remarkably far-sighted policy under which it was tremendously advantageous for rulers of smaller kingdoms to become his vassals. Not only did they continue to enjoy considerable autonomy in the running of their kingdoms, they were also protected from their external enemies by the formidable army of the empire. In return, all they had to contribute to the upkeep of that empire were monetary tributes and their own armies when the empire required them. It was a win-win system that kept all players vested in its success. No wonder Akbar's empire soon settled into a period of peace and stability after the initial wars he waged to establish his authority.

In contrast, Aurangzeb's need for centralised power alienated vassals and governors alike, and it is no wonder that he saw rebellions and revolts throughout his reign. The software of governance under Aurangzeb had become so flawed that it simply failed to function. It was the software of misgovernance. Sure enough, once his own forceful personality exited the stage, his successors were unable to keep his empire together, and it fell under the combined onslaught of its own internal schisms and external enemies.

The lesson is instructive, because it applies to this day. Only governments that respect federalism can govern a country of India's diversity effectively. Those that try to enforce centralised control will fail.

In the years since independence, India has seen many governments of different political hues. But remarkably, the Akbar and Aurangzeb models are not correlated with parties at all! They can both be discerned even within the same political party.

Consider these prime ministers from the Congress party.

(Click to expand.) Jawaharlal Nehru, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh (left) are remembered as nation-builders because they respected federalism. Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi (right) are widely considered institution wreckers because they had an authoritarian streak that did not respect independent institutions or opposition-ruled states.


Jawaharlal Nehru could be said to have birthed several of the features of India's federal polity. The constituent assembly worked during his first term to write the constitution, which was adopted in 1950. It was during his time that the first of the linguistic states was created. And although he was initially loath to split the Bombay presidency into the linguistic states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, popular protests during his visit to Bombay convinced him otherwise. Both Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were known as gentlemen and diplomats, who preferred negotiation and consensus to adversarial conduct.

In contrast, the mother-son duo of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi took the very existence of opposition parties as a personal affront. Opposition-ruled states received blatantly step-motherly treatment by their governments, violating key tenets of the federal protocol. They did a lot of damage and weakened India during their terms.

A very similar theme can be seen playing out with the BJP.

AB Vajpayee (left) was a consensus politician who gave and commanded respect across the aisle. Modi (right) is an authoritarian personality who centralises decision-making and brooks no opposition.

AB Vajpayee, who was India's first BJP prime minister, was in office for a five-year term between 1998 and 2004. Another gentleman and diplomat, he was well-respected even by the opposition parties, and he reciprocated that respect in his dealings with opposition-ruled states. He is widely remembered with respect and affection to this day.

Narendra Modi, India's current prime minister, is cast in the Aurangzeb mould. Federalism is not a virtue in his eyes. He and his party president Amit Shah are cut from the same ideological cloth, and they hate to share power. From parliament to panchayat, the duo aims to impose their party's writ on every elected body. Their attitude is redolent of Mike Maples, Microsoft's Executive VP of the Worldwide Products Group, who said, "My job is to get a fair share of the software applications market, and, to me, that's 100 percent."

It should be clear from these historical examples that Modi's is the software of misgovernance. There is no win-win system that gives other stakeholders an incentive to be vested in its success. Even within his own party, the Modi-Shah duo has emasculated everyone, including cabinet ministers and chief ministers. All decisions are taken by "two-and-a-half men" (with Arun Jaitley contributing the half). Modi's India increasingly resembles Aurangzeb's empire, crackling with a million mutinies waiting to erupt.

Much as Modi would hate to be compared to any Muslim ruler, let alone Aurangzeb, the cap fits, both literally and figuratively.

And so the raw numbers that seem to measure the BJP's strength in various legislative bodies may not indicate the true extent of the party's power. Under Modi, the software of India's governance has been tremendously weakened. The BJP itself will inevitably pay the price in electoral terms, but in the meantime, the country as a whole will pay a steep price too.

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