Rules of a traditional society

Since Independence, there have been no serious attempts at introducing a credible set of national principles applicable to all citizens.

Published: 07th February 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th February 2019 03:46 AM   |  A+A-

Readers may like to consider the following “rules” and try and locate the society they describe. In such a society: (1) No one will further the interests of the community unless it is also to his private advantage; (2) Only officials will concern themselves with public affairs, for only they are paid to do so; (3) There will be no checks on officials, for checking on officials will be done only by other officials; (4) Office-holders will not work more than necessary to keep their places. Similarly, professionals generally lack a sense of mission; (5) An office-holder will take bribes when he can get away with it; (6) The claim of any person to be inspired for public zeal rather than private advantage will be regarded as fraud; (7) The law will be disregarded when there is no punishment.

(8) There will be no connection between abstract political principle and concrete behaviour in the ordinary relationships of life; (9) No one will take the initiative in outlining a course of action and persuade others to embark upon it; (10) A member will value gains accruing to the community only insofar as he and his close group are likely to share them.

Measures of general benefit will provoke a protest vote from those who feel that they have not shared in them sufficiently; (11) A member will use his ballot to secure the greatest material gain for himself and his close group; (12) The voter will use his ballot to pay for favours already received or he will use it to administer punishment for injuries to him or his group or for bad performance; (13) Despite the willingness of voters to sell their votes, there will be no strong or stable political parties; (14) Party workers will sell their services to the highest bidder; (15) Building any organisation will be difficult to achieve and maintain as it is a condition of a successful organisation that members have some trust in each other and some loyalty to the group; (16) Most members will favour a political regime that will maintain order with a strong hand.

These “rules” are taken from The Moral Basis of a Backward Society by the US political scientist Edward Banfield, based on his study of a southern Italian village in the 1950s. That this description of society in rural Italy should be so strikingly familiar to Indians today is an indication of a general phenomenon of peasant societies. The southern Italian society at least had a common religion and was served and supported by the Catholic Church. Indian society is complicated by the existence of linguistic, religious and caste groups. People support and vote for the interests of whichever group they identify with rather than for general national interest.

The relatively isolated and quasi-independent “village republics” of India began to be gradually integrated physically into the overall national framework with the spread of communication, penetration of market forces and the mobility of people. But people’s cultural and religious beliefs and prejudices of various groups were largely untouched and, in many cases, strengthened during 800 years of alien rule.
Since Independence there has been a consistent attempt to undermine and alter traditional practices of various groups in the drive towards “modernity”. But this was done without any serious attempt at introducing a credible set of national principles applicable to all citizens without exception.

Paradoxically, due to the democratic process, the state has also tried to mitigate the effects of “modernity” with ad hoc concessions to traditional beliefs and prejudices. This has been especially so in the realm of caste and religion, complicating society and polity further. The law even ensures exceptions to major issues such as equality of opportunity, non-interference with religious practices, protection of property, liberty of the individual and exercise of free speech. As the economy, society and polity grow more complex the state is unable to manage group interests and conflicting forces generated through the electoral process.

For the state to retain its legitimacy, it has to organise itself so that the needs and wants of the bulk of the population are met with sufficient regularity. In the 70 years after Independence this has been done successfully in terms of provision of food security, defence and unity. In the last 30 years, a dynamic economy has contributed to a steady and drastic reduction of poverty. But the lack of a cohesive, comprehensive and universally acceptable set of state goals raises the fear of the long-term survival of the state itself.

The people who compose the state have to necessarily ally themselves with its long-term goals to permit integration and synchronisation of efforts to achieve them. A clear-cut set of principles on which such an alliance can be based would require the citizen to: (1) support and contribute to the nation as a whole; (2) treat his fellow citizens in the same way as he would like them to treat him; (3) work hard and honestly to achieve prosperity and security for his family. The state, on the other hand, should confine itself to: (1) assisting the achievement of the aspirations of all individual citizens equally; (2) protecting the nation’s borders and economy; (3) enforcing law and order effectively and (4) providing civil and criminal justice promptly.  

Such a minimalist platform will enable the state to command the loyalty of every citizen despite the existence of diverse cultural and religious traditions which should become matters of private beliefs and practices without interference.  These will constitute the rules for a modern nation and will ensure a stable polity, a peaceful society and a dynamic economy.

Gautam Pingle

Dean of Studies and Head, Centre for Telangana Studies, MCR-HRD Institute of Telangana


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  • swa

    The author must be greatly satisfied that he found a euro-centric to draw one to one correspondence to our situation in India as he sees it. This preoccupation with euro models that even remotely seem to fit social situation in India is being flaunted as scholarship and utterly dismissing of India's own is taken for granted.
    1 year ago reply
  • bmniac

    Wen will we wake up to this TRUTH an change ourselves?
    1 year ago reply
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