In 2016, Narendra Modi expanded the remit of the coercive state

Towards the end of 2015, reflecting on what determines the size of the state, I came up with these three broad categories. At the end of 2016, with a hindsight view of ‘demonetisation gone wrong’, I revisit that concept. These three categories describe the nature of engagement the state seeks with particular areas of policy. They are:

  • Coercive: These comprise areas where the state has the power to mandate and enforce compliance. Security, and law and order are obvious examples; as are taxation, and some kinds of regulatory power, such as determining food safety standards would fall under this category.
  • Prescriptive: There are areas where the state has the power to prescribe remedies. It sets standards and is at times able to employ some of its regulatory powers to enforce compliance. Mostly though, the role of the state here is to encourage the adoption of state-promoted guidelines. Managing education, by prescribing school standards and determining the curriculum, would be a suitable example.
  • Advisory: In this category, are areas where the state’s power to influence real outcomes is limited and the role of the state is mostly ‘advisory’ in nature, with little real power of enforcement. An easy example would be the efforts to inspire hygiene and cleanliness through a nation-wide mission to achieve sanitation. Innovation and flexibility are vital for a successful intervention.

A citizen-friendly state would keep its coercive powers to the bare minimum and expand the last category – the advisory function – through cultivating and strengthening norms that guide individual and public behavior. On the other hand, a state with authoritarian tendencies would be seen to be moving in the reverse direction by steadily expanding the scope of its coercive precepts.

On the 8th of November 2016, when the Government of India embarked on its demonetization exercise, it effectively expanded the realm of its ‘coercive’ powers. In its endeavor to seize currency notes from the hands of citizens and force them to deposit that money in the banks, India demonstrated a willingness to reach into a citizen’s private space and dictate what one could do with their money. By further restricting (indefinitely, it appears at the moment) the amount of money that one can withdraw, the state further compromised basic rights that were hitherto, guaranteed.

This is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favoured development model. As a nation, we have been taught to want progress, modernity and comforts, but within the framework of a statist model, as opposed to that of a liberal democracy. In other words, we want to be a China, and not a Denmark. The government is continuously seeking ways to preserve and expand their power over the lives of people. That is the reason why an increasingly coercive state is their delivery mechanism of choice.

The latest spin in the demonetization narrative is the goal of going cashless – again, using essentially coercive power by inhibiting the size and nature of transactions one can carry out in costs, or by imposing costs to penalize cash transactions. This too, is one that would best fit within the state’s ‘advisory’ remit, but instead, has now moved into the ‘coercive’ category. The mode of payment one chooses for a transaction should be a matter of personal choice. We cannot claim to be a modern society if we are literally coercing people to adopt cashless methods. Technological advances are great, and they matter. But they are no substitute for state capability and intent, which must seek to deploy that technology to expand the choices available to people, not to constrain them.

Narendra Modi’s government has demonstrated its statist streak all along – from increasing the extent to which they meddled in universities and higher education and research institutes of repute, to launching government schemes to encourage start-ups. And with this final blow of seizing currency notes en masse, Modi has outdone himself.

A coercive state also fits a model of chauvinistic nationalism that the RSS seeks to promote. Attributes such as discipline (defined as not questioning the state) are essential building blocks of this project. No surprise then that in his New Year’s Eve speech, Modi repeatedly invoked the apparent sacrifice of citizens in complying with the rules and standing in queues during this demonetization drive. The attempt all along, is to turn the perceived inconvenience of citizens into a contribution towards a greater common cause.

2016 was thus the year when Narendra Modi’s statist tendencies were thoroughly exposed as he expanded the coercive nature of the state he controlled. In this narrative, critics are turned into caricatures who are against the nation’s progress. Patriotism too has become something that has to be coerced out of citizens. In the new year, this demands of us – citizens – to be ever so more vigilant, and willing to fight to preserve our rights. Our ability to resist the creeping expansion of the coercive state will determine the health of our democracy in 2017.