Byline by MJ Akbar:Just a bit of Security
Every government has a midlife crisis as well as a sell-by date. The trick is to ensure that the latter does not precede the former. The health of all governments is measured by only one thermometer: the mercury of popular support. Even a monarch, if he has not degenerated into a despot, understands this principle and lives by it. Those who do not, pay a price, if not in their own lifetimes then in that of their heirs. Dynasties wither when personal greed overrides the needs of the state. Sometimes, to check the present, it is useful to look through the wrong end of a telescope. The Mughal Empire did not bolster its popularity through media frenzy, although its court historians were often condemned to disguise the truth beneath layers of ornate sycophancy. (Contemporary media can sometimes put those historians to shame, but that is a separate story.) Popular support comes in as many varieties as people, and a sensible government shows as much care for opinion builders as it does for those less influential. And principles are not necessarily moral: they can serve equally well when amoral, although they can never afford to be immoral.
Akbar, the builder of the Mughal Empire, based his vision on two principles, one tactical, one strategic. The first was used in the management of elites, the second was the foundation on which his rule rested. You do not have to believe the author of Tarikh-i-Akbari when he claims that the emperor is "the ruler of the entire world", or that he is the epitome of humility and generosity, or that "the dust of the imperial throne has become the sacred place of worship of the great and the mighty" — including, incidentally, the king of China. But he does get more credible when he explains how Akbar in a few years created an empire that stretched from Bengal and Orissa to Sindh and Afghanistan. War was not the answer, although Akbar maintained a brilliant war machine: the cost of his stables, with 5,000 elephants and many times that number of horses, was estimated at Rs 50 lakhs a day (in mid-16th century prices). War was only a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The chronicler quotes the emperor to explain the method of expansion. The logic was excellent, proving that Akbar was "gifted with reason and faculty of showing the way". There were 320 Rajas of Hindustan, rationalised the emperor, most protected by a strong fort. On an average, a siege took a year or more. If, therefore, he wanted to subjugate every Raja of Hindustan by war, it would take him perhaps a little short of three centuries. On the other hand, what did each Raja want? He wanted peace with the imperial court. The Mughal court offered precisely that, and did so for generations: it is forgotten that there were more Hindu generals in Aurangzeb’s army than in Dara Shikoh’s.
The elite must be pacified; that is an important requirement of state. But far more important is that the people should be kept happy. The answer to this need was justice. This was derived from a fundamental principle of Islam, where justice, equality and charity command a premium over every other virtue. The best justification for justice as the guiding light of administration was provided by the great vazir of the Seljuqs, Nizam ul Mulk Tusi, an intellectual and bureaucrat who held the Seljuq lands together when the western revival in the form of the Crusades had taken Jerusalem and devastated the political structure of the Middle East. Nizam ul Mulk’s Rules of Governance, a primer he wrote for a young prince to whom he was a tutor, is the outstanding testament of Islamic statecraft. With cool logic he separates justice from morality, and explains its necessity thus: A kingdom, to survive, needs an army. An army, to survive, needs money. Money comes from taxes, and taxes come only when people are prosperous and happy. People are happy only when there is justice. QED. In both the great Turkish courts of their time, that of the Mughals and the Ottomans (the Mughals had far more Turkish blood in them than Mongol), the scales of justice were the principal metaphor of the emperor’s power.
What do justice, and its consequence, prosperity, mean today in India? The short answer is security: from external threat, from internal threat, from the elements, and from hunger. Of these needs, the state can claim victory only on the first count. India’s armed forces have successfully eliminated the threat of invasion from either the north or the west (the only invasion from the east is one of people and economic migration works because there is implicit support from the host country).
We have a law; I am not so sanguine that we have order. A quarter if not more of rural India is ruled by the law of the Naxalites, who impose their own order, ensure their own form of justice and collect handsome revenues. Security is being increasingly privatised in urban India, with the police forced to pay more attention to the security of the ruling class than of the people.
Then there is the matter of shelter. Check with the street children in the cities. Check with the poor in the villages. One example is sufficient, and it is not the worst instance of poverty in our country by any means. Bidi workers — so many of them young women, because of their still-nimble fingers which will age faster than the rest of their bodies — get paid thirty rupees for every thousand bidis they put together in bundles. Since the dollar is the preferred currency of the Indian elite, that comes to some sixty cents for a thousand bidis. Work out the decimal point for every bidi. When we take visiting heads of government and media to see the shining computer cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore, we should also give them side-trips to the bidi manufacturing wastelands of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The poor are not so foolish as to believe that any government can turn their lives around with a magic wand. But they are not blind either. They want to see what is being done to improve their lives. The Left wins in Bengal because it keeps its attention fixed on this reality. Delhi has lost this very basic plot.
Food security means wheat, water and vegetables. No one treats water as a priority, because there is enough for the showers in the bathrooms of Lutyens’ Delhi. As for vegetables, we must leave that issue to my cook. Normally he tends not to open a conversation with me, conserving his brain power for the true ruler of our home. But his voice was tinged with amazement, even awe, when he broke his silence the other day. The price of tomatoes in Delhi, he said, had risen to thirty two rupees per kilogram. After the news, he added an editorial. The only thing to do with tomatoes at that price was to use them to pelt our honourable leaders.
Thirty two rupees a kilo. That is two rupees more than a bidi worker gets for every thousand bidis she makes.