Ever since a handful of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students shouted anti-India slogans at a campus rally in Delhi, a lot of airtime and pixel space have been devoted to covering all sides of the patriotism debate. In the last forty-eight hours, what changed the dynamic for me was the news from the other side of the planet that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanded Apple, Inc. to unlock the phone of a terrorist and – lo and behold – Apple refused to unlock it. Here is a company as American as apple pie – patriotic enough to manufacture millions of phones in China every year but etch ‘Designed in California’ on each one of them – refusing to play ball with the FBI in a case of terrorism on American soil. Can you imagine the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) demanding that Micromax unlock Afzal Guru’s phone and Micromax refusing it? If the unfolding events in Delhi are any indication, there would probably be no Micromax by tomorrow. The civilized way in which the patriotism debate is playing out in the United States is a jarring contrast to the immaturity on display from all sides in India. There are many facets to the debate, but there seem to be three important L’s defining it: Liberty, Law-enforcement and Leadership.
At the highest level, this is a question of liberty. The American declaration of independence famously proclaims that liberty is one of the unalienable rights of all human beings and – more importantly – governments are created to protect it. The constitution that is based on this core principle is one of the shortest constitutions in the world and enumerates all aspects of life the government cannot and should not interfere with. The Indian constitution, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of being the longest constitution of the world and painstakingly lists all the powers vested in the government. Don’t get me wrong. Babasaheb Ambedkar is my hero; more so than Mahatma Gandhi or Pandit Nehru. At the time of gaining independence, his astute legal mind realized that India was an extremely diverse country divided along caste, creed and linguistic lines for centuries. Without the fear of a heavy-handed government, our society might not have had any incentive to reform. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of the constitutionally vested powers in the government, combined with decades of socialist policies, have ensured that most of us grow up with a stunted view of liberty. Instead of doubting the government’s intentions and abilities, we implicitly consider government an unalienable part of our lives. Mai-baap Sarkar! Apple is a free enterprise and places its contract with its customers above its patriotic duty toward the government. JNU is a centrally subsidized institute and the government feels compelled to decide what is patriotic and what is not.
A few notches below liberty is the issue of law enforcement. Barring an occasional O.J. Simpson kind of case, which exposes the loopholes in the system, American police forces, investigative agencies and the judicial system form a well-oiled machine of delivering timely justice. Even the toughest terrorism and mass shooting related cases usually reach their conclusion within two-to-five years of filing charge sheets. On the other hand, the entire law enforcement machinery in India is stuck in a vicious cycle. While they consider Sarkar to be Mai-baap, Indian citizens don’t trust the government enough to pay taxes. Majority of those taxes get siphoned off by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Very little money is left for providing adequate resources and freedom to our police force, investigative agencies or the judiciary. All these branches of government are chronically understaffed (some of the lowest ratios in the world) and none of them have any incentive to defy the almighty government and show its independence. Just like politics hates a vacuum, society hates a vacuum when it comes to law enforcement. When evidence can be tampered with, witnesses can be made to disappear, cops and judges can be bought, and the system takes at least a decade to punish the wrongdoer, what is the harm in taking the law in your own hands, especially when the Mai-baap Sarkar is on your side? To add to that, when the judiciary moves at glacial speed, well-funded media assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. What is the harm? Over there in the United States, Apple may be defying FBI’s order and writing an open letter to its customers defending its stance, but the local representative of Cupertino is well aware of the fact that taking law in his or her own hands will be dealt with swiftly and sternly. Even the American media, mostly polarized, seem to understand the moral hazard in FBI’s demand and is conducting the debate maturely.
The final piece of the puzzle is leadership. On the economic front, Prime Minister Modi has shown some leadership and, after the initial hubris, seems to be willing to work with the opposition to get the economy moving again. But almost every time he has had an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities, he has been missing in action. It is easy to argue that he has too many issues on his plate and cannot be expected to weigh in on every religious skirmish or caste-based crime in the country. Nobody is expecting that from him. However, his astute political mind and amazing oratorical skills seem to betray him every time an issue enters public consciousness and becomes a national conversation about the fundamentals of cultural, social or ideological liberty. Perhaps he has taken the ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ catchphrase to heart and believes that as long as he keeps his head down and delivers on his promises of jobs and prosperity, people will forgive him for his acts of omission and commission. On the other side of the world, President Obama does not comment on each incident of homicide or political dissent, either. But he rarely misses an opportunity to comment on the raging national debate of the day; be it a mass shooting and gun control, a seminal Supreme Court verdict on gay rights, or the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Such statesmanship becomes all the more important in a country with a muddled understanding of the concept of liberty and a law enforcement vacuum being exploited by overzealous media.
I am not an unabashed admirer of the United States. As they say, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms.’ The American system has its own flaws. A country with more guns than people, a rigged financial system that nearly took the entire world down, a racial divide that is still glaringly big, a foreign policy that preaches one thing and practices another; the list is endless. But the question for us is: Instead of pointing fingers at the Americans, are we willing to notice a few good aspects of the world’s first republic and implement them in the world’s largest republic? As the American presidents keep exhorting at the end of every State of the Union speech, are we willing to move toward a more perfect union?