Let me recount a story from my school textbook. ‘Haar ki Jeet’, the story of a virtuous Sadhu, Baba Bharati and a dreaded robber, Kharag Singh.
Baba rode a prized stead called Sultan, which was coveted by Kharag Singh. Kharag Singh disguises himself as an old, handicapped man and places himself on a lonely patch of road. Gesturing for help, he stops Baba Bharati and robs him of the horse. Before handing over Sultan, Baba makes a strange request to Kharag Singh: Never disclose to anyone that you robbed me disguised as an old, handicapped man seeking help. A perplexed Kharag Singh is reformed when he hears Baba’s reason for the request: “Warnaa logon kaa duniya main doosron se bharosa uth jayega (Because people will stop trusting other people).”
The story of declining trust — interpersonal, and in institutions, leaders and system — is the unfortunate story of today’s India. It is neither new nor unique to India. From Locke and Tocqueville to Putnam, many philosophers have emphasised the importance of trust. Trust lies at the heart of social capital. Social capital, as per Putnam, refers to “features of social organisation, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions”.
At one level, India doesn’t suffer from a lack of social capital. Families, clans and communities (often organised around religion, sect or caste) exhibit high levels of social capital. This interpersonal trust within a limited group allows the community to maximise the well-being of the individuals in that group. But this trust is only about ‘bonding’: restricted to within a close-knit group. There is no ‘bridging’: those outside the group are approached with distrust, incivility and hostility. Slowly but surely, this is getting reflected elsewhere — in diminished political capital.
The idea of political capital is the modern social-science version of the classical concept of fraternity; along with liberty and equality, it is an essential condition for democracy. Standard game-theory can explain why trust has to be the basis of any democratic political culture. Democracy, simplistically put, is about cooperative behaviour and collective action for common good. Why would anyone support proposals for common good if they do not trust other people or institutions to reciprocate? That explains why communities which have historically suffered injustices in India seek power not to create a just society but to perpetuate injustices of their own. Or why everyone seeks a bigger share of pie in government jobs for their community, expecting all the other groups to do the same.
Often viewed amorphously, political capital actually manifests itself in different forms: as trust in the overall democratic system, trust in the functioning of democratic institutions, trust in people who run democratic institutions, trust in the procedures that make these institutions work, trust in politicians, and trust in various agencies that implement public policies. With six decades of successful experience, the trust in the overall democratic system in India is inviolable. Trust in the institutions on the representational side of the political system — parties, politicians, parliament, cabinet — is debatable. Political parties are partisan by nature. Those who support the ruling party will trust the representational institutions while those who oppose that party will usually distrust them. When its own supporters start distrusting the ruling party, the outcome is inevitable: the party loses power at the next elections.
In any case, a certain amount of scepticism is healthy for democracy — especially when that scepticism is based on realism, and not cynicism. After all, trusting when there is no good reason to trust is just gullibility. In his constituent assembly speech, Ambedkar had also warned of the dangers of Bhakti in politics — no blind faith on political leaders.
Moving beyond the conventional political trust in parties and politicians, it is the lack of trust in the institutions on the implementation side of the system that is hurting us most. Across the country, for their safety and personal welfare, citizens are more dependent on the institutions that implement public policies — police, judiciary and bureaucracy — than on the institutions that are supposed to represent their interests or ideology. A corrupt, biased and unfair administrative system influences citizens’ beliefs about how society works. This dysfunctional system doesn’t allow any kind of trust to rise. It particularly destroys trust among people. And without trust, a society can’t function.
What Baba Bharti feared is staring us in the face today.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review