What is the connection between the air that we breathe, the on-going massive advertising campaigns for indoor air purifiers and relationships between citizens and the state? It is a history of the present that tells us a great deal about some of the most fundamental aspects of our lives and the choices we might make for a decent future.
In the period since 1991, the most significant aspect of our national life has been the changing nature of the state. In all post-colonial societies, the state apparatus has – till recently – enjoyed almost sacred status as the progenitor of the public good. Usually, the post-colonial nation-state was closely identified with a specific political party – the Congress in India, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, for example – and the latter’s moral legitimacy was closely linked to its role in creating a welfare state. In the immediate post-colonial period – the Nehruvian years of high nationalism – though various forms of private capital plied their trade, the determinative role of the state in realms as diverse as culture, economy, family life, urbanization and infrastructure provision remained largely unquestioned. The state enjoyed a state-ness that was next to godliness and attempts to interrogate the role of the state in the life of the nation – such as that by the right-of-centre, Swantantra Party – died a lingering death. It was a period that required stateliness to hold together a society economically and socially ravaged by extractive colonial machinery. Nehru was not a statist as much as a visionary pragmatist.
Unfortunately, the idea of the state as the purveyor of the public good became thoroughly corrupted in the decades that followed the end of colonial rule. Bureaucratic and political elites granted themselves extravagant privileges and access to national resources while they exhorted the rest of the citizenry to sacrifice for the national good. Newly established public institutions and utilities became sites of private enrichment by a tiny group. Slowly, but palpably, the goodwill enjoyed by the post-colonial state began to be eroded. Popular culture – a reliable barometer of the public mood – began increasingly to represent the state as both corrupt and anti-people. From the 1980s, for example, the character of the filmic hero changed from the sacrificing ‘Five-Year Plan Hero’ – the doctor, the engineer – to the unabashed consumer who would much rather honeymoon in Switzerland than invest in postal savings accounts.