When two Indians sit down to sip chai, their conversation sometimes turns to the baffling subject of how their country is rising despite the state. This idea of ‘private success and public failure’ is captured in the cynical saying: ‘India grows at night while the government sleeps’. Prosperity is, indeed, spreading across the country even as governance failure pervades public life. The question is how could a nation become the world’s second fastest growing economy despite a weak, ineffective, and flailing state? And shouldn’t ‘India also grow during the day’? The recent slowdown of the Indian economy is a sign that India may have begun to experience the limits of growing at night without the state. The task now is to reform the institutions of the state in order to make India a strong liberal state.

Let me illustrate with a tale of two towns on the outskirts of Delhi—Gurgaon and Faridabad. In the 1970s, and eighties, Faridabad had an active municipal government, fertile agriculture, a direct railway line to Delhi, and a host of industries. Gurgaon was a sleepy village with rocky soil and pitiable agriculture. It had no local government, no railway link, and no industries. Compared to Faridabad, it was wilderness. Thirty years later Gurgaon had become the symbol of a rising India. Called ‘Millennium City’, it had dozens of shiny skyscrapers, twenty-six shopping malls, seven golf courses, countless luxury showrooms of the world’s most famous brands. It had thirty two million square feet of commercial space and was home to the world’s largest corporations. Its racing economy was reflected in fabled apartment complexes with swimming pools, spas and saunas, which vie with the best gated communities anywhere. How did this happen?

Gurgaon’s disadvantage turned out to be an advantage. It had no municipality and was more or less ignored by the state government. This meant less red tape, fewer bureaucrats who could block its development. Gurgaon flourished primarily because of its self-reliant citizens. They did not sit around and wait. They dug bore wells to get water; they put in diesel generators to make up for the state electricity board’s failure; they used cell phones rather than the landline of the state company, BSNL; they used couriers rather than the post office; some buildings even installed their own sewage treatment plants; they employed security guards rather than depend on the police. Since teachers and doctors did not show up at government schools and health centres, they opened cheap private schools and clinics, even in the slums, where fees are as low as Rs 200 per month.

 Modern India is in some ways Gurgaon writ large. The nation’s ascent baffles people. When saw the stupendous rise of I.T., and prosperity spreading across the nation amidst governance failure, people began to ask, why do we need a government at all--with corrupt politicians and unresponsive bureaucrats? They cynically said, ‘India grows at night when the government sleeps’. To rise without the state, as Gurgaon has done, is a brave thing, but it is not wise or sustainable. Gurgaon would be better off with a functioning drainage system, reliable water and electricity supplies, public sidewalks and parks and a decent public transport system.

Both Faridabad and Gurgaon represent the wrong governance models for India’s future. India needs a strong and effective liberal state as envisioned in our Constitution. If red tape and corruption are the downside of Faridabad’s model, then the problem with Gurgaon’s free market model is the lack of basic services. Gurgaon would be far happier if the state were functioning effectively and delivering basic services honestly.

It should not take eight years to build a road in India when it takes three elsewhere; it should not take ten years to get justice instead of two. There is paralysis in executive decision-making, parliamentary gridlock and the courts routinely dictating action to the executive. While economic growth is necessary for lifting the poor, it is not sufficient. We also need honest policemen, diligent officials, functioning schools and primary health centres. India needs an effective state.

The growing at night strategy is no longer viable and the task now is to reform public institutions. A successful liberal democracy has three elements. It has strong authority to allow quick and decisive action; a transparent rule of law to ensure the action is legitimate; and it is accountable to the people. Combining these three elements is not easy as they tend to check each other, but in India we seem to have forgotten that the state was created to act. An aggressive civil society and media have enhanced accountability in India, but it has weakened the government.  India needs  a strong, efficient and enabling state. Strong, because it has independent regulators who are tough on corruption and ensure that no one is above the law; efficient in the sense that it enforces fairly and forcefully the rule of law; enabling because it delivers services honestly to all citizens.

Anna Hazare’s movement has proven that crowds might awaken people but they do not achieve the goal. Instead of chanting multitudes inspired by a mystical faith in the collective popular will, it will need the hard work of politics to transform India’s tottering state into a strong, liberal one. There is no magic bullet—such as a Lokpal—to achieve the goal. Instead, it will take patient, determined efforts to reform the key institutions of governance—the bureaucracy, judiciary, police and Parliament—along well-known lines articulated by numerous committees.

Who will do these reforms? If it is lucky, India might throw up a strong leader who is a reformer of institutions. Indira Gandhi was such a strong leader, but she was a destroyer of institutions. Since there is no guarantee of a strong leader emerging in a democracy, the next best hope is to create a demand for reform. Since the demand for reform is unlikely to come from within the state, the answer lies with India’s newly awakened middle class. After a quarter of century of rapid growth, this class is now one-third of India; by 2022, it will cross 50 per cent. The nation’s centre of gravity is shifting and so will its politics. As Anna Hazare’s movement showed, this class will no longer accept a civic life shaped by those who are powerful and corrupt. It has also shown considerable ability to mobilize media and employ the new technology of social media. Politics are thus set to change.

Reforming corrupt government institutions is never easy. But the task cannot be put off. India’s flailing state is not unlike crisis-ridden Hastinapur in the Mahabharata. Just as we have a problem with our corrupt institutions of governance, the kingdom of the Bharatas had a problem with the self-destructive Kshatriya institutions of its time, and it had to wage a civil war at Kurukshetra to cleanse them. There are impatient voices in India today that are prepared to wage a Kurukshetra to bring accountability into public life. This was apparent in the clamour surrounding Anna Hazare’s movement. Although there is urgency to the task, it should be not be addressed through mobs on the street but through politics and institutional reform. Anna Hazare’s cautionary message is that if the political class is not up to enacting those reforms, then it better be prepared for a bloody civil war.