India 2020 : Fear the Caesar!

One of the great contrasts between India, the world's most populous democracy, and America, one of the oldest surviving republics, is the differing approach what, paraphrasing the Founding generation (of United States), should be called the "Fear of the Caesar"!

The American approach to this is perhaps best captured in the story of Benjamin Franklin. When a reporter asked, "Mr Franklin, what did we get - a Monarchy or a Republic?", while he was coming out of one of the meetings of the Constitutional Convention,  Franklin reportedly answered, "A republic, if you can keep it!"

That fear of a Caeser, a strong leader who would undermined the republic, persisted. Another story, later recounted by Jefferson (told to Benjamin Rush in 1811), described a dinner that Jefferson hosted for John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Three portraits adorned Jefferson's room, and Hamilton reportedly inquired who those were. Jefferson said they were of the three greatest men ever lived - Lord Francis Bacon, philosopher of science, Sir Isaac Newton, the renowned scientist, and John Locke, the philosopher. To this, Hamilton paused for some time, and replied, "the greatest man that ever lived, was Julius Caeser!" Jefferson was recounting the story purportedly to make his point about the fear of the Caesar - Hamilton and Jefferson clashed frequently on how much power the Federal government should have. 

Jefferson, the Republican, had good reasons. The only republic to have existed in the comparable geographic scale of the 13 colonies of America was the Roman Republic, which was usurped by the Caesar! The French Republic, which would tear itself apart and then turn into an empire under Napoleon, was still in the future, but would add to the fear of the Caeser in the United States. This would come up again and again in the American politics - for example, when the rumours that Ulysses S Grant would be seeking an unprecedented third term spread - and despite all the limitations of the system, of all the antiques of the Congress in the past or in the present day, the American republic survived with the healthy fear of the strong leader.

The post-colonial republics, in Africa and Asia, were often very different. They would often seem to display a distrust of the abilities of their own people, the same people that was said to be founding the state, and seek a strong leader, a father figure, to lead them out of misery. Many of them were founded to democracies, but most of them looked up to the political model of the Soviet Union, led by a citizen elites and strong leaders. American democracy was respected, but its republicanism was not. A benevolent Caesar was an integral part of the imagination of these states, and many of them indeed fell into the hands of Big Men, as in Africa.

India had a slightly different path, and its democracy survived and prospered. It is a great source of pride for Indians, and a guarantee against instabilities, and justifiably so. However, Indian Republic never built enough safeguards against an aspiring Caesar or been paranoid about one lurking in the corner. Instead, Indian political debate was almost fatalistic, based on the assumption that Indias diversity would automatically protect it from the dictatorships, somewhat oblivious of diversities of other nations that fell into dictatorships (China and Russia are great examples) and the potency of division and conflict that could effectively put minorities in power (the plain old divide and rule, which kept the British in power in India for two centuries). When a Senior political leader in India made the point about India not having sufficient safeguards against dictatorial leaders (he made explicit reference to the one time, in 1975, when the Indian Prime Minister declared emergency and suspended democracy and its institutions), the furore was telling - of a Citizen Elite caught in the act, as it appeared!

A lot of conversation in India today is about development. It is an urgent issue for a poor country like India, where most people are young and looking into the future. It is also fashionable to see China as the model of development, and ascribe Chinas extraordinary rise in the recent decades to its totalitarian politics. But this is a simplistic and wrong-headed view, which overlooks many economic, cultural and political facts. India can not be China, and has never been anything like it. Indeed, nor can India be like the United States, but it is surprising that the history and polity of the early United States do not get attention in India. United States is indeed a great example of a country which freed itself from the Colonial rule, and created a durable Republic. This, more than the economic affluence of either United States or China, should capture imagination in India, because development of the kind India needs - one which will benefit a large number of people in a large and diverse country - depends on the rulers of the country remaining accountable to the people they rule. India should remain in fear of the Caesar, and there are lessons to be learned from the history of the United States.



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