Shakti Sinha’s sudden death, earlier this week at the age of 64, opens a big void for his family and many friends and admirers across India and the world. But his career in the Indian Administrative Service, including a posting in Goa in the late 1980s, also holds important lessons for the future of Indian democracy.

As a civil servant and then as a scholar in his later years, he cherished the value of liberal openness in dealing with criticism and opposition, an essential quality behind the extraordinary success of Indian democracy. This is something about India that political scientists study in the abstract but Shakti Sinha also embodied it in practice.

His progressive approach to Goa shows that, rather than a sign of weakness, the Indian state’s democratic tradition to engage with diversity and dissent can be a source of national unity and power.

It was a warm March evening, in 2018, when I first bonded with Shakti Sinha at the Clube Vasco da Gama in Goa’s capital city of Panjim. We had spent the day participating in another dull think tank dialogue, held in a dark conference room, debating abstract geostrategic matters. As the sun set over the Mandovi river, some of the Indian and foreign participants were longing to get out and enjoy the city. Proudly claiming my roots, I promised to show them the “real” Goa.

A traditional association

But my enthusiastic planning didn’t last long: I was told Shakti Sinha had already moved on with a group to the Clube Vasco, one of Goa’s most traditional associations, founded in 1909. This remains the institutional core of Goa’s Catholic and Portuguese-speaking community in the capital city, a conservative island resisting the turbulent changes that have swept across India’s smallest state. While I have never lived in Goa, this is a club that has hosted weddings of my Goan ancestors and is still visited by our old family friends, relatives and neighbours.

So more than upset, my petty and pseudo-Goan self was also intrigued: I knew Shakti Sinha had served in Goa, but how could a North Indian, former IAS official, know of such a typically Goan secret spot? Maybe the club had recently changed and turned into another tourist trap promising a typical “Goan-Portuguese” experience? Even if he was taking these guests to an “authentic” place, I secretly thought to myself, Shakti Sinha would surely fail to connect with “my” people!

I was soon proven wrong, walking up the stairs from the Garcia da Orta garden to find Shakti Sinha in his natural environment, the whole club buzzing around him. Here were “my” fellow Goans welcoming him with an open embrace. And they were not just being deferential to “Sir from Delhi”: there were hugs, laughter and joy, a genuine display of affection after separation and saudade.

I saw Shakti Sinha morphing into a Goan: he spoke some Konkani, drank feni and sang Portuguese songs. He ordered food for everyone like a local niz goenkar, asking about different fish types, ordering a sarapatel or ambotic, recommending pork sausages and beef cutlets.

In awe of all this, I quickly surrendered to Shakti Sinha, the Goan, and also began admiring Shakti Sinha the liberal Indian democrat. In his behavior at the Clube Vasco da Gama, I recognised the might of the Indian state when it complements coercive power with the soft embrace of engagement to deal with difference, diversity and dissent.

Here was a Bihari, Hindi-speaking official who had not merely served in Goa but also served Goa by bonding with its people, including the most conservative fringes of the Catholic, Portuguese-speaking minority that were sometimes reluctant, if not overtly hostile to any “Indian outsider”.

That night I learned that Shakti Sinha succeeded in his political mission to connect Goa with India because of his cultural openness to embrace Goa’s difference, rather than aggressively seeking to dismiss it as an abnormality warranting “correction”. In our many interactions over the last three years, from Delhi to Kathmandu and Lisbon, we talked at length about “our” Goa.

Rapid transformation

I was more sceptical, concerned about demographic changes and environmental degradation. He agreed about the perils of rapid transformation, but would put it into context: “Goa was feudal back in the 1980s, just like the rest of India, with a privileged class and caste ruling over others, blocking change. That is no longer possible today. People in the villages have witnessed progress and they want more of it, this is democratic India’s biggest success.”

He would frequently observe that change is always difficult but that it cannot be avoided. This progressive perspective on Goa also informed his pragmatic view about India’s transformation. “India is a big country, things take time to change, but they are now finally changing faster than ever before,” he once told me, reminding me of the crude, endemic poverty he had witnessed while growing up in North India, especially in his native Bihar.

We had long chats about how India is witnessing an aspirational and participatory revolution, with a record number of young people seeking to play an active part in the country’s future. We agreed that Indian democracy today is more native, expansive and representative than ever before, but that this surge is also stressing its old institutions, paradoxically turning society less civil and liberal, and that this transition thus brings both opportunities and risks.

This is a similar challenge that Shakti Sinha also encountered in Goa, back in the 1980s: no social and economic progress was possible without disruptive change that was bitterly opposed by the elites, he contended, whether it was the Konkan Railway or affirmative action policies.

But he believed that instead of dismissing or overruling people’s concerns, however marginal, one should engage and accommodate them to bring about sustainable change. This is probably why I saw Shakti Sinha dancing and eating like a Goan that night at the Clube Vasco da Gama.

Constantino Xavier is a Fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi.