Citizens have experienced two phases of this state-centric approach over the past seven decades. The first, a strong socialist phase, involved a process started by Nehru which was continued by his daughter, Indira Gandhi. This was a time when the energies of our citizens were not just wasted, they were largely absent. Heavy state-run machinery in large public sector organisations focused on industrialisation while the citizen was seen largely as a voter and a consumer.

Just over four decades into Independence, the reforms of 1991 created a counter-force at the Top, releasing the energies of the private sector, and a growth surge resulted. These enterprises at the Top created trickle-down development that also impacted the Middle, albeit indirectly. A second phase started with populism when citizens were wooed and served by a clientelist government. The state was coerced by different segments and castes to give them their pound of flesh. Reservation, with Mandal as a primary example, became the rallying cry for citizens in this phase, with the state trying to provide government jobs based on caste reservations. This resulted in a fragmented polity as divisions in society, created by caste politics, also created unstable governments. Over time, caste segments started discovering that this bargain was not yielding social or economic benefits for them.

For instance, in Bihar, there was a pushback against clientelist politics when citizens recognised that by capturing votes as a block, those who got elected took their caste base for granted, relieving them of the pressure to perform. This was aided by the women’s vote, which is less motivated by caste equations, when they recognised how a ban on alcohol had increased safety and reduced domestic violence. This phase has still not come to its end but seems to be receding.

A third, republican phase is emerging based on the vast majority of citizens in the Middle, and is likely to dominate citizen mindset and political trends over the coming twenty-five years. We observed the emergence of this republican energy over a decade of Jagriti Yatra and our work in Deoria. With the vast majority in the Middle no longer in extreme poverty, today’s citizen sees through the socialist or clientelist approach. Indian citizens and civic and political leaders are realizing that a republic is not just the transfer of power from the citizen to the ruler for a period of five years at the time of voting. A true republic is where citizens help create better circumstances for each other and the nation, with the government serving as an enabler.

Tocqueville pointed to this relationship as “the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased”. Colonial institutions tried to weaken and break this association. A socialist approach spoon-fed its citizens through an inefficient government and clientelist politics split citizens into smaller segments asking for more from the government. Now that the Middle has gained strength and gravity, with a mature democracy beneath us, we must build new institutions that put citizens at the centre of our national and political experience, not just as voters but as builders. The recent focus on Janbhagidari and the Prime Minister’s call for sabka prayas signals the beginning of this phase.

In mobilising our citizens, relative to a Western democracy such as the UK, there is another complication – one of size. The UK, a society of 50 million at the time of our Independence, could be governed by a Westminster form of government with welfarism as its driving motive. It was possible to access citizens, communicate with them, nudge them, listen to them, create representation, and forge governance links in a typical constituency. In our case, when a typical constituency is 20 times larger in number of votes, the approach must change. Today, a Member of Parliament in the UK, on an average, has one lakh citizens in their constituency. Contrast that with the 26 lakh citizens on an average per Member of Parliament in India. District population has increased, on average, from just under 14 lakh citizens per district in 307 districts at the time of Independence to 19 lakh citizens on average per district in the 740 districts today.

Increasing administrative layers at each level – national, state, region, district, block, village – causes snags in any service well before it reaches the citizen, with the lowest layer at the Panchayat level still searching for financial powers. Such disproportionate representation makes it difficult for elected representatives or administrators to listen to and serve citizens. If numbers and layers make matters difficult, complexity multiplies this manifold.

As India has modernised, societal complexity has increased “the multiplication and diversification of the social forces in society. Kinship, racial and religious groupings are supplemented by occupational, class and skill groupings”. The modernisation of society is happening at a rapid rate, multiplying groupings and connections. As India modernises, “major clusters of old social, economic and psychological commitments are getting eroded or broken and people are available for new patterns of socialization and behaviour”. This is aided by the rapid infusion of digital connections through smartphones, which are penetrating the Middle rapidly. This complex citizen landscape is difficult to manage through a typical welfare state as imagined by western democracies around the Second World War. A new alchemy is needed where the citizens themselves becomes the creator and the association between citizens becomes a key goal of governance.

Excerpted with permission from Middle Of Diamond India: National Renaissance through Participation and Enterprise, Shashank Mani, Penguin India.