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Kingdoms Vs. Nation-States

2nd September, 2010
A Nawab of Mughal dynasty, India, 17th-18th ce...

Nawab of the Mughal Dynasty (17th-18th cent.)

I grew up in Delhi, considered ‘North India’ by a large section of ‘South Indians’. And now I work in Bangalore, considered ‘South India’ by another large section of ‘North Indians’. People refuse to believe that I can belong to both. You know, it’s quite surprising that we managed to form a single nation-state called India.

The Biggest Problem

May I present, India. A motley concoction of a billion people who have nothing in common. There are jarring differences in every corner you see. A heavenly abode that’s just a cat’s-paw away from absolute hell.

Exactly how are our public administrators taking care of this diversity? If you ask me, it’s a pretty complex task, one that requires the best brains of our country to comprehend and execute the right steps to a harmonious nation.

That brings me to what I’m going to talk about today – public administration in the past and present. A lot has changed, you know.

Kingdoms: The Ruler and the Rulee

Let’s zap back to around 500 years ago. India was then a part of the Mughal dynasty, a multi-ethnic empire, a monarchy ruled by one emperor. Even though the population was diverse and spoke many languages, the empire was dominated by one ethnic group, and their language was the language of public administration.

This empire consisted of smaller kingdoms, ruled by a king. Some such monarchies even had an idea of divine rule, to the extent that rulers were considered God (think Pharaohs of the Egyptian Civilization). To aid in running his kingdom, the king got together a noble court consisting of a few select men.

And what a court! This noble court consisted of a rare breed of men. They all were from families of high standing, rich and powerful, and had access to unthinkable luxuries right from their childhood. Politics of that day was closely tied to hereditary lineage, and a hierarchy of class was closely maintained. Everyone aspired to be born a nobleman.

So let’s summarize. Your job in the top echelons of the public administration was guaranteed the moment you were born. You already had a large palace, great political connections, and your coffers were full. (All lavish gifts you got were given ‘over’ the table). Most importantly, you were smarter than the average bloke because you had access to high quality education given to those who would later become leaders of the day.

Nawab of the BSP Dynasty

Nation-states of Today: The Creme Brulee

Fast-forward to today. Holy Peanut Butter!

The nation-state, a political entity that serves a sovereign territorial state, is the modern avatar of the noble court of a kingdom. The concept of a nation-state was popularized by England and France, as major nationalistic campaigns ran across their lands unifying different factions into one entity.

Just look at the public administration of our country! In a measly 500 years, we’ve taken a complete U-turn. The IAS (Indian Administrative Service) is now accessible to all (and with reservation), albeit after a cruel one-and-a-half-year journey from the first exam to the final admit. That’s the good part.

But what about politicians, the leaders of these administrative services? Everyone’s invited, including criminals.

Most politicians weren’t rich from before, nor did they belong to blue-blood royal families. Many grew up in humble households, leading a tough and grueling life. Politics has changed too. It’s now a game of out-maneuvering your opponent, a game of wits and hard cash. The web of political connections is bought into, not born into. You still get lavish gifts, but now ‘under’ the table.

Becoming a leader of the administrative services is about looking out for yourself, not the people.

So Let’s Compare

The noble gentry of kingdoms came from rich and powerful families. The hierarchical class system guaranteed them their job in the public administration on the basis of their birth. These men were educated in the best schools of the day, that taught values and respect more than anything.

The politicians of today’s nation-state are a different breed. They’ve struggled hard to rise from their humble beginnings. Even after facing innumerable adversities, they have not been denied a chance to run the nation.

Just that they can’t run the nation!

But This is a Better World!

It has to be. We’ve become more inclusive, and are building a world based on meritocracy rather than aristocracy. (I’m not saying we’ve reached that place yet).

The cost is that the best brains are no longer running the government. Democracy has sucked it off all its elitism. The best brains are now running hedge funds and / or depriving Third World countries of their oil and bauxite ores. There’s much more money and social credo to be made in that!

Isn’t it funny? The government opened its doors for almost anyone to enter, and instead their best brains ran out!

22 Comments leave one →
  1. 2nd September, 2010 11:54 PM

    ‘The cost is that the best brains are no longer running the government’ – when I read this I thought – The best brains are working for short term capital gains at the expense of everything else – and thats what you said!..haha..

    ‘The government opened its doors for almost anyone to enter, and instead their best brains ran out!’ -> Nice!

    • 3rd September, 2010 12:00 AM

      Ah, what can I say? Great brains think alike? Muuahahahha!

  2. 3rd September, 2010 12:15 AM

    ur a bit wrong in one place…the best brains r still running the show…in d form of lobbies…politicians r mere fronts, some less than others maybe

    • 3rd September, 2010 8:34 AM

      Hmm, I won’t deny that. Either way, the people running the show aren’t doing this for the people, as the noble gentry of yester-years were obliged to do!

      (Heck, they were being trained in gurukuls to be ‘great men’! Do we preach values like that to our politicians?)

    • umaid permalink
      29th September, 2010 4:11 AM

      This is with respect to everyones comments and kartikays piece.

      Brains are wired differently and work differently as far as different tasks go and they can be applied in various scenarios to make money.

      Money is resource, resource allows people to chill and shut others up whenever competition takes place. All in all, with money singh becomes king, baniya c.e.o. and dalit bahubali (pardon the stereotyping). But there isn’t an iota of doubt that to succeed at anything one needs to be able to have a hell of a brain.

      Corporations are not free from political games and national politics doesn’t suffer from a lack of lucrative ventures. The issue then really is that one needs a different sort of skill set to succeed in any one of these areas.

      All leaders are politicians because its their job to be. Whereas a CEO screws employees over while sipping Bloody Mary’s and dining hot clients, a politician uses the law and clout to place roadblocks where ever a quick buck can be made. Bahubali well he just fucks people over coz he likes it.

      These people are smart because they can justify their actions in the name of greater good, they are determined, think very clearly and can motivate all their energies to making thoughts realities. If and when shit hits the we take the fall while these guys feel sorry for us and win our sympathy for feeling that way.

      My point, well most of us don’t have the minds to be cocks. Someone has to be, so may as well be them. In the mean while what we can all do is make things work for our selves and for me clean politics or meritocracy, may or may not work because sometimes(in the first instance) I may need to break laws(especially with regard to drunken driving or stupid rules that don’t allow me to photocopy more than 50 pages at a public library) and (in the second instance) because i am certainly not the smartest person out there.

      So what does one need to level the playing field? The answer is street smarts. Mess peoples lives up when you feel messed with grow a sack and walk the walk.

      When someone is able to achieve this all of a sudden a person is looked at as a person not a pushover. And it works out to your competitors advantage to think twice before messing with you…………. Utopia in a nutshell.

    • 29th September, 2010 10:35 AM

      Umaid, thanks for dropping by!

      After reading all your words (abuses included), why do I get a sense of helplessness?

      It’s easy to draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s easy to point fingers too (look, ‘they’ are wrong!). I agree, ‘they’ are street smart and are able to make the best use of their situation. (All for themselves, by the way)

      By the way, there are people trying to make a difference. They are few and far between, but they are there nonetheless. That’s where you can pitch in – support them! Help them grow.

      We can’t and shouldn’t relegate ourselves to pessimism and random attacks at the ‘system’. Break down the problem, pick up a piece, and solve it yourself 🙂

      (ie, make the world a better place!)

  3. 3rd September, 2010 10:33 AM

    ‘Becoming a leader of the administrative services is about looking out for yourself, not the people.’

    So true. How long as it been since you’ve actually heard of an unselfish person, working for others? Rare trait, I’d say.

    Very well written. I loved the comparison you made with the mughals! Super stuff!

    • 3rd September, 2010 2:37 PM

      Hehe, thank you ji! Just wanted to express what I thought about over some coffee. There’s a Part II coming up, now that I’ve discussed this more!

  4. delhizen permalink
    3rd September, 2010 3:21 PM

    Well the funnier part is that the best brains ran out, made riches and came back to make it even bigger, used the politicians as stepping stones or middle men to become start entrepreneurs or business czars in their own right! Loyalty lies on the side where the bread is not only buttered but also has a layer of Jam, cheese or ham (according to order of priority and hierarchy)

    I feel there is a contagious untreatable bacteria and virus amongst the breed of politicians which passes from one to another. They are all infected with these corrupt fundas that constantly questions the harmony, will always maintain a gap between the strata of masses, are self-obsessed and project to be these god like figures,

    Btw the two important leaders who wrote a crucial chapter of India’s independence Nehru & Jinnah both came from rich, well-to do, educated, high class families. But because each one wanted to be the first and not a mere me too, got the country divided into two!

    • 3rd September, 2010 6:45 PM


      I really liked your line about loyalty! My concern is that the rich and smart no longer run this country – at a time when this country is facing even grander problems than before!

      Instead we have less competent people attempting to solve a more complex problem! Sheesh!

      About Nehru and Jinnah, I’m sure both of them wanted to do something for the people. They were aware of their position and inheritance, and were virtuous enough to help the less fortunate people. It’s a different matter that their ideologies did not coincide! *sniff*

  5. 3rd September, 2010 4:03 PM

    We do have an odd Nandan Nilekani or a Chidambaram running the show.
    All the schmoozing and the manipulations that are required to stay afloat in the murky world of politics – that I guess keeps a lot of sane people out.

    Mayawati makes my blood boil.

    A very nicely articulated post Kartikay..

    • 3rd September, 2010 6:56 PM

      Ah! Did the world of politics become murky after the sane people left, or did they leave because it became murky?

      Either way, thanks for words! And thank god we have some sane men/women in this tumultuous crowd of obnoxious politicians.

      Almost like Bruce Willis in any Die Hard movie – they save the day!

  6. delhizen permalink
    3rd September, 2010 8:47 PM

    K,bt its nt always the case dat evry rich man is smart;) and can do gud fr d country!

    • 4th September, 2010 11:51 PM

      True true! If you think about it, so many kingdoms were ruined as a direct result of their foolish rulers!

      You summed it up best! 🙂

  7. 13th September, 2010 2:42 PM

    “A heavenly abode that’s just a cat’s-paw away from absolute hell.”

    Catchy phrase. But isn’t it bewildering that the distance was only crossed for 24 months during emergency! All the rest while, we have been a text-book example of damn-o-crazy!

    “India was then a part of the Mughal dynasty, a multi-ethnic empire, a monarchy ruled by one emperor.”

    To be historically correct, It would be thus: “Part of India was then under Mughal dynasty, a multi-ethnic empire, a monarchy ruled by one emperor” I think ‘India’ as we know it, didn’t exist until early 20th century, even in ideology.

    “The concept of a nation-state was popularized by England and France”

    French revolution, 1789 can truly claim to give rise to the notion of nation-state. I think England was a little behind. Right?

    “The cost is that the best brains are no longer running the government.”

    I would disagree. Some of the best brains of the country regularly enter the system. But the spirit is punctured by plethora of inherent restrictions within the notorious bureaucratic and political circles. But some of the best still try to out-do the system whenever they can and astonishingly, they manage to do it; at all other times, they follow the system. Because of the former, the idea of India is still intact.

    Excellent piece. \m/

    • 13th September, 2010 6:15 PM

      Dear IAS-bigshot,

      1. Blog posts are all about short, eye-catching phrases, is it not?

      2. True, the whole of India wasn’t under the Mughal Empire. You win one brownie point.

      3. I still feel both England and France contributed to popularizing the concept of a nation-state, by unifying different factions into a single entity with a common language, culture and administration. Both of them fanned the idea of a “national identity”. You weren’t Welsh anymore, but British.

      4. I really wanted to hear your opinion on this! YOU! Yes, YOU! Do you want to write a counter-argument? I think there are many points that can be discussed under this heading.

      Thank you, sir, for contributing to this blog.

  8. umaid permalink
    30th September, 2010 6:40 AM

    hi kartikay thanks for the reply. This is meant to clarify your reply and my understanding of it. I would be extremely grateful for a response.

    I could have understood it in one of two ways, a) that the comments you mentioned are a result of what I wrote, i.e. you felt what you wrote at the end of what i wrote, which is just to say you interpreted what I said in the way that I did, in an agreeable fashion. b) to the contrary and especially with regard to your notes on the pessimism that you felt at the end of it, you may have felt that I may have, well, gone a bit wayward. This is with regard to the latter. and write this is, because it’s my piece of the puzzle.

    The helplessness ur feeling is not mine, its urs, its ours, its the situation we’re all in. This sounds all fruity and besides the point, but it is what it is. I actually didn’t attack the system, the loops in it work in my favor as i explained through examples. The point is I never said the system or ‘them’ is wrong. Infact thats what you implied in your essay when you said, ” Everyone’s invited, including criminals,” “You still get lavish gifts, but now ‘under’ the table” and “they can’t run the nation.” Further more you remarked that the best brains were running hedge funds and that we haven’t reached meritocracy yet, and on two occasions you have stated that becoming a leader of the administrative services is about looking out for yourself, not the people.

    The tone i wrote in could be confusing but it is in no way supposed to sound helpless(abuses included). Its the facts(which resound your statements quoted above), the way in which u respond determines how u feel about it. I hope you see the difference. Street smartness is not to be condemned in any way. It is actually, as the phrase implies, smart, a way out.

    Further more its not wrong to be street smart in the way I described and even further I hope you realize theres no feeling sorry for the street smart bloke since, he’s probably got a better understanding of where, who and what he’s about than me or you do.

    Ask ur self how those who make a difference actually make a difference, put urself in their shoes and tell me what they think. I’m sure u’ll be surprised at where you end up!

    • umaid permalink
      30th September, 2010 6:48 AM

      im sorry for the bad grammar, i tried to edit it but im still a bit hurried!

    • 30th September, 2010 7:33 PM

      Okay, okay, I get it! I guess I understood you incorrectly at first!

      I like the way you summarized it – “street smart”. In today’s world it’s not considered bad! Quite contrary, people advocate it.

      I have a small question though: why have people who’ve started NGOs, done some relief and generally made an effort to help others not joined the government? As a platform, the government is the best place to be if you want to help others. (Whether those people are street smart or not!).

      In the yester-years, kings were trained to be philanthropic!

  9. umaid permalink
    1st October, 2010 6:15 PM

    There are countless reasons. Firstly, ngos normally function in a very small area of choice, addressing issues that are relevant to it. So if I choose to join and Ngo like barefoot college tomorrow, i may do it because Im fascinated by the people of rajasthan, or because I like the idea of indigenous education and development or maybe even because I’m in awe of the people who run it. Next, making an entry is much more straight forward than sitting for an IAS exam. Thirdly, if I was motivated about helping people out in rajasthan in the way the ngo I wanted to work for was going about it, I dont want to deal with other court cases, reporting to seniors who have their own agendas and doing tonnes of paperwork which are of no greater significance to me than ross gellar on friends.

    In short ngo work is more directed, straightforward and will lead to a different sort of exposure. while simultaneous work with the government to make sure it functions to the cause’s advantage is paramount, there is a marked difference in the day to day activities of both.

    I suppose as you ask this question you have already concluded that you cant do as much for people working in the government as you can in ngo’s. This aint the case. Its just that some people can choose to intervene in different ways, and there are issues of scale, hierarchy and systemic/structural/legal obligations over direct involvement as I have outlined.

  10. umaid permalink
    1st October, 2010 6:21 PM

    also I am of the opinion that anyone who does anything does it for themselves. Mother teresa for example thought her work with street children in cal strengthened her bonds with god. She was a nun and god was what she wanted, its what made her feel happy and she managed to help people along the way………most if not all the people who end up making a difference begin here, i.e. the street smart ideal.


  1. RE: Kingdoms, India and Hope « Callous Caffeinated Conversations

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