Our State Religion is the State

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today, a new paper started in Delhi by India Today and The Daily Mail. You can download a pdf here.

“Thank God India doesn’t have a state religion,” a friend of mine said to me a couple of days ago.

“Indeed,” I replied. We’re both secular, in the original sense of the word, and believe in the separation of church and state. Religion, we believe, should be restricted to the private domain. It should not be forced upon anyone. And so on.

And then it struck me that for all this talk of separating church and state, we might just be missing one important thing: in India, the state is the church.

We constrain ourselves sometimes by thinking of religion in terms of Hinduism and Islam and so on. In my view, India does have a state religion. That state religion is the state.

This particular religion is more pervasive than any other. It cannot be restricted to the personal domain, and necessarily intrudes upon us all. It does not depend on voluntary donations from the devout, but forcibly extorts money from everyone. The God it evokes exists, and is dangerous, and is almost always malevolent, though perhaps not willfully so.

Just like traditionally religious people turn to God for every problem they have, devotees of the state believe that the state holds the solution to everything. They believe in its omniscience, and do all they can to ensure its omnipotence. They are blind to its faults, or rationalise them away. There is no arguing with them, just as there is no arguing with the devout of any religion. They demonise other systems of belief, and look upon non-believers with contempt, as if they are a lesser class of being, devoid of the moral goodness that the believers are filled with.


In a liberal democracy, the state is supposed to be the servant of its people – and nothing else. The fundamental function of the state should be to protect individual rights. Indeed, that is where the justification of the state comes from: we give it power over us, and pay it taxes, so that it makes sure no one infringes our rights. We have elections so that we keep it accountable and remain in charge.

All this is theory.

In practice, government has reversed the intended order of things. The state is now the master – we are at its mercy. We must do as it says. It exerts authority over us, and we must not question its rights, instead of the other way around.

How did this happen? Well, governments consist of people who react to incentives the same way as normal citizens do. They look after their self-interest first. And the incentives of politicians and bureaucrats are simply not aligned with our original intent for creating the state.

Consider politicians. A career in politics is dominated by the lust for power, and when it is achieved, it always comes at a cost. To rise in politics, one must cater to special-interest groups. These could be votebanks based on identity politics or special lobbies with deep pockets. Ultimately, politicians and their parties need money to contest elections. And they need votebanks to win them.

When they come to power, there are obviously dues to be paid. Those dues are paid by us.

Say, for example, widget manufacturers want the government to give it subsidies worth Rs100 crore a year. There’s a lot at stake at them. They put in funds to help politicians like Widget Prasad Yadav and M Widgetanidhi fight elections. Both of them win, and become influential players in government, if not in charge of it. They allot the subsidies. That Rs100 crore comes from our taxes.

Do we complain? No. At a personal level, all I pay for the widget industry comes to just a few rupees, or even a few paise, of my taxes. (The government does not give me an itemised expenditure report, so I don’t even know the exact sum.) Why would I bother to protest, or fight?

On the other hand, the widget industry will put a lot of effort into getting those subsidies. My cost is low so I don’t protest. Their benefit is high, so they push the case.

And so, across industries, and votebanks that are granted different kinds of favours in different ways, chunks of my taxes are wasted away. Government spending expands. So does government.

Bureaucrats also have reason to grow the government. A bureaucrat’s self-interest will always arise from expanding his power. He will want greater budgets and bigger departments, irrelevant of whether they’re actually needed.

And then, as Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands to fill the time available.”

All of this, of course, can be rationalised by politicians and bureaucrats as being good for the nation. And so government grows and grows.


There is a great quote by David Boaz that accurately describes the political spectrum: “Conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Liberals want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in, and wiping your nose. Libertarians want to treat you as an adult.”

(The liberals being spoken of here, of course, are not the classical liberals who believe in individual freedom, but the American liberals, who believe in a big state. How the term has been corrupted!)

In India, we have had a mai-baap government since our independence. Politicians and interest groups have become expert at imposing their preferences on others through the state. They do this not just for direct profit of a material sort, but also to bolster their self-image.

Political ideology can often just be a means for demonstrating one’s compassion – and the state a tool. Say I want to perceive myself as compassionate, and want others to see me that way. There is only so much I can do with my own money. So I bring other people’s money into play. Poor people must be fed: the government should do it. Poor people must have jobs: the government should guarantee them employment. The arts must be promoted, sports must be promoted: the government should subsidize them. Bar dancers and rickshaw pullers have degrading jobs: the government should ban those professions. And so on.

Never mind that the solution in many of these cases worsens the problem. All government spending has a cost, for it imposes a burden on the taxpayer, and acts as a disincentive to hard work and business expansion. It may, thus, harm the economy and its intended beneficiaries more than it helps.

And bar dancers denied of their first choice of employment might well be forced into prostitution, as empirical studies have shown to often be the case.

But the outcome is never the point: only the intent is. The intent shows compassion, and makes us feel good about ourself. That’s what matters.


It is ironical that the state, which in theory is supposed to look after the rights of its citizens, actually infringes on so many of them itself. The daddy state restrains our freedom; the mommy state misuses its power. The consequences of this are sometimes visibly harmful. So what do the devotees of the state say?

Well, the religious man who loses everything often prays to the very God who supposedly put him in that spot. Similarly, devotees of the state, whenever failures of government are brought to their notice, turn to the state itself for a solution. Is the government not doing its job well enough? Expand its power, they say. Put more people on the job, at public expense. Every solution to government failure is held to lie in government itself, for government can do no wrong. Sure, people are fallible, but government, magically, is held to be something greater than the sum of its flawed parts.

If this is not blind faith, I don’t know what is.

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Related pieces by me:

A Beast Called Government
The Devil’s Compassion
Mommy-Daddy, go away!
The Republic of Apathy
Nadiraji Wants Your Money

You can read more essays by me in my Essays and Op-Eds archive. Also read: my previous piece for Mail Today, The Hypocrisy of Indian Politics.