Aurangzeb a bad ruler but Narendra Modi could be repeating his mistakes

Bad rulers of the Ming Dynasty, the Mughal Empire, Roman Empire, and the Venetian Republic precipitated the collapse of their polities and empire, points out a research paper

Aurangzeb a bad ruler but Narendra Modi could be repeating his mistakes

Sonali Ranade

“Yatha Raja, Tatha Praja” is a popular Sanskrit aphorism that describes the connection between the ruler and the ruled.  This raises an intriguing question. What happens when the ruler is seen not following the moral codes that have governed the ruler’s polity?

Richard E Blanton et al, in a recent research paper, have found a profound link between disruption in prevalent moral codes by rulers, that was followed by collapse of the polity, which suggests that a disruption of morality that binds a polity together, leads to severe disruptions that eventually ends in its collapse by decay, invasion or civil wars.

The cited paper can be read here:

One of the four cases in which they were able to establish such a causal link between immorality of the ruler, and subsequent collapse of his empire, was that of Aurangzeb, who ruled India between 1658 to 1707 AD. Aurangzeb, so upturned the moral codes set by Akbar, in building up and governing his empire that it unraveled the consensus that bound his subjects together, resulting in thousands of mutinies, big and small, that so weakened the empire, that it was unable to resist a few thousand soldiers of the East India Company, a scant 100 years after his death.

Disrupting the moral codes, and the social contract that binds successful polities together, is something fraught with grave danger. Could Narendra Modi, in his hurry to establish his Hindu Rashtra, be repeating Aurangzeb’s errors in upturning an established consensus, enshrined in our Constitution, by tearing up its implicit secular social contract? Is he committing a blunder by its substitution with one that views minorities as less equal citizens than Hindus?

But first let us examine what Collective Action Theory [CAT] is all about, and its links to the moral codes that govern a society.

CAT basically posits that all coherent and successful polities, whatever their governance structure, despotic or democratic, have the following elements:

  • A revenue system that is able to gather resources or taxes from subjects, according to some fair rule, and deploy these resources for provision of public goods that subjects by themselves cannot produce, but those that all can use.
  • The polity is able to set up an independent civil service, to oversee collection of revenues, detect and bring free riders into compliance, punish delinquents, and enforce agreed rules for use of public goods. This includes judicial officers to settle disputes quickly and fairly.
  • The polity has adequate checks and balances to ensure people are heard, and where the rulers are in some fashion responsive to the needs of the subjects; indeed bad rulers get punished if they are corrupt, grossly unfair or otherwise inept.  This may happen internally, like when the ruling family intervenes to check a delinquent prince, or it may be in a more formally established impeachment process.  Even despots, in order to rule, have to have a way of listening to and accommodating the needs of the ruled.

Without these three essential elements in a polity, there would be no coherence, no mechanism to determine collective will, and no resources to implement such a will collectively. What keeps the polity welded together, and coherent, is that these three elements, essential to sustaining the polity, get imbedded deeply into its moral codes and cultural practices, such that carrying out obligations required from rulers and the ruled become a part of tradition, indeed culture itself.

When the moral codes become so deeply embedded in the culture, the cost of compliance drops, freeing more resources for public goods, that helps bind people even more closely.  A stable society has to remain in this virtuous circle of declining cost of compliance, more public goods, and stronger social bonding.  If not, the polity frays, and a reverse vicious cycle begins.  Maintaining the virtuous cycle is what good governance is all about.


Blanton et al studied four pre-modern polities, using the CAT model, where there was clear statistical evidence, [using the global integrity variables] that these polities collapsed subsequent to a bad ruler, disrupting their established moral codes.  These four case studies are the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], the Mughal Empire [1556-1760], Roman Empire [0001-0192, and the Venetian Republic [1300-1797].

The paper discusses their findings with respect to each empire studied.  Here I shall be concerned with the Mughal Empire only.

Blanton et al hold that Akbar was the main modern state builder in the Mughal dynasty.  He established a moral code to weld disparate religions together in the polity.

“A religious ecumenism termed “universal peace” was a key principle of Mughal state-building introduced by the notable state-builder Akbar, with the goal to enhance possibilities for public reasoning in a religiously pluralistic society.”

Blanton quotes Sen, an economist, “Akbar laid the foundations of secular legal structure and religious neutrality of the state, which included the duty to ensure that ‘no man be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is allowed to go to a religion that pleases him.”

Elimination of day-to-day religious friction and conflict enabled recruitment of Hindus into government service and maintenance of good relations with Hindu leaders.

“The universal peace was combined with other good government policies including the provision of governing capacity for equitable taxation, public goods, and control over administrative corruption. These policies and practices resulted in a phase of political unification across much of South Asia that lasted for a century.”

Aurangzeb, however, disrupted this century old consensus maintained through two generations and, under the influence of clerics, wrecked the prevailing moral codes. “They convinced him to abandon the universal peace and to foreground Islam as the central religion of the empire. In doing so he antagonized the empire's substantial Hindu population (for example, by taxing Hindus more than Muslims and by approving the destruction of new temples), which in turn discredited the central authorities, initiating a period of political, social, and demographic decline and growing corruption. Revolts, plummeting agrarian production, and population decline soon followed. By the mid-eighteenth century, the empire was militarily unable to respond to inroads made by the English East India Company.”

In all four cases studied by Blanton et all, the story is the same.  A visionary eliminates day to day friction and conflict in the polity by uniting the people around a shared vision, coopts all sections into governance, drives down the cost of collecting resources and maintaining society free of conflict, while expanding the supply of public goods that creates more incentives for people to cooperate and coalesce in the polity.

A few hundred years later, or sometimes more, a disruptor comes to power.  Either through personal corruption, as in the case of Ming ruler Chia-Ching, or through bigotry and religious partisanship, as in the case Aurangzeb, ineptitude and corruption, exemplified by Commodus in the Roman Empire, or Giovani Corner’s family corruption, as in case of the Venetian Republic, this moral code that unites conflicted people is violated, and the downward vicious spiral begins, that ultimately results in invasion, civil war or long periods of decay amidst anarchy.

The inescapable conclusion here is that rulers who forget why a successful moral code was put in place, run the risk of resurfacing past deeply embedded conflicts.

There is no way to redo history.  The past conflicts are always there.  Moral codes that help transcend them shouldn’t be discarded.  When you do, the consequent disruption and resultant friction cause cost of governance to rise steeply, leaving less and less for public goods until the moral codes that incentivise coherence are completely disrupted and cause the polity to unravel.

What is worth noting here is that there is no straight-forward connection between Aurangzeb’s jettisoning religious neutrality and Hindu rebellion.  It doesn’t work that way.  Instead, the disruption is more subtle and drawn out in time, with a small mutiny here, a little tax revolt there, small insurgencies that never seem to go away, and an increasing expenditure on security to keep the polity together.  This in turn reduces tax compliance on one hand, and leaves too little for public goods on the other.  It is then the embedded moral codes and traditions that keep things going come unhinged and polity dissolves into near functioning- anarchy, ripe for civil war or invasion.

Aurangzeb a bad ruler but Narendra Modi could be repeating his mistakes


How does our experience of over seven years of Narendra Modi’s rule, fit into the Collective Action Theory of the stability of polity? This is something worth examining in light of the lessons available from history, under Aurangzeb rule.

Recall, CAT in its essence applies to all kinds of regimes, whether despotic or democratic.

Equality before law has clearly been disrupted under Modi’s rule in a fashion not unlike that under Aurangzeb.  Fraternity has disappeared. Consider.

CAA clearly sought to subtly downgrade Muslims to a status less equal to that of others.  In the cow belt, this diminution in the status is no longer a matter of debate. Instead, it is being deliberately rubbed into their face through such discriminatory legislation as Love Jihad.  Muslim access to jobs, housing, business opportunities, land for farming etc. has diminished and continues to shrink.

Aakar Patel has documented how laws have been fashioned to exclude Muslims from housing even in upper class residential areas.  The Muslim is being systematically bludgeoned and pushed into ghettoes. Clearly, despite tall claims about secularism being encoded in Hindu DNA, a cardinal principle of the state for the last 70 years - that of a secular state that guarantees equal respect to all citizens - has been jettisoned in practice.  Cases of selective application of laws continue to multiply. It is fair to say that 15% of our citizens no longer trust the state as before.

Equality before the law has also diminished in the case of Dalits and Adivasis.  The reservations guaranteed them are being surreptitiously circumscribed.  Their educational opportunities are shrinking, scholarships mysteriously go without allocated funds, the 50% open seats have suddenly morphed into a reservation for upper castes. Atrocities against Dalits, their exclusion from Bastis, discrimination against them by the administration, are the stuff of daily headlines.

Add 15% Dalits and Adivasis to the list of the disadvantaged citizen and we have one in three citizens with a valid grievance against the state. Add women, migrant labour, farmers, even jobless urban youth, and the number of disaffected citizens with irreconcilable grievances against Modi rule is simply mind boggling.  Never was disaffection this pervasive since independence.

Added to this disaffection is the treatment of dissent and political adversaries.  Modi has scorched the middle ground between his partisans, and the political opposition and civil society dissenter.  Shared truth has disappeared.  Even routine admissions into hospitals have become polarised and poisoned by politics.  More and more, we see Government has to resort to the coercive apparatus of the state to get its writ to prevail.

Meanwhile, our adversaries are watching the rising disaffection, and stretching out our security apparatus.  Friends and foes alike are driving up our security expenditure beyond the affordable, shrinking what is available for production and distribution of public goods. This is the beginning of the classic vicious circle that takes hold to keep things going from bad to worse.

Suboptimal strategies at home with respect to minorities have already isolated us in our immediate neighbourhood, who will all find it profitable to engage China to squeeze us.  Pakistan is only one such player.

A blinkered reading of the nature of global world order combined with lack of insights into what drives international relations in the compete-and-collaborate paradigm of the modern commerce-driven world, means we are out of practically every major trading block, save the dysfunctional WTO.

Of all the ironies, we can’t manage a simple trade agreement with our global strategic partner, the US, because Modi’s wrong domestic policies that must protect the interests of crony capitalists even before those of the nation.

As economic growth tapers off due to internal trust deficit, lack of coherence, and stability in domestic economic policies, Modi has been forced to drain ever increasing resources from the bottom half of the income pyramid in order to channel increasing subsidies to corporate cronies via higher trade tariffs, Production Linked Incentives, lowered taxes, etc.

On the other hand, to stay in power, Modi has been forced to increase outlays on freebies to certain highly visible sections of the public.  Modi has thus shifted a significant burden of taxation from the rich and the corporate sector to the middle and lower middle classes using sin taxes, a flawed GST, and humongous duties and levies on petroleum products.  This regressive tax regime will further shrink growth, and reduce the cake available for more public goods.

In every case you see, the dreaded vicious cycle of lower growth, shrinking availability of surplus for pubic goods, fraying social bonds necessitating higher security expenses, increased taxation of those who can’t afford to pay through surreptitious indirect taxes, etc. is falling in place and taking a choke-hold on the polity.

Yet Narendra Modi continues to be oblivious to the fallout of his sub-optimal policies, simply because he has a humongous propaganda machine, and an unlimited and exclusive access to huge anonymous funds for fighting elections. The propaganda machine and unlimited but anonymous funding for elections have effectively broken the final check that public has on wayward politicians.  Together, they mean the ruler need not hear the distressed cries of his people.

Incidentally Blanton et al link the 400-year longevity of the Venetian empire, compared to 100 odd years of the rest, to the impeachment process against the Dego rulers, put in place by the Venetian public.  This ability to force the ruler to listen to people, was the final check on his powers.

It is also the final check in a democracy. Narendra Modi has short-circuited this ultimate check with his cacophonous propaganda machine plus unlimited, exclusive, and anonymous election funding.  No checks remain in place to arrest the downward spiral already underway.

Crony capitalism, anonymous electoral bonds, and the cooption of media plus owned propaganda machine, with unlimited funds, create very strong incentives for sheltering oligopolistic profits of cronies.  This completes the positive feedback loop in the vicious cycle.

In time, the distress in the polity will be uncontainable under normal laws of the land. A wider application of draconian laws like UAPA will become necessary in a rather arbitrary manner, making nonsense of any developmental agenda or Vikas.  Soon even this window will slam shut with a sinking water table bringing on desertification.

Aurangzeb’s dystopia stares us in the face again, with no East India Company to “save” us.

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Published: 18 Jan 2021, 12:55 PM