The difference between ‘Government’ and ‘State’

By Aejaz Ahmad
Certain aspects of politics can be visible only to critical eyes. Consider the case of the current global political economy. The contemporary politics and economics of the globalised world is so complex and tangled that it is perhaps impossible for a layman to understand its operations. As a matter of fact, this is one of the peculiar drawbacks of today’s representative democracies that they engender a kind of indifference among the common people towards politics. It is, therefore, not surprising that many Americans, who are otherwise literate, consistently rate high on ignorance about their own country and world affairs. Literacy does not make people meaningful citizens in a democracy, rather it is a right kind of political education that does.
Perhaps, it vindicates Plato’s defense of ‘reason’ as an appropriate way to politics. Plato can be charged with bracketing a certain category who can ‘reason’ about anything, but when we look at our own times, we find such a fallacy can be rectified by disseminating political education among the people who thereby can at least understand contemporary political life, if  not take charge of it. By denying this type of political education to people, those at the helm of political affairs hold the power to calibrate and recalibrate political tools to their benefits, without even letting people understand it.
Ever since debates on intolerance in India started, the backdrop of multiple lynchings, communalisation of the public sphere, systematic killings of rationalists and so on, several serious  issues have been brought to the fore, such as importance of tolerance as a political value, need to combat communal politics and parties that engender it and other significant freedoms. In these debates, right wing groups including the BJP were/are frequently resorting to the ‘politics of labeling’. Some such labels are: sickular’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘anti-national’, ‘traitors’; while the label of ‘anti-national’ is the most crucial label being widely used.
We must try and understand the underpinnings of these labels and their impact in terms of how these generate a new type of ‘ultra nationalist discourse’. At a deeper level, what is at stake is not the issue of tolerance or intolerance per se, rather the essential issue is whether the government being castigated for shielding communal forces is immune from such criticisms because it runs the state and that any such criticism will be treated as anti-state. Here, we find there are active forces attempting to blur the meaningful differences that exist between state and the government, a difference that is incomprehensible to most people.
As the debates on intolerance sparked off, several BJP and RSS leaders repeatedly branded those protesting rising intolerance under the BJP government as ‘anti-nationals’, even as others asked them to ‘move to Pakistan’, while yet others castigated them for ‘tarnishing India’s image’ globally. While these debates touched on obvious issues, the ‘anti-national’ label makes the debate essentially serious. A series of questions can be posed. How does criticising a particular government make one ‘anti-national or anti-state’?  Are the terms ‘State’ and ‘Government’ synonymous? One of the crucial issues in contemporary India is that these forces have been attempting to blur the differences between the concepts of government and the state. While this difference may appear useless to a layman, those who understand this difference can well imagine the dangers this marriage can pose.
The discourse on intolerance today has evidently been pointing to this difference. All those who castigated BJP and its associates were purportedly called ‘anti-national’ thanks to this marriage between government and the state. It must be noted that both state and government are different entities although intricately intertwined. Criticism directed against the government quickly gets trolled as ‘anti-state’. If we continue to treat government and state as one and the same thing, then the concept of ‘dissent’ which is the most meaningful tool in the hands of the common people, becomes empty and hollow. Can we imagine ‘dissent’ if there is a persistent deconstruction of every act as ‘anti-state’? This is the same government-state marriage which marks the coercive discourse wherein everyone who talks about the rights of tribals or the abuse of the environment by corporate companies are put into the ‘anti-state domain’. In this context, it also seems that the regime is continuously taking recourse to the government-state marriage which shields it from meaningful dissent which aims to rectify the defects and not to derail the government per se.
Another characteristic of this emergent situation is the way it has unleashed a particular sort of discourse which is binary in nature.  The process of “othering” is the very core of these discourses. Be it a religious aspect, caste, development, the perennial construction of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is persistent.  In the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush propounded a pernicious phraseology “Those who are not with us, are against us”, which is often attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels of Mathews, Mark and Luke, though Bush’s connotation was entirely different.  Eventually, it became a cornerstone of American foreign policy.  In similar vein, this phraseology is being used in India.  Ever since the discourse of intolerance started in India, particularly after the gruesome Dadri lynching, BJP and company have been attempting to frame this discourse as between BJP (government) and the Congress. From Arun Jaitley’s remarks of “rabid anti-BJP elements” to other attempts to put Congress clothes on all those who protested against the rising intolerance, the process of dualisation of the discourse is evident.
The possibility of debating issues like intolerance on a purely secular edifice is outrightly sidelined. One cannot compartmentalise this whole debate into a fight between BJP and Congress, and if they do they are essentially denying the autonomous agency of millions of Indians who don’t identify themselves with either BJP or the Congress.  There can be arguments against BJP, yet not from the Congress quarters. The strategy of the BJP seems to relegate all its opponents to the Congress stable. Thus, in this binary discourse, the possibility of having an alternative voice is a casualty.
While state and sovereignty are essentially abstract concepts, it the government that runs the state and through it exercises sovereignty; so they are essentially dependent on each other. One can’t have an existence without the other. However, here lies the meaningful difference. Government is a temporary entity in the sense that it comes and goes, but state is permanent in that it is perpetual in existence. In the constitutional realm, each of them is rule-bound and not at all unlimited or arbitrary. There can be a situation when government departs from the rules that it is supposed to obey or when it assumes the ambivalent shape of the state itself. Under these circumstances, it is the duty of all and sundry to correct it and remind it of its purpose.
If the state is government and government is state, there is no scope for modern citizenship and democracy. This is what dissent is all about. Those who use the anti-state rhetoric against meaningful criticism have constantly been attempting to take this meaningful difference away from public memory. Let’s preserve this difference.
—The writer is at the department of political science, University of Delhi