Seven sins of hubris

The UPA committed them. The new government should avoid them.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: June 5, 2014 12:26:14 am
The UPA committed them. The new government should avoid them.PTI The UPA committed them. The new government should avoid them.PTI

The UPA committed them. The new government should avoid them.

The art of maintaining power is often different from the art of acquiring it. This is particularly true in a complex republic, where the people are constantly striving to overcome their present condition, changing the underlying realities in such a way that any ruling class that stands still will quickly meet its doom. The balance of considerations on the basis of which people judge their wellbeing is now less easy to discern. Governance is a subtle art, not easily reduced to abstract ideas. It is in the nature of power to corrupt those who hold it. But the most subtle form of corruption that power produces is making you lose your grip on reality: a sense of omniscience obscures the kind of knowledge needed to govern, and a sense of omnipotence does away with the need for subtle judgement. The overt corruptions of power and tyranny are easy to detect. It is the more subtle forms of hubris that have the more damaging effect. The previous government was felled by these subtler weaknesses that power can, insensibly, induce. Will the new one be able to avoid them?

First, the crisis of institutions is at the base of our discontent. In a complex society, a network of institutions is required to mediate conflict, project fairness and adjudicate truth. We had reached a point where every single institution, from Parliament to police, appeared dysfunctional, incapable of carrying out its mandate, a plaything of the powers that be. The dysfunction of institutions created a permanent sense of crisis, since there was little hope of credible resolution. Even local crime began to be pinned on larger political pathologies. Even our economic slowdown was due, in some measure, to the inability of institutions to adjudicate competing claims. It is tempting to bypass institutions for a short-term power boost. Claiming credit for personal virtue is very tempting; but when people detect vice they will also project it on you.

Second, one of the unremarked features of the previous government was the extent to which it was done in by a lawyerly approach to governance. It lost case after case on constitutional and regulatory matters, fuelled by the hubris and carelessness of the lawyers in its midst. But it is the sensibility towards governance that they represented that infected government like a virus. They fuelled the illusion that so long as you have an argument, you have a good argument. It promoted a legal culture given to casualness. In the process, due consideration of first principles, harmonisation with other parts of the law and projection of credibility rather than cleverness took a back seat. The hubris of power is that you think you can argue your case out of anything; effective governance requires not having to make a lawyerly case at all.

Third, contrary to what Keynes said, the long run does catch up with you. Most of the issues we have focused on have been about short-term boosts to growth. And the temptation to take the short cut is still dominant in our discourse. Growth will not, contrary to what some economists claim, take care of the environment. Our air and water are now irretrievable, imposing huge costs. Health and morbidity directly affect productivity. Power is susceptible to the illusion that the way to signal you are doing something is by throwing money at it. This might work in infrastructure and energy. But money is not the biggest issue in three transitions a new government has to accomplish: the transition from deals-based to rules-based capitalism, the transition from welfare to jobs and productivity, and balancing growth and sustainability. Even in education, money is not the big issue: institutions and pedagogy are. We don’t pay attention to them because their complexities puncture our hubris.

Fourth, macroeconomic credibility matters. The previous government made three mistakes born of hubris: that the laws of macro economics will not apply to India, that growth is India’s birthright and does not need to be nourished, ad hoc administrative interventions on everything from tax to regulation will not take a toll. But macro economic credibility once lost is hard to regain. This is because it is as much about a psychological projection of assurance about the future as it is about numbers.

Fifth, power itself creates a form of intellectual closure. One of the most disfiguring things about the Congress was the way it enfeebled intellectual culture within government and party. It was not overt censorship, but the creation of a culture where only what people thought leaders wanted to hear percolated up. Never had a leadership so cocooned itself in its own platitudes, so much so that even in the shock of defeat there is no thinking. But the insidious thing about this intellectual closure is that it can happen without direction. It is more likely to happen in a structure where all power is dependent on the top, no one stands on their own ground, intellectual or otherwise. The government was done in because it had no honest brokers left within its own system. Even someone as savvy and well-meaning like Nitish Kumar was done in by the fact that he began to believe in his own mystique, and forgot the contingent social alliance that made him possible.

Sixth, power is a function of projecting credible narratives over time. One of the big transitions governance has to make is replacing discretion with public reason. If the reasons why government is doing something are not apparent, half-believable, even correct decisions can become a liability. Indian governance systems are not used to public reason. In an age where transparency pressures are great, stealth will always carry the odour of suspicion. It is better to explain fully up front, than to have to explain away ex post.

Finally, there is hubris in seeing bad eggs in your midst as mere aberrations, as if belief in your own virtue can compensate for occasional lapses into evil. Rather than seeing these bad eggs as aberrations that can be contained, they must be recognised as poison that vitiates the whole. There might be something faintly comic in this claim in a political culture where politicians seem to outlive all their sins. But increasingly, it is clear that in public narratives, mistakes will get more play than success. The lasting image of a government will be defined not by its most competent faces, but its least competent ones. The peculiar dignity of this democracy is that it is out to get government. It is always good to remember that.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for
‘The Indian Express’

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