This edition of Express Adda held in Mumbai hosted Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Vice-Chancellor of Ashoka University and Contributing Editor, The Indian Express. In a discussion moderated by Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, The Indian Express, he spoke on how this has been an election of low expectations, the erosion of institutions and the challenges after the polls.
A high-stakes, low-expectation election
You get this very palpable sense that Indian political culture is at a very decisive moment, which could fundamentally alter the nature of our politics. If you do get five years of a consolidated (Narendra) Modi government, India will become an irrevocably majoritarian state. All basic assumptions we made about Indian democracy — that it has a tendency to move towards the centre, that it has a very distinctive model in the way it accommodates pluralism and diversity — will be up for grabs. The kind of centralisation of power you’ll see will upend a lot of our institutional checks and balances. In all these dimensions, it’s a very high-stake election but it’s a low-expectation election because given the high stakes, certainly that hasn’t concentrated the Opposition’s mind. Even in public discourse, we are finding excuses not to confront the high stakes in this election. We are not looking at a visionary alternative or an articulate opposition, or a return to basic constitutional principles, but just a little bit of balance of power. There’s no promise of acche din, there’s no visionary articulation even of the kind you saw bits of in the 2014 election.
On the weakening of institutions
The ideological convictions with which the BJP is proceeding and the ruthlessness in using any means possible to consolidate power are contributing in making institutions more fragile. If we step back from Modi a bit and look at it in a larger perspective, as a civil society, we need to confront some basic questions. The financial crisis of 2009 is actually a much more pivotal moment for Indian political culture than we realised. Firstly, because India experienced an economic slowdown and we don’t have a serious answer to the question: what is India’s model of development going to look like in five years from now? Between 2000 and 2008, when we had 8 per cent growth, we grew complacent. The second thing that 2009 did was to bring to the fore a trend that it delegitimised elites across the world and by elites, I mean all the classes that had disproportionate intellectual or symbolic capital. The elites of society have become corrupt or self-serving or out of tune. This kind of identification evokes attack on media, universities or intermediate institutions and it’s a crisis from which we haven’t recovered. When elites become delegitimised and we don’t have a confident economic story, it will create conditions for nationalism to take centerstage because that is the only unifying story and the carriers of nationalism are the people who should know better.
On crisis in the judiciary
The Supreme Court of India had become one of the most powerful courts in the world, powerful to the point that much against the spirit of the Constitution, it had almost arrogated all powers to itself. In that sense, it did not have the conventional constraints of executive interference, and that’s why its decline is even more calamitous. Part of the story the Supreme Court told to legitimise its arrogation of powers was that we are protecting the nation from executive interference. The narrative was that the legislature is dysfunctional, the executive is corrupt, and the judiciary is what stands between a constitutional culture and the people. The Supreme Court tried to become our first populist institution and by populist institution, I mean the idea that what is important to the legitimacy of that institution is not its mandate, is not the processes that make the institutions what they are and how you actually improve access to justice. The way you legitimise that institution is you actually cut through all forms of intermediation and legitimise yourself in popular eyes by actually making all processes instrumental to particular outcomes. We applauded that.
Then, the Supreme Court insinuated itself as an institute of anti-corruption and we applauded. But guess what, institutions are boring things — form matters, process matters and when we ourselves demonstrated that form, process does not matter, we created a culture that anything goes so long as the outcome is met. So the instrumentalisation of all processes to populist outcomes is something the court itself created and you can pull it off but in order to pull it off, you have to show exemplarity. The worst position is when you instrumentalise all the protections and norms of the legal process and do not yourself live up to exemplary conduct of the kind that is expected, that’s exactly the crisis we are at a head when the Supreme Court is arguably even in a worse crisis that it was in the post-Emergency era.
On the liberal intellectual space
The state universities were decimated 30 years ago, partly under the pressure of vernacularisation. But the consequence was that all the great regional universities became second-rate provincial universities. The very process which happened to regional universities where we said the primary purpose of a university is the enactment of a certain kind of identity politics, is percolating up to the central universities. The single most egregious example of decimation of a high-class university system was what the Left did in West Bengal. This was intellectual dismantling of a functioning system of a magnitude we have not seen anywhere else. We kind of said there will be these elite enclaves like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University that will survive what Patna University and Rajasthan University and Allahabad and Calcutta University went through 25-30 years ago.
The second most specific twist to it is that there is something about the liberal construct of Indian politics that it has a selection bias on a couple of hypothesis. Have we made tactical mistakes in the way we have not examined our own narratives of Indian politics? The activity in writing history with an eye towards constructing future was a methodological mistake on the part of historians. It gave the Right exactly the opening that it needed. But having said that, these pathologies afflict all university systems but, of course, the Right’s response is so disproportionate that we have now reached a state where the ideological attempt will be to nationalise all thought. The two characteristics of insentient tyranny are to nationalise all thought. And the second thing is that society must be in the mode of permanently mobilising enthusiasm for holders in power. This is completely unprecedented in the attack on the Indian university system.
On what’s common between Indian and global angry nationalism
What it shares is that all the populism comes out of a backdrop of economic anxiety. In some senses, populism is the sense that a small section of the elite is exercising disproportionate power. The anti-elitism is common, the anti-intellectualism is common and what is also common is that the idea that because your institutions are corrupt, elites are corrupt, the only form of power that can regenerate society is unmediated personification through a leader. What is distinctive about the Indian context and what makes it more ominous is that there is a kind of communal narrative about Indian history that has been in play since 1857. You have a strain in Indian politics that says whatever democracy may mean, it must mean that the Hindu majority must never ever lose power again. If you think about that statement, think about what it means: first of all, it means demography is important to that imagination and that’s why this great concern about conversion and love-jihad. It also means the construction of majority as a unified single identity because otherwise it doesn’t function as a political category. In order to do that, you have to paper over internal conflicts within the Hindu society. And one of the reasons why there is so much upper-caste consolidation behind the BJP is in part this anxiety whether hitherto privileged cultural communities can actually retain some kind of grip over defining Indian culture or does that have to give way to something more radical. What’s worrying is how communalism and bigotry are getting normalised under another name of nationalism.
On what will get us out of this moment
Even if the BJP’s power is diminished in this election, what makes it a distinctive moment is its civil society penetration and the ideology it represents. It can mobilise five million RSS workers and has become the new normal across a range of institutions — from universities to courts to the Armed Forces. In fact, the real challenge will begin after the election. The first step is just recognising the fact that there is something much deeper going on which is beyond electoral politics in how we want to define our relationship with other citizens. The second step is that we will have to reset the intellectual terms of debate quite radically. And by reset, I mean we are at this extraordinary conjuncture where almost all the political language that we use to debate and discuss is deeply compromised. Liberal has become a bad word, completely compromised. Secularism has become a bad word and there has been such an ideological mystification around what these values represent, that particularly in these circles — academia, journalism and media , we almost have to go to first principles to say what is it that we are actually defending here. It has become such a bad word that even the opposition does not want to be identified as liberal or secular anymore. We are straining to recover that language and vocabulary. This is going to be a long intellectual haul. The third bit, which is that in times of political crisis, you need to build coalitions and think much more broadly.
On the points of hope
Sources of disenchantment and resistance or the need for it, is still a very powerful undercurrent in Indian society. There are marginalised groups that will assert themselves in one form or the other. The challenge they are having at the moment is that there is no credible articulation. My own sense is that the undercurrent of resistance is there but the structures of mediation still have not woken up to the possibilities of tapping into those. The second undercurrent in this election is that a lot of people who claim to be supporting Modi seem to be relatively clear in their recognition that he actually has not delivered much of what he has promised. In fact, it is not the kind of euphoric endorsement. It is “there is no other alternative” or frankly, we are just trying to find an excuse to vent. The political, intellectual and social spaces are there, it is just that our institutions, political parties and universities have been so moribund in responding to them, we have become much more defeatist. Maybe, this election will jolt us out of this.
On the narrative of India’s rise in the global arena
Social media provides an opportunity for unmediated narrative dominance, which is why Modi does not need journalists and press conferences. Even now, the Congress party is in the stone age in thinking about what it actually means for repertoires of politics. It cannot even tell its own story, and say look, under Manmohan Singh government, more groups were blacklisted internationally, which this government has been struggling to do. It cannot even go out and say Kashmir is a lot more precarious now than it was five years ago. The question we need to ask is what is it about our sense of anxiety and fragility that the most trivial or illusory of international achievements seem like a great victory of national self-esteem.
On the the crisis in our education system
Education has been an abysmal failure of the modern Indian state. India’s education performance is still shockingly low on any level of global achievement. Is education equipping our citizens to participate in a modern productive economy? Clearly not. There is often an undercurrent that associates the lack of education or failure of education with the receptivity to politics of communalism and nationalism. Empirically, the opposite is almost always true. Institutions are not destroyed by masses, but by elites. The most virulent forms of nationalism are almost always carried by the vanguard of the middle class. If the implication of the question is that ‘will simply educating people be a solution to the problem’, history is a bit more pessimistic.
Dilip D’Souza: writer and columnist
This is the first time in many years I have lived and grown up in this country that I truly feel afraid of having the name that I do. I want to know what is my protection, going forward?
I can’t give an easy answer. To be honest with you, I can’t even imagine being in a position like that. The important thing is that in a constitutional democracy, the cardinal principle has to be that you cannot target someone simply because of who they are. That is the first sin. The second is that we are aligning the rights that citizens have with the identities they possess. The third sin, which is even more egregious, is that we are imposing those identities on them.
Girish Luthra: Vice-Admiral (retired)
You spoke about narrative dominance becoming an important theme and you referred to social media. What gets communicated through social media is symbolism. How can substance be brought back?
An interesting thing about social media is that it is a great democratising force. Second, it demands a certain kind of immediacy. What social media has done to public discourse is that the populist style of politics and the discursive architecture of social media now mirror each other. Frankly, none of us wants to wait five minutes before a fact is verified. It has broken down the distinction between public and private. The nice thing about this is that it allows for a bit of hypocrisy, which is a good thing for democracy.
Kishore Mandhyan: co-convenor, maharashtra, Aam Aadmi Party
Has there been or is there an authentic liberal politics ever, in the real sense of the term?
The threat to liberalism now is nationalism. The two axes of threats is social conservatism vs liberalism, and the source of illiberalism, where you say we are going to target people for being who they are, irrespective of their values and identities. The core value of liberalism is where you feel resentful at others imposing something upon you, which you do not consent to, but can you extend this courtesy to every single individual? It has been a failing on our part that we have been caught up in these abstract debates about secularism and liberalism.
Deepak Sethi: Owner-founder, Solutions.QED
How do you think the CJI and sexual harassment case will play out?
To me, the worrying thing about the judiciary is that we have gone through a series of successive controversies. First, it was the press conference and then it was (Chief Justice) Deepak Misra. Everything the Supreme Court has done in this case, the way it has handled the harassment, the so-called conspiracy charge, under what law was this bench constituted, do you take suo moto cognizance of a Facebook post, it just doesn’t inspire confidence that it has the mechanisms in place to get to the bottom of the story. —Express Features Service
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