Grand Tamasha

Pratap Bhanu Mehta on Indian Democracy at 73

Episode Summary

In the season four premiere, Pratap Bhanu Mehta joins Milan for a wide-ranging conversation on India’s past, present, and future.

Episode Notes

On August 15, 2020, India celebrated its 73rd birthday. To reflect on the state of Indian democracy and to kick off the podcast’s fourth season, Pratap Bhanu Mehta joins Milan for a wide-ranging conversation on India’s past, present, and future.

Pratap is a professor of political science at Ashoka University and contributing editor and columnist at the Indian Express. He is a noted author, scholar, and commentator, not to mention arguably India’s finest public intellectual.

Pratap and Milan discuss what the COVID crisis says about Indian democracy, the future of secularism in India, the popular yearning for strongman rule, and the maladies plaguing India’s rule of law institutions. 


Episode Transcription

Milan Vaishnav 00:11

Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This is the very first episode of our fourth season, and we're excited to be back on the air. It's been a very long, very hot, very difficult summer in so many ways, but we hope that all of you are safe and healthy. As all of you know, on August 15, India celebrated its 73rd birthday. To reflect on the state of Indian democracy and to kick off our new season, I can think of no one better to have on the show than the man I believe is arguably India's foremost public intellectual. Our guest today is Pratap Bhanu Mehta, noted author, scholar, professor, and, importantly—and I think this doesn't get emphasized enough—mentor to so many of India's finest young academic minds. Pratap is professor at Ashoka University and a contributing editor and columnist at The Indian Express. I've wanted to have him on the podcast for so very long, and it's a real pleasure to have him on for the very first time. Pratap, thank you for taking the time and coming on the show. 


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  01:08

Thank you. It's a real honor to be here, and frankly, it's a little intimidating talking to you. I think you are now sort of “Mr. Indian democracy” in so many ways. So, I hope to learn from you. 


Milan Vaishnav 01:20

Well, thank you for saying that. First of all, just before we get into it, we've all been kind of stuck in our homes and our confines—how are you and your family managing during this COVID period?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  01:35

Look, to be honest, we are very privileged in so many ways, including being in a profession where you actually still have a job. I think it's something you're quite grateful for, and I think the academics are, in some senses, best suited to this lifestyle. So, at one level, I think the daily routine seems more like daily routines during normal times without the commute. On a personal level, I don't think we have too much to complain about, to be honest. Obviously, you know, not being able to have my annual cup of coffee or dinner with you in Washington D.C. is something I'm missing. But hopefully that time should come soon as well.


Milan Vaishnav02:21

Pratap, there are so many different places that you and I could start this conversation. Let me just pick an arbitrary point. The COVID crisis in India continues to spread with no signs of letting up any time soon, much like in my own country, the United States. Both of our countries along with a couple of others are still in the eye of the storm, as it were. There's been a lot of commentary, a lot written about whether democratic regimes or autocratic regimes have managed this crisis better. I want to slightly reframe that question and ask you the following. As you sit back and reflect, what are some of the lessons that the COVID crisis has taught you about Indian democracy—the functioning and the patterns of operations of Indian democracy?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  03:11

That's a really fascinating question. I think the contrasts between India and the US are also interesting. To me the most surprising thing—or maybe we shouldn't have been surprised, but I think it's been brought out with a starkness that we had not anticipated—is how undemanding we are as citizens. I mean, just to put things in perspective, when you had a lockdown, you heard about 200 million migrant workers stranded, in many cases stripped of their dignity and livelihood, with incredible uncertainty over what the future was going to be. And still no serious anger or revulsion against the system, the array. I mean, we always knew in a sense that they were invisible, that they were marginal to our collective political lives. But if in a crisis like this, and with the kind of precarious situation in which they were put in, if even after that you do not have the mobilization of civil society or something demanding a more accountable government... I think there is an extraordinary degree of undemanding-ness here, that frankly, I think I was surprised by. Even though at some level, it was, I think, to be expected. The second thing which was surprising, which is the flip side of it, is the sheer executive power that governments have in a democracy. And to be fair, I mean, I think in contrast with the US, the Indian government did acknowledge the pandemic, it did go in for a severe lockdown early on. We can argue how well it was implemented and so forth. But the rapidity with which it began to acquire powers, without resistance, without accountability, without clear legal sanction or mandate—I think that was also surprising. Yes, this is an exceptional situation, and in exceptional situations, citizens are apt to cut their executives a lot of slack. But I think the fact that our governments can do what it can do—pretty much shut down anything it wants without accountability or legal sanction—I think tells you something about how concentrated executive power is.


Milan Vaishnav05:45

Now one of the things that I've been struck by in the American experience—and I don't know what your perspective would be on it in an Indian context—is that one of the things that Americans have been celebrated for, that American democracy has been celebrated for, is a sense of civic community and social capital, going back to de Tocqueville. And what's so concerning to me is, for example, you hear this inability of people to understand wearing a mask. But it's not about you, it's about somebody else, too, and making a small sacrifice in your life for the greater common good. Obviously, there's a lot of heterogeneity, a lot of variation in the country, but there seems to be a kind of core civic-ness that I feel like we've lost. I don't know if you feel that sense of civic-ness has been retained in India or not.


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  06:49

Two thoughts on that. One, in the case of the US—and I think this would make a nice comparison with India—the US has always had two strains. You've had the civic culture and civic community strain, with strong association in life and strong voluntary associations. But you've also had the extreme libertarian ideological strain, which is, in some senses, anti-statist to a fault. There's almost a sense that heaven would not be heaven if it came from the state. And I think that in this crisis, you see the collision of both, and with the ascendance of Donald Trump, that anti-statist strand, that extreme individualist strand, has become ascendant. And in a hyper politicized environment, almost everything, even basic epidemiological knowledge, is considered with a taint of suspicion. I think in India, the challenge was slightly different, which is that the state did acknowledge the scale of the pandemic, and by and large when the state has given commands, the people have obeyed. In fact, many would have many argued that, in some sense, we obeyed too well, sometimes not asking the right kinds of questions. And I think what you did see in the early stages of the pandemic, frankly, was a lot of really extraordinary civil society action. In fact, the humanitarian catastrophe that would have resulted because of the lockdown would have been far more severe if you did not have this astonishing range of civil society groups, religious groups, civic society organizations, actually coming in and preventing that humanitarian catastrophe. But the part that I think is missing in India—the part that we always talk about as the challenge in India—is how to take that what you might call sentimental civic culture which sometimes gets mobilized in times of crisis and convert it into enduring forms of public and collective action for, in a sense, the production of public goods. That initial bout of humanitarian civic activism dissipated. And now we are back to being the same acrimonious polarized polity that we were, refusing in some senses to confront the basic questions around public health, education, all the things that we wish communities would come together to work for.


Milan Vaishnav09:43

I'd like to take one aspect of that polarization, polarization on religious grounds, and link it to a column which you just wrote where you took issue in a very civic way and in a very polite way with a piece that Yogendra Yadav had written on the role secular forces have played in bringing about the very demise of secularism—what she calls their refusal to speak the "language" of religions. And in your piece in The Indian Express, you wrote the following: "in a postmortem of secularism, we are handwringing over religion, not because we lost the key there, but because there seems to be light there." A question that I think comes to the minds of some of your readers automatically is, well, what should proponents of secularism be handwringing over, if not religion? I mean, isn't that what's at stake?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  10:41

I think one of the challenges in thinking about this question is the way in which the meanings of the terms "secularism" and "religion" both have gotten out of control, theoretically. And I mean this in three ways. First of all, there are disagreements in any society. There are religious differences between religious believers and secularists even in the United States, in American constitutional jurisprudence. And there are lots of things we will disagree about. But what is very particular about this is the domination of our civic discourse by sheer vitriolic prejudice against minorities. And this is a prejudice that cuts across whether you're secular or whether you're religious—sometimes even people in the left can engage in it. And I think this prejudice is in some senses acquired a kind of autonomous life. It's almost as if we are looking for a pretext to get the minority. I'll be as blunt as that. And whether or not you're secular or whether you're religious is not a very good predictor for that—in fact, often the strongest arguments for marginalizing minorities actually come from people who are secular in in different ways. So, the one thing we need to try and come to terms with is, what are the conditions under which this large-scale prejudice against particular communities becomes acceptable in a society? When does it become acceptable to regard particular minorities not as co-equal citizens, or to think of them as threats, or even to regard their existence itself in some circles as threatening? And I think that requires a very different kind of historical and psychological unpacking than saying, it's got something to do with the fact that we got the nature of our religion. The second reason why I'm a little skeptical of the religious argument is that prior to partition, Indian nationalist discourse was actually suffused with religious Indians—Gandhi, most famously. And you can tell Gandhi's stories two ways. But I like to tell it the way he told it, which is as a significant failure, which is the construction of that new idiom of Hinduism, or, for that matter, the construction of a new idiom of Islam. Those tendencies did not prevent the incredible criminalization and violence of Indian politics. And to me, the big lesson from if you put these two together is that what we need first of all is a constitutional discourse whose focus is solely on the preservation of individual rights and individual dignity. We need to speak a language of enlarging the sort of individual freedom that in some senses is not bound by religious categories. And I think this move is also important for another reason, which is that a lot of the cultural conflicts that we have in India right are not just between religions. They actually, in some sense, manifest fault lines within religion. Every religion, for example, has a conflict between the forces of orthodoxy who want to impose patriarchy and hierarchy on its members and the young men and women struggling to break free from the shackles of tradition. And I think what the language of Indian secularism did, or what thinking of it as a religious conflict did, is that it under emphasizes the fact that we need to build a common consensus around individual freedom. Religion may get preserved anyway if you preserve individual freedom without worrying so much about fixing particular religious identities. One last thing on this—which is something that requires a much, much longer discussion—is that secularism in some senses became suspect in India, not because of the incoherence of the doctrine, not because we somehow need to replace secularism with enlightened religion. It did become less credible because—and there I do, again, agree with Yogendra Yadav—the political parties that claimed to defend it were not defending it in a consistent and principled way. So, when right wing forces accused the previous regime of being pseudo-secular in some ways—descriptively, there is something to that proposition, but the right answer to that should have been, can we be properly secular? Not that we need to abandon or junk secularism altogether.


Milan Vaishnav16:11

If you look at this from the secular position, you can say: well, look, there was a constitutional settlement, in some sense, around this notion of principled distance when it comes to the state's involvement in religious fare, which Rajeev Bhargava and others have talked about. So, the state does have the authority under the Constitution to intervene in certain matters of faith, social reform, and so on. But it must try to do so in an impartial or even-handed way. Now, there are two issues with this. One is that it's very hard to police those lines. And given the nature of political incentives, what you just spoke about, politicians will have during election time, or even in between elections, many incentives to pander to particular people and communities for electoral benefit. So, as we think to the future, do you have any faith or hope that this old settlement, this old doctrine can be reclaimed? Or is the face of secularism in the future going to be something that we haven't yet fully imagined in terms of its constitutional legal architecture?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  17:24

I do think the Indian constitution actually provides a reasonably workable and coherent articulation of secular ideas. And frankly, if you look at most liberal constitutions around the world, liberty, equality, fraternity, and treating all citizens as free and equal are the cornerstones of any liberal constitutionalism. And I don't think we're going to surpass that formulation. I think the issues, as you rightly pointed out, have come from two different sources. One which is that when we had our constitutional settlement in 1950, there were a whole range of things that were put in the constitution as compromises to create a consensus around a workable constitution. And many of these compromises are, going from first principles of secularism, relatively hard to defend—cow protection, for example, or large aspects of personal laws for different communities. And given that that constitution was made in the shadow of Partition, these were devices to try and create a constitutional consensus in the face of deep disagreement, in the face of deep insecurity, that minorities in particular might have had post-Partition about the atmosphere in India. Where I think we went wrong was in two places. First, prior to Independence, a lot of the work of social reform was happening outside of the ambit of the state, and frankly, most effective social reform cannot be produced just in a top-down manner by the state. It will evoke resistance. It will invite charges of partiality. What you need is, in a sense, held in debates within communities. And as I said, this fault line between freedom and orthodoxy actually runs through all our communities. The problem with a lot of Congress politics was that it kind of froze that temporary settlement. So, these issues that we were gradually supposed to have talked about, created a social reform agenda, simply allowed communities to internally squabble. Particularly the issue of personal law, for example, that was completely frozen for almost for fifty-five, sixty years, there were only incremental changes had in there. Now, if you had been charitable, you could say that this was not because politicians want to necessarily mobilize along religious lines, it was just the fear that you could not predict what the consequences of opening up these negotiations would be when it's in a sense a Pandora's box. And I think Congress's attitude to a lot of difficult questions in Indian democracy was, "We are big like an elephant—if we just sit on them long enough, hopefully things will resolve themselves at some point." I think that was in some senses one big, big mistake. I think the second big mistake, which is particularly relevant, was the period of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. And it's a period that also shows you how complicated the categories of secular and religious become. Personally, Rajiv Gandhi was probably as secular as anybody can be, and yet his politics is associated, in a sense with this game of communal balancing in a way that left every party feel victimized and insecure. So, for example, the Congress party could never take a stand on basic civil liberties and freedom of expression—frankly, right from the Nehru days. It could not find the language to defend the freedom of expression independent of the concern for not offending religious communities when, in a real society, there will frankly always be occasions when religious communities or religious communities get offended. So Congress' problem, in my view, is that it actually lacked the courage of its own conviction. And it ended up having the worst of both worlds. It was not good at communal mobilization, which is why it in some senses began to decline—let's not forget, it did lose the Muslim world in North India for a substantial period—but it also could not claim credit for moving the constitutional needle in the protection of civil liberties.


Milan Vaishnav22:48

I want to migrate this discussion to a very tangible example, which is the recent debate over the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). I was struck by something that you said in the wake of that debate: "We can debate the past forever. But with the CAB, India takes a giant step to officially convert a constitutional democracy into an unconstitutional ethnocracy." Many people took issue with the tweet—not so much the tweet, but the underlying sentiment. They said, "Look, we have a constitutional framework, democratic elections, we have parliament, we have laws that enabled this bill's passage in the first place, and as President Obama said, elections having consequences. We had a big mandate in May 2019; elections have consequences." So why, in your judgment, has India morphed into an unconstitutional ethnocracy given that a majority implemented its vision—they said they were going to do it, it was in their manifesto, and voila, in a matter of months, you have the Bill?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  24:02

That's a very good question. And it's certainly true. One doesn't want to minimize the fact that the bill is not only popular, but it does have a lot of popular imprimatur behind it. A couple of things. One, I think one has to state for the record, I don't think it was anybody's position that refugees from neighboring countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, should not be granted citizenship in India. In fact, I think India should have a consistent, well-thought out, imaginative refugee asylum citizenship policy. Number two, it was possible to draft such a policy in a way that did not exclude one or two particular religions simply on grounds of them being that religion. You could, for example, write an administrative matrix that says, “Look, we are going to do an assessment of which groups are at risk. Do they have any alternative sources?” I mean, you could come up with a whole range of secular criteria that would have covered all the groups this government wanted to cover and grant them citizenship. And so, the fact is that if there is a consistent secular alternative, which does not exclude particular religious groups simply by virtue of the fact that people belong to that particular religious group, and it reaches the same end as this bill, the only conclusion to be drawn was that the bill was crafted in a way which was designed to send a signal that in some sense India is a kind of dominant Hindu homeland. Hindus have the right to return. Yes, I know there are Parsis and Christians included in that legislation, but as anybody who knows the dog whistles of Indian politics knows, by not including potentially even persecuted Muslims in the ambit of defense, it was very clearly sending a signal that the alignment between citizenship and religious identity was going to become stronger. The second reason was that, as you might recall, the context of that debate was the National Population Register. And although later the home minister denied that there is a link between the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Population Register, the government's own consistent build-up was that the two issues are linked and the purpose of the National Population Register—building on the precedents set in Assam—would be to say that, look, every citizen of India would have to prove that they belong here, that they were citizens here. And there was good reason, given all that the government itself was saying, and given what we know of the practices of verifying citizenship in India, that a vast majority of Indians would not have been able to prove their citizenship, and would have had to depend on government discretion on how it interpreted what documents they had. Frankly, we see this around us all the time even now. And I think there was a legitimate fear that in the exercise of that discretion, it's quite possible that Muslims would be discriminated against. Now, to me, the two cornerstones of a constitutional state are, first, that it does not discriminate against any group simply because of who they are, and second, that it respects the principle of habeas corpus. That is a basic protection against the state taking you into custody without some kind of redress. And the fact of the matter is that both of those principles have been violated in recent times in conjunction. In fact, often the habeus corpus has been sort of practically suspended in relation to some of the CAA protests. So, that's the sense in which we became a kind of unconstitutional ethnocracy. We were violating the core principles of modern constitutionalism.


Milan Vaishnav28:49

But when you think about the principles of modern constitutionalism, one of the other hallmarks is a sense of disaggregated power—have checks and balances, have different kinds of accountability structures, whether they're vertical to the voter, to the electorate, whether they're horizontal in terms of the courts or other accountability institutions. There's also this concept of diagonal accountability where media and civil society have a role. And when you step back and think about the past 73 years, one of the things you're struck by is that Indians often seem very comfortable with certain modalities of autocratic rule that violate some of those principles. So, you could argue that the Nehruvian period was really more of a more benign dominance—obviously, the Congress Party was unmatched. You had a much less benign personalism and a kind of illiberal rule under Indira. And now with Modi, you know, we are seeing what your colleague and my colleague Neelanjan Sircar has talked about as the politics of vishwas, or trust in the "great leader." One thing I've been thinking about is, you had a twenty-five year period, a quarter century, from 1989 to 2014 with multiparty competition and fluid coalitions and people saying, "I don't know if I'm going to be in power or not, so let's invest in referee institutions that can hold us all accountable." In hindsight, was that an aberration, and in some sense, we're just kind of reverting to the mean of what India has been comfortable with? Or is there something unique and distinct that in your mind marks a fundamental departure when you kind of look at the past six years?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  30:37

I do think that this is a fundamental departure. I think you're right to point out that India has often been comfortable with the modalities of exercising executive power, and as we are finding out, so are several other democracies. If you look at, for example, the record of free speech jurisprudence in the fifties in the United States, what we think of as the Warren Court years was not the entire history of American constitutional law, either. So, to that extent, to be fair to India, democracies are always a work in progress. But I do think there are a couple of very exceptional things about this moment. One, I would relate to this very evocative phrase that Neelanjan Sircar used: the politics of vishwas, the politics of reposing faith or trust in the "great leader." Now, at one level, I think that has always been true of Indian democracy. If you think of Nehru's success as a leader, it's very hard to argue that a lot of people ideologically agreed with him. It's actually very hard to argue that they were culturally in sync with him, either. But there was a kind of reposing of a basic trust in him. It was, "So long as Jawaharlal Nehru is in charge, the broad direction will be fine." And so, to that extent, I don't think this politics of vishwas is entirely unique. What is, I think, new about this politics of vishwas, which I think is very distinctive and disturbing, is that at the elite level, it is now tied to a deep kind of nihilism. And by nihilism, I mean two things. One, a deep cynicism about the possibility of things like truth, the possibility of things like adjudicating facts altogether, which other democracies are also experiencing. It seems that what India's elites have decided is, “We don't trust anything or anybody, and because our distrust is so deep, the only way we can survive our existence is by reposing relatively dying faith in the source.” And it's a faith that survives lies, it's a faith that survives pointing out a gap between his performance and reality. So, I think there's a certain kind of nihilism about this vishwas at the psychological level that is quite striking. I think at a much more popular level, people do acknowledge his shortcomings. But there's almost a kind of air of desperation about this vishwas. I mean, it's a much deeper version of, "But what's the alternative?" We had corroded the credibility of all alternative political parties or institutional frameworks, or frankly, even elite institutions. To the point that I think most people will say, "Okay, but who else do I believe?" So, I think this combination of nihilism and desperation to me is always a kind of dangerous sign in the cultural politics of any society because it means that this vishwas will outlive a lot more mistakes than other forms of vishwas. The second thing, which I think is very distinctive, is much more political and sociological, and goes back to your question about coalition governments. When we think of checks and balances in society, they can come from two sources. They can come from the form of institutional design – Montesquieu; the executive, legislature, judiciary, they provide checks and balances on each other. And one of the things we have learned about those checks and balances is that those checks and balances turned out to be much more like paper tigers than we thought, that they find it very hard to withstand any dominant political formation as the Supreme Court did in the 1970s. And now, we don't even have a Supreme Court of India, let's put it that way. But the second kind of check and balance, and I think this is a really deep and profound change in Indian society, is this: one of the features of Indian society that we always used to be able to count upon to produce a certain kind of centrism was that social power was fragmented—caste, region, religion, language, a whole range of cross cutting cleavages would always act as a kind of check on the centralization of power. And as we always used to say, Indians individually don't have to be liberal, but the distribution of social power in society makes for a kind of healthy balance. It also sometimes made for inefficiencies when it came to implementing state policy. I think the thing we have noticed less is how these natural—or what you used to think of as natural—social checks and balances and the concentration of power have more or less dissipated. We used to count on language politics, for example, which is one big source of Indian federalism. And I think what the BJP has done for the most part is artfully neutralize that question. It was neutralized after the states were granted linguistic autonomy. Most linguistically aligned political parties are happy to do business with whoever is powered in the center, so long as you don't touch the language question. So, the idea that there's going to be this surge of resistance from the South and the East, I think is less and less true. Caste is a second and an interesting dimension. One of the characteristics of that coalition period that you're talking about is that caste mobilization, particularly in North India, was acquiring a certain kind of agglomerative logic like it had done in South India before. Mayawati was trying to convert a disparate group of Dalit communities into a unified political force, the OBCs were trying to be in some senses a unified political force. And that agglomerative logic created a fragmented social structure, which was then in part reflected in the structure of political power and political parties. Now, a remarkable thing has happened to caste politics since then, that in order for that agglomeration to work, you need a focal point, and the focal point during coalition politics was reservation. Once it was taken off the agenda, rollback of the reservation is certainly not on the agenda by any stretch of the imagination. The logic of caste politics in a sense became fragmentation into smaller and smaller groups. So now the debate is over which particular communities within these large agglomerations should get benefits. I think the BJP was wonderful, in some sense, in splitting these agglomerations, which was in part facilitated by the fact that the economic growth of the last twenty or thirty years had, you might say, individualized our economy more. There was more internal differentiation amongst Dalits, more internal differentiation amongst OBCs. And so these natural categories, these social formations, we always used to think that every political party would have to negotiate with them. Now, they don't quite exist in the same way. And so what that does is that as social identities become somewhat more individualized, at least in political terms, it opens up the space for, or rather requires creating, the coalitions that do not simply rest upon negotiations with those older agglomerative groups that would provide a check against the centralizing tendencies of the government. So I think there's a there's a deep sociological undercurrent here, which will make Indian politics a lot more presidential, because now Indian politics is no longer just a coalition of dominant groups, each of which is going to protect its zamindari against the centralizing power. Obviously, modern communication technology has made it possible in some senses to aggregate and reach out to voters in different ways that was probably not possible thirty-five, thirty years ago, so you really have the birth of a very different kind of publicity, mass politics, which is not bound by those social cleavages.


Milan Vaishnav40:15

So, there's so much I want to follow up with you on, but in the interest of time, let me just pick one thing—something that you said on the Supreme Court, or perhaps the absence of an effective Supreme Court. Few people have looked at the Indian judiciary more closely than you. And I think one of the real question marks in my mind is, how do we characterize what's gone wrong with the rule of law? If you go back to Francis Fukuyama’s idealized notion of what a liberal democracy is, it has three legs of the stool: you have democratic accountability, you have the rule of law, and you have an effective state apparatus. And when you're able to get the magical formula right, the right balance of these three, you have liberal democracy. Fukuyama’s argument about India has been that you have accountability and the rule of law, but not an effective state. And my question is, essentially, has the lack of an effective state now fundamentally undermined the second pillar, the rule of law? Can you really have the rule of law if you don't have an effective state? Is that the dynamic that best captures where we are today, or do you think there's something fundamentally else that's going on that's not captured by this?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  41:45

I think something fundamentally different is going on, to be honest. I must confess, I actually prefer the older Fukuyama to the state capacity Fukuyama—the Fukuyama of the book on trust rather than state capacity. And I'm saying this for two reasons. One, obviously, the institutionalization of the rule of law was always very imperfect in India by a whole range of indicators—how fast do you adjudicate cases and so forth. And one of the reasons I think India could get away with that was in part because what you relied were social mechanisms of control rather than state-led mechanisms of control. As Devesh Kapur pointed out many years ago, that had its advantages and its disadvantages. I mean, it had an advantage because it did keep state power in check. What is happening right now, when you think of the dismantling of state capacity, particularly in an elite institution like the Supreme Court—this is entirely a willful act of India's elites. I can understand it's a much more complicated problem to solve the challenge of, say, the backlog of cases that the Indian courts have to adjudicate every day—you need more tax revenue, you need more judges, you need better technology. But when a Supreme Court refuses to grant a habeas corpus hearing, where does the state capacity show here in the rule of law? What it shows is an elite that is actually committed to not discharging its duties. So, you might say India has the capacity to have capacity in these areas. It's just choosing not to exercise it, and I think the destruction of these independent institutions that you're seeing has very little to do with capacity. I think it has to do with profound change in the ideological inclinations of the elites that inhabit these institutions.


Milan Vaishnav44:11

If what you’re saying is the case, then it need not only be a question of executive interference, although that could be a part of it. It's really a larger backdrop of institutional deference or evasion. In addition to habeas corpus, you could look at the inability to take a judgment on electoral bonds, for instance.


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  44:34

No, absolutely. It's a larger judgment of evasion and an evasion, in a sense, made possible. So, what's remarkable about this moment... I completely agree with you. I won't put it all on the executive. In some senses, we have to ask the question, what is it about the structure of elite power that is enabling the executive, right? Look at Indian capital, for example. Take a very simple contrast. Under the UPA, when growth began to fall to five and a half to six percent, Indian capital was up in arms. This is economic Armageddon, there's capital flight—coming into the pandemic, we were at a 3% that quarter – and yet there's absolute stony silence from Indian capital. I mean, it's a bourgeoisie that was coming into its own that suddenly seems to have disappeared—all of India's famed civil society institutions, the free press and so forth. I know it's an uncomfortable truths to face up to, but I do think there is probably a lot more ideological alignment with the regime amongst India's elites than we are recognizing, and we can unpack why that might be the case. But without that ecosystem, this degree of executive power would not be enabled to the degree it has. I think the second thing I'd say quickly about state capacity—and you know, you've done fantastic work on state capacity, and others have as well – it is that that work has taught us a lot about many characteristics of the Indian state, the fact that it is often under resourced, understaffed, in some areas badly designed. But the reason I was referring to Fukuyama’s previous book on trust rather than the state capacity book is that the modes of social cooperation often determined how much effort the state has to put into achieving a particular objective. So, a society in which social failures are larger—by social failures, I mean there are different embedded social norms. For example, let's say around open defecation, where the state had to actually step in in ways in which you might think social institutions might be better placed to step in. Or there are deep failures of social negotiation where there is incredible individual talent, but no civil society associational form that can mobilize to actually problem-solve. We can mobilize to veto particular prescriptions, but we can't mobilize to problem-solve, whether it's on the environment, whether it's drinking water and so forth. Under those circumstances, the state's job becomes much, much harder. As you know from other contexts, in homogeneous societies, for example, sometimes states function more efficiently because they don't have to, in some sense, take on the burden of mediating ethnic conflict. So, I actually think that because the structures of trust in Indian social relationships have been more confined, they haven't translated into civic forms of trust. The state in a sense has had to take on not just a much larger role, but the kind of burden—particularly when you're asking the state to change social norms—that it's very difficult for it to fulfill. So, I actually do think that while we look at state failure, we look at market failure, we don't look at social failure enough.


Milan Vaishnav48:41

I just finished listening to your three-hour conversation with Amit Varma, which was a masterclass, and in fact, Amit is going to be on the show. I won’t keep you for three hours, as much as I'd like to, but let me just end with this kind of bigger-picture question. You have worked and continue to work with so many students and young scholars who care deeply about Indian politics and society and the direction that it's heading. As you look around at the work that's ongoing and as you look into the future, what are two or three questions or puzzles or issues that you think that the next generation of social scientists or political scientists should be focusing on? If you were to go back to your PhD days, what do you think are the issues or the puzzles out there that are maybe not being paid attention to but should be very much on the agenda?


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  49:49

As you know, I avoided all puzzles by doing political theory. [Milan laughs.] There are lots of questions. One thing we have learned, I think, is that the minute we say something is important, something else supersedes it, right? That's the problem with our debates over development. But the first thing that I do think is important, and I'll put it in the most general terms, is that we understand much less about social identity formation, particularly how social identities and cultures in some senses transform under the pressure of lot of exogenous economic changes. And, you know, when you particularly talk to young people, right, the one thing that really jumps out at you is how many of them are preoccupied with identity issues, whether it's around gender, whether it's about sexuality, whether it's around actually their relation to their own past. I mean, that's really the big debate, right? And a lot of the fears and pathologies of our politics are, I think, located in the sediments of these identity issues that are not being resolved or not being substantially engaged with. And I'm not sure whether the tools to engage with those kinds of issues are entirely the tools of social science that we have. Some of those are very, very useful. But you need sort of extraordinarily cultural and psychological insight. It's almost that V.S. Naipaul got India right more than most of us did—he picked out on, “What's the fear that's driving people?” far more acutely than I think we did. So, I think that's one set of issues. The second thing, which is maybe my own kind of professional bias, is that I think it's an amazing time to rethink the intellectual history of 20th and 21st century India. We bequeath the seeds of debates and a series of readings of the past that have been colored by two or three frames. There was a left frame, there was the nationalist Congress frame, and there's now the Hindutva frame. And in some senses, all of those frames for their own purposes abridge the richness of the history and kind of falsify them—in some sense trap us. It's almost that you have to stake out your position in one of these frames, and I can tell you what your attitude to the past is. I think one of the excitements of this moment is that, precisely because you have this crisis, it gets you to go back and think of the neglected figures. I mean, even B.R. Ambedkar is not fully studied to the extent that he should be. Is there a way of articulating our challenges that actually liberates us from the prison house of these categories? And the last and final thing, which is, I think, the most obvious one, but again, something around which all our certainties have vanished, is, what is the development model that is actually appropriate to a country like India? Post-1991, we thought we had a consensus on the direction, at least: roughly globalization, roughly deregulation, a certain kind of investment in what we used to call human capital, very rapidly done. But given all that's happening in the world, what is our pathway? Back to inclusive growth? I think we are foundering on that, frankly. You're using a paradigm that is no longer applicable in some ways, at least not to our current circumstances. And the debate around it is so piecemeal that I think there's a real contribution to be made in standing back from the current moment and saying, "Okay, what's the appropriate development model for India?"


Milan Vaishnav54:19

My guest on the show today is Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Pratap is a professor at Ashoka University where he previously served as vice chancellor. He is an editor and columnist at The Indian Express. Pratap, having an hour with you to talk about Indian democracy—where it's been, where it is currently, where it's going—is really a gift, both to me and to our listeners. I want to thank you for taking the time and hope that we can continue the conversation in person one day, whenever that might come.


Pratap Bhanu Mehta  54:51

Absolutely. I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much.