Dispatch #33: 5 Best Talks by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

In this dispatch we will look at some of the best talks given by Pratap Bhanu Mehta on a whole range of topics

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s book ‘The Burden of Democracy’ is one of the finest books on Indian politics. In the book, Mehta delves into a whole range of disciplines like constitutional law, political science and other intellectual debates around contemporary Indian politics.

Few themes that stood out, while I was reading the book, in are:

1) The caste politics in India is not anti-caste politics but anti-upper caste politics

2) The roots of democracy in India has never been very deep as compared to some Western democracies because before independence the axis around which the country revolved was anti-colonialism rather than a society with deep commitment to democracy and justice

3) In India, caste rather than class, has always been the point of contestation to demand rights and social justice

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These themes have always been central to his arguments on Indian democracy. In the talk titled ‘The politics of social justice’, he argues that contrary to the belief, Indian democracy has not been too radical to mitigate social inequalities.

Broad themes covered in the talk:

1) Democracy has not always been an antidote to social inequalities

2) The Indian constitution has been able to provide constitutional justice but not distributive justice

3) The Indian welfare state is centered around providing basic services to the citizens, the language of justice is completely missing however.

In this 2012 talk titled ‘Rule of law in a developing society’, Mehta argues that the Indian judiciary faces challenge dealing with ‘wicked problems’ such as urban development and migration. He adds that the Indian judiciary has always played the role of a conflict manager and has not taken on the political actors, the way it should have been.

Broad themes covered in the talk:

1) The Indian judiciary has been able to partly sustain its authority. It has never challenged political actors, fearing a backlash. This is called the avoidance strategy

2) In its current form, the judiciary acts as an institution of governance. This has resulted in judiciary venturing into the realms of legislation

3) The biggest challenge for the judiciary, as an institution of governance is, to adjudicate on wicked problems

In his comments to Arvind Subramanian’s paper on India’s precocious development, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued that the Indian political economy literature pays very little attention to the mechanism of India’s development story. Mere statistics to explain Indian political economy won’t help us unpack her trajectory. We need statistics linked with a theory of change, adds Mehta. He gives example of health spending. He says that often it’s argued that a 7% spending of the GDP on public health will be too much for a country like India when compared with other countries with the same per-capita income. But Mehta questions this assertion by asking, ‘is it high in relation to what we need right now?’

Broad themes covered in the talk:

1) The economic policies are being made according to the cognitive maps of the elites

2) There has to be some levels of elite cohesion or elite consensus in India. Societies that have done well, always have some kind of elite consensus that co-opts dissent for the betterment of the society

3) The Latin-Americanisation of India where 5 or 6 powerful companies can blackmail the government is akin to the Gilded Age in America

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This talk by Pratap Mehta titled ‘The Crisis of Democracy in India’ is by far the most insightful talk that can help us make sense of the present political zeitgeist. He starts by saying that on every single attribute, we are entering into an era of darkness. The checks and balances, that should have been present in a liberal democracy, is failing us. Truth and freedom is a debased currency. He adds that the current politics in the country is dismantling our conscience that is preparing us for greater violence. By giving the example of the Hathras incident that happened last year, he says that all human sympathies have been crowded out and every human tragedy is not an occasion of human sympathies but it’s a weaponised tool in an ideological warfare.

Accepting that the political centrism in India took everything for granted and the liberals did not create any alliances that could have checked the centralisation of power, he adds that greater acceptance of authoritarianism and legitimizing communalism are the two distinct features of the current politics.

Broad themes covered in the talk:

Mehta gives 5 propositions to think about the current crisis of democracy in India:

1) Post 1991, the economy got de-politicised and the culture got politicised:

Post 1991, Mehta argues, the economic policies followed a trajectory which was more of the manifestation of the cognitive maps of the elites. The economic model of development was technocratic. More or less all the political parties offered the same economic development model, maybe the way of delivery of services would have changed. Hence, broadly there was a consensus on the economic policies front and there was no divide nor any contestations. This lack of contestation on economic front put a lot of pressure on the identity and culture to be the markers of distinction. This resulted in coalitions being formed on identity rather than on economic policies. Since the policies were technocratically managed ones, the only requirement was to ‘manage’ the vested interests and the needs of other stakeholders (e.g. farmers, labor unions) need to be negotiated.

2) Politics of capital and the state:

There was a consensus in 2013 that the revolt against the UPA was the revulsion against the crony capitalism. But what replaced that? A new oligarchy that controls the capital. In the old system the spoils were shared widely as the cronyism was decentralized and there were middle men. This allowed the dispersal of power and formation of political alliances that checked the centralisation of power. In the new system the power is centralised, the flow of capital is centralised, the decentralised forces are cash-starved and therefore they can’t form alliances to control power concentration. High control of capital with state capital will support more repression.

3) Perpetual mobilisation against social and cultural elite:

This perpetual mobilisation against elites has been the hallmark of the present Indian politics. It’s very easy to portray them as an impediment to achieve the glorious past that we have been deprived of for a very long time. Pratap Mehta specifically talks about the elites in Northern India who have receded from their local languages. This has happened because, unlike in Tamil Nadu, these states never had a linguistic nationalism. Hindi is no longer a language of knowledge generation and the entire Hindi speaking world feel culturally marginalised. This has resulted in pitting English as a sign of elitism and marginalisation. For a substantial population in the Hindi speaking states, the elites have moral superiority. This has led to the creation of a cultural ground to take on cultural elite. These cultural and intellectual elites have several names- tukde tukde gang; Khan market gang; Liberandus; urban-Naxals etc. The BJP has tapped into this anxiety, not by rectifying the fault-lines but by accentuating it. Any source of intellectual resistance to the project of idealogical conformity has been destroyed.

4) Logical social identities are no more the checks and balances to centralisation of power:

Mehta argues that the centrist and the left forces in India became lazy in not building alliances. Like Weimar Germany, it’s the wokeness that makes these forces look for alliance partners who are purer than each other. The conventional idea was that the three locus of social identities in India- region, language and caste would let nobody consolidate power. These social identities, we thought, would act as natural checks against the concentration of power. This logic was the default logic for the coalition politics. For a while this logic worked, especially in post Mandal era, we were told that Mandal would counter Kamandal. Politically those locus of mobilisation that we took for granted is now breaking before the project of cultural consolidation. The politics of mobilisation on social identities has exhausted its course. They don’t act as natural breaks on the consolidation of Hindutva.

5) Limitations of liberalism:

Liberalism doesn’t give answer to who is a member of a society. What kind of cultural politics you need to create mutual identification of citizens? Liberals thought that the constitution is enough. The current discourse on nationalism has legitimised the increase in state power. Nationalism says that the government needs to take some policy measures and if it faces resistance, then it uses repressive laws to carry forward with its mandate.

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In his 2018 talk titled ‘The Global Crisis of Liberal Democracy’, Pratap Mehta articulated the crisis that has led to the decline of liberal democracy in the world. He begins that we need moral psychologists, and not only sociologists, to help us unpack the social processes of our times. We need someone who can help us understand why has aggression become the crucible where political fantasies have been formed.

Broad themes covered in the talk:

The 4 anxieties that Mehta talks about are as follows:

1) Crisis of neoliberal subjectivity:

The promise that we had been given over the last 20 years is that growth, employment, productivity and prosperity will go hand in hand. The conventional thinking was that there is some economic design such that economic growth will not only continue but the form of that growth will generate sufficient employment and prosperity across the board. The future will be better, was the expectation. Mehta calls it the logic of unfolding time. That did not happen. This resulted to a certain kind of economic pessimism. It was this economic pessimism that became a default pessimism of a lot of electorate around the world.

This led to the de-politicisation of the economics and the culture and identity became the turf of political contestation leading to anxieties. The crisis of institutions aggravated the problem. The legislative processes have either become corrupt or are broken.

2) Global rise of post democracy:

In the post democratic world, the power shifts from legislative institutions to other kinds of regulatory institutions of the administrative state (example- courts). This is also termed as the rise of juristocracy. The rise of non-elected institutions was the hallmark of the crisis in a liberal democracy. It worked so long as those institutions delivered the fantasy of growth, employment, productivity and prosperity. The minute that link is broken, the surge of impatience with respect to this institutional architecture becomes prominent.

3) All our institutions have been plutocratic:

Basic institutional structure is not just plutocratic but there is something inherently plutocratic the way our institutions are designed and the way they function. Amidst this, who does the job of mediating representation in a democracy anymore? The institutions that were supposed to give meaning to that democratic expression, are now seen as enemies of that democratic aspirations of self governance and control.

4) Public Opinion:

Neither the democratic institutions nor the media is able to articulate the public opinion. It is amidst this vacuum that the populist leader become the voice of the people. Whoever can stand up and articulate the loudest what they claim public opinion is to be, becomes the voice. Whenever the public opinion is broken, it gives the space for demagogue to claim ‘I am the people’.

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Bonus Conversations:

1) The Tyranny Of Merit- Michael Sandel & Pratap Bhanu Mehta

2) Mobilizing the Marginalised- Amit Ahuja and Pratap Bhanu Mehta

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