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Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the Campbell Conversations

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Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Pratap Bhanu Mehta

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University. In India, he's served as President of Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank and as the Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University. He's the author of the book, "The Burden of Democracy."

Program Transcript:

GR: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Pratap Bhanu Mehtar. He's the Lawrence Rockefeller visiting professor for distinguished teaching at Princeton University. In India he has served as president of the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, and as the vice-chancellor of Ashoka University. He's an expert on Indian politics and democracy. And he's with me today to discuss the state of political affairs and the state of democracy in that country, among many other works. He's the author of “The Burden of Democracy.” Professor Mehta, welcome to the program.

PBM: Great to be here.

GR: Well, we're glad to have you. So let me just start by maybe taking you back in time a little bit, and then we'll come forward. But what kinds of challenges did Indian society pose for the original achievement of democracy?

PBM: So I think there were principally two challenges. One, India was an extraordinarily poor country, one of the poorest countries in the world. And one of the most illiterate. And frankly, in the 1950s if you had asked anybody in the world, can a country this poor and this unlettered could sustain democracy? The answer would have been an unequivocal no. I mean, India did not meet any of the preconditions of democracy, as you know, from the, you know, democracy literature and in that sense, it was a gigantic leap of faith that we can actually have political democracy before we've had a minimal degree of economic development. India reverses the traditional sequence of democratization. I think the second big challenge was it's also a country of enormous diversity, linguistic diversity, religious diversity, social diversity of a kind of, almost, you know, a bewildering variety and to craft and consolidate a modern nation-state out of this building, building diversity was an extraordinary challenge. And particularly when if you look at the record of other attempts to do this, they weren't very heartening. I mean, every society has had to go through its process of incredible violence, exclusion, ethnic cleansing. So, you know, again, in the 1950s, people used to publish books with titles like “Can India Survive?” Based largely on the fact that this diversity is not meant to exist, coexist, at least by conventional yardsticks.

GR: One of the things that, occurred to me when I was thinking about that question I wanted to get your reaction to it is the degree to which the society, in addition to being incredibly diverse, as you just explained, also was hierarchical as well. And, you know, there's even a caste system or there was a legacy of that. Talk a little bit about how that challenged the achievement of democracy.

PBM: You know, so I mean, you know, the caste system is in a sense the single biggest blot in a sense, on, on India. I mean, it's a deeply oppressive, almost totalizing hierarchical social system, or at least had become one. And I think almost every modern Indian leader understood that if you want to forge a modern nation, you cannot do it when you have such a deeply oppressive social system at the heart of it. And just to I mean, you know, it's a kind of familiar fact, but caste actually governed people's lives. As Ambedkar once said, it was a division of persons. It was not just a division of labor, who you can marry, what you can eat, where you can sit, which professions, you will possess and it was an it's an extraordinary edifice of indignity. There's no other way of describing it. Right. And, the modern Indian Constitution, actually puts forth the idea of, we are free and equal citizens bound together by fraternity. So there was this incredible contradiction between the stated aspirations of this Constitution and what our social structure was. Now, one of the choices India made, and this was the interesting choice, is in many contexts, these social structures are uprooted through revolution, violent revolution. Right. India made this choice or political circumstances that it adopted a nonviolent ameliorating path to overcoming this hierarchical structure. And the hope was that the introduction of political democracy itself would, over time, weaken the hold of this hierarchical social, social system. And I think the different ways of telling that story. But some people think that glass is half empty. Some people think that glass is half full. but this is certainly a work in progress. And India has a long way to go to this, on this.

GR: And I wanted to explore with you just where it is on that path and what are the challenges. But let me ask this more general question first, and then we'll then we'll get into that. You've talked about how India is different from a lot of the other democracies in the world, and its story of democracy is different. What is do you think the importance to democracy in the world generally of India's democracy? Does it matter for democracy?

PBM: Oh, I think it matters in two ways. I mean, one, of course, it matters, because, you know, this is one-sixth of humanity, right? So them living under a democratic system is the biggest triumph, democracy. In fact, the future of democracy is going to be decided in India. But there's a second way in which it matters. Actually, I think, and particularly I think for, I think listeners across the world. Right. Which is, there’s been lots of competing models of regimes across the world, right, 1920s, 30s, you had communism, fascism and even now you have a competing model in China, which is a kind of one-party state, increasingly more authoritarian. And in the developing world and elsewhere, there was always the sense that, you know, 20, 25 years ago that democracy was not a great option for developing countries because you end up like India, kind of low growth, you know. Yeah, sure, it's it's an open society. But it's not a model of successful social or economic development. If India proves and as it had begun to in the, you know, still on the pathway to that, you can actually get decent growth, 6 to 8% growth just to use an aggregate GDP number, you can actually build out a half decent welfare state. Not perfect by any means, but certainly, you know, impactful enough. Think of what it does to the global debate about what democracy does to empower citizens and make give them a dignified life. And actually, I think sometimes I actually find colleagues in China actually understand this, that the success of India's democracy and the power of its example. I mean, you know, President Biden says the power of the US is the power of its example, or at least was historically. I mean, you know, this is like times for that.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Princeton University professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and we're discussing politics and democracy in India. So I think most of our listeners will know relatively little about India, but they may also know, of the current prime minister, Modi, Prime Minister Modi. Tell us just briefly how this gentleman rose to power, what was his path?

PBM: Okay. so, I'm actually a little surprised. I think people know more than we think they do. And particularly in this day and age, the Prime Minister Modi is an extraordinary figure in modern Indian history, there's no question about him. He is a self-made politician who rose from humble circumstances. He likes to describe himself as a [inaudible]. He's actually from one of India's backward castes. Not the lowest cast, not the ex-untouchables, but still a cast that was relatively low down. the hierarchy. He joined a Hindu nationalist organization, the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, at a very young age. And basically has dedicated his entire life to that organization. So this the RSS is a almost 100-year-old organization that was created to consolidate Hindus into a self-conscious political identity, and it's the main organization that spearheaded nationalism. He gave up his family ties very early and so there's there's a big mythology around that because, he was married at a very young age, but gave up all on this story, all attachment to family and home to dedicate himself to the cause of nation. And after years of toiling as an RSS worker, he first comes to prominence in the state of Gujarat and he comes to prominence in two ways. One in 2002, there is a major riot in the state of Gujarat. A series of events leading up to it. There was a there was a train, carrying Hindu activists, and one of the coaches was set off on fire. And there's still a lot of controversy around exactly the circumstances under which that coach caught fired. But as a response, as a retaliation, there were riots all across the state. depending on your estimates, almost 2000 people died. Mr. Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat. And many people believe that he and the BJP had active complicity in producing those riots. There were certainly, at the very least, sins of omission. I mean, whenever there is a major riot in an Indian state and the state refuses to or delay stopping those riots, you can pretty much assume at least some kind of complicity. So. So it keeps the negative sin of omission is clearly there. There is a big debate about the sin of commission, right? I mean, who was exactly orchestrating this? But, but that actually catapulted him to national prominence. And many hardline Hindu nationalists began to see him as the strongest defender of Hindu interests, precisely because he'd actually innate allowed this violence. Right. So it was that violence, rather than being a kind of black mark against his career, at least for his core constituents, became a point of attraction. But the second thing he did in Gujarat, and that's the combination he brings to the center. Gujarat is an economically very dynamic state. A large part of India's kind of business success comes from the state of Gujarat, it houses some of India's most prominent businessmen. And he managed to create the buzz around Gujarat, around his ability to be very pro-business, create the kind of modern infrastructure that business requires. Now, again, just to get the facts on the ground, Gujarat actually doesn't do very well on a couple of other indicators, like health and education or social indicators. But this image of a kind of efficient chief minister who wants to modernize India, right, through the creation of infrastructure, he had this kind of flagship project in the city of Ahmedabad creating this kind of modern riverfront where they essentially kind of channel the water [inaudible]. But, you know, but, you know, it makes for a kind of magnificent sort of infrastructural vista, at least, you know, visually. So this combination that he's a militant defender of Hindu interests and he's a pro-business modernizer that became known as the kind of Gujarat model which he then managed to sell at a kind of national stage very, very effectively.

GR: It's beginning to sound familiar. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Princeton University professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta. He's an expert on Indian politics and democracy. So you were talking about this Hindu nationalism and how Prime Minister Modi really embodied that and then erode that, in addition to other aspects of his political appeal to the top in Indian politics. He is generally, I think, seen as a force that has threatened democracy in India. In broad outline, would you go along with that, or is it more complicated story?

PBM: I think a broad outline, that's true. But I think there's there's this there's some nuances, I think, which are I think important. So first of all, when we say threatening democracy, we have to acknowledge the fact that so far at least, elections in India have been free and fair, and his appeal is genuinely popular and his political victories are genuinely politically earned. Even the opposition up till this point has not, you know, challenged the election results. And it's important to his self-image that he sees himself as a genuinely popular leader, and he's remarkably good at actually one aspect of democracy, which is electioneering. I mean, he there's no political leader in the world who takes elections as seriously as he does. Right? I think the worry about him as posing a threat to democracy, in part, is a kind of anticipatory body, which is to say that as Hindu nationalism gets more consolidated in structures of government, it is beginning to show signs of both authoritarianism and exclusion of minorities. Right. So the challenge for India is that while elections are still robust, in between elections, civil liberties are weakening considerably. So, for example, clampdowns on freedom of expression, the use of state power to target political opponents. And just recently, in the last week or last, last month or so, the chief minister of Delhi has been arrested. Now, there again, nuances to that case, but it's beginning to send a signal that this is not a government, even when it's popular, that's actually going to let the opposition now freely organize and mobilize and it also poses an anticipatory tactic, because we know that once you have been in power and have targeted your opponents, you know, through using state power, the existential stakes for you losing power potentially become all that much greater because you might fear targeting. So I think Indian democracies now entering that zone where it will be that democratic commitment to free and fair elections is going to be tested but certainly the clampdown on civil society, freedom of expression, the erosion of independent institutions, what happens between elections as it were, in the kind of non-electoral space? I think those threats are now increasingly serious.

GR: As you speak, of course, it's impossible not to think of the analogies to the United States and many of the things you've said. It's not a 1-to-1 match, but there's obviously a lot of overlap, and I wanted to get reflections on that. Do you think that there are lessons or insights for the United States situation where you have, you know, a pro-business, populist leader that is emphasizing themes of nationalism and some would say Christian nationalism, Christian white nationalism? As an outsider looking at us, you're living in the United States, but you're not originally from here, what do you think the insights or lessons are?

PBM: So, I think there's there's kind of one interesting similarity and one difference. Let me begin with the difference first, which is I think the United States, I think the worry is much more polarization. Right? Which is, two blocks roughly of similar size. Right. 45% vote on the one side, 48 or something percent to the other side, something like that. Right. I mean, whoever comes up with and that polarization actually producing a kind of gridlock, or at least preventing America from doing the kinds of things that it needs to do to solve its pressing social problems. But the distribution of social power across political parties is still relatively balanced. And that provides, at least for now, a certain kind of check and balance. I think with India, the challenge now is actually the concentration of power at one end of the spectrum. So, imagine if one of the two parties or if it was a right-wing party, kind of, let's say an authoritarian Republican Party were to, you know, kind of dominate American politics to the point that you just could not even imagine anybody challenging it. What would, in a sense, you know, your views in like, a democracy look like? So one is I think there's difference between kind of polarization and concentration. But the similarity that I see is, I think the following, which is, that both in both countries there are sections of the population that might be tempted by ethno-nationalism. Right. Again, it's sometimes hard to be precise about how widespread that attraction is, partly because nationalism now itself can speak as a coded language. You know, in some ways it re-articulates itself as something else. so there can be genuine arguments about immigration. There are arguments about immigration that I actually, frankly, just ethno-nationalist arguments. It's sometimes difficult to parse those things out and I think, you see this in both countries. But insofar as there is a kind of attraction to ethno-nationalism, and, and ethno-nationalism defines itself also against a similar set of targets. It's impatient with liberal elites who they think are not just too out of touch. It's impatient with checks and balances because they think checks and balances come in the way of creating the unity of the people, or taking the strong actions that it needs to take to make the country great. Right. I mean, we don't want all these courts we doing different things in Congress. And the natural pluralism of society becomes a kind of hindrance, not an asset. Right? That's the core. Right. And that temptation then leads to the curbing of their independent power, whether it be universities, whether it be media. I think that tendency is quite strong in the US. It's still checked a bit because there are countervailing powers. But I don't think it's something that should be in a sense, complacently, I think, taken for granted and I think the third I think element of kind of ethno-nationalism, which is we are in this moment, in world history, where, every country wants to put their interests first. Again, nothing new about it. All nationalisms do it. Historically, every country has put their interests first. But I think now we are at a vision of the world where we see the world in a zero-sum game. It's America first, India first, China first. And that optimism of the last 25, 30 years that you could see geopolitics and the nature of our economic development in non-zero-sum games in non-zero-sum terms. I think that optimism is waning and once that optimism wanes, it does make the way for a kind of politics of exclusion and closure you know, that, that might not. I think we consonant with the kind of open, free American spirit that we were used to.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Indian politics expert Pratap Bhanu Mehta. When you were talking there, I was thinking of two things that I want to ask you about at the end before we have to stop. But one of them is in the one of the things I worry about as a political scientist looking at the United States is that zero-sum mentality for domestic politics. But it's very interesting to think of it in terms of the international realm as well, and how those two things might work together. But before I wanted to ask you a question that’s related to that. Let me ask you a question about your own experience if you don't mind. And, you know, you don't have to get deeply into this if you don't want to. But my understanding is that the kind of limitations on academic freedom that you're beginning to see in India, that's that's something that that you, you personally have experienced. Is that correct?

PBM: Yes. I mean, I mean, to put it very in a sense, pointedly, there is direct pressure from government on academic institutions to rein in academics who are critical of the government. Could be on a range of issues, not just academics. I mean, there's there's a group of thinkers who have actually been targeted and put in prison. I just mentioned a couple of them just to give examples on and tell to me one of actually India's finest Dalit scholars. He was kind of the government accuse him of, fomenting in some sense, his left-wing insurgencies really kind of surcharge in this evidence now that, evidence was actually planted on his laptop to make that possible. So, yes, I mean, and lots of Indian universities increasingly cannot hold seminars on subjects of national importance. For example, you cannot hold a seminar, on Kashmir in most Indian universities. Either there'll be direct pressure from government or increasingly the government will use or at least support vigilante groups, sometimes, unfortunately, even student groups, to obstruct and block these seminars. Appointments in public universities deeply vetted ideologically. So, so, yeah, there's a whole range of, you know, ways in which are increasingly, unfortunately, becoming familiar in the US as well, in which academic freedom is under jeopardy in India.

GR: So as I listen to you, I also am thinking of, a very famous, political writer, Alexis de Tocqueville.

PBM: Yeah.

GR: Oh, you know, was, a Frenchman who had important observations to make about the American system. And you're kind of reminding me of that here in a modern context. And I wanted to draw on that. We've only got a couple of minutes left, but, I wanted to ask you. Okay, so give the United States political lessons. What should what should Americans be most what should be on the top of their mind politically as they think about their future here? And what should we be most on guard about? How should we and are there things that we need to be doing differently or thinking about differently? If you could give us this advice.

PBM: So, I mean, it's very presumptuous, but okay. But here's two quick points. One, and this I very strongly believe in that almost any tinge of ethno-nationalism in politics, that's a story that never ends well. Even though you might not see violence immediately, it does something to relations between citizens. That's, I think, deeply troubling for democracies, and particularly one that, you know, we kind of celebrate, I think the United States kind of I mean, this was this democracy, the sense of lightness of being was always one thing that we wanted to associate with the United States, not the kind of the heavy heaviness of ethno-nationalism. The second thing I will say, which is a lot of what gives ethno-nationalism links in politics, is actually the governance failures of liberal establishments. So in India, it's also, you know, the credibility of the liberal establishment imploded on its own account. Right. And, while we focus on, you know, ethno-nationalism, white supremacism, pluralism, populism, at the heart, there are serious governance challenges, housing, health, daycare costs. And if you want to preserve liberty, you have to be able to demonstrate that you are up to also meeting these governance challenges. Otherwise, the bad guys would have an opening.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. I could talk to you for hours about this topic that was Pratap Bhanu Mehta and if you'd like to learn more about India and democracy, check out his book, “The Burden of Democracy.” Pratap, thanks again for taking the time to talk to me has been extremely insightful.

PBM: Thank you, it's been a real privilege.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.