New Delhi: There are few people in India who understand the country’s complex political reality, leave alone articulate it, as well as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research, the New Delhi-based think tank. In a free-wheeling interview, he spoke with MintAsia on the vexing implosion of the Congress-led coalition at the centre; the abysmal state of the country’s institutions; and the implication of the ongoing structural change in the country’s polity for political parties. Edited excerpts:

Has India lost the plot?

India has very seriously lost the plot in two fundamental respects. The first is that the economic changes in the last decade or so and the broader changes in the social structures in society are creating a very new kind of a society. And, our governance structures are not in tune with the demands of this social structure. The second, the one we often speak about, is, “Did we have our framework for economic growth and development right?". “Were we operating on mistaken assumptions about what it would take to keep growth going in a way that is sustainable?". I think there is a general intellectual confusion on this as well.

The first is more fundamental because the Indian state was used to governing in a certain way. It was used to a centralized system; a very hierarchical system where vertical accountability mattered more than horizontal accountability—so long as your boss was satisfied, you did not have to answer anybody. There was relative secrecy; the state had by far more information than the civil society, and not just about the goings-on in the state.

One of the things that is common to our governance breakdown, whether it is in the corruption scandals or..., is that somewhere or the other the state forgot that you cannot now run India on these principles.

You can’t keep things secret; accountability will be demanded not just by your boss, but by a whole range of other institutions.

If you don’t produce knowledge, civil society itself will produce knowledge of the shortcomings—10 years ago, if the government didn’t tell you the water was poisoned, nobody would know.

The basic architecture of the state is not geared to governing in a way that can take into account the fact that this large shift has occurred. So, if you ask one core question, and let us take the corruption scandals—since that seems to be at the heart of the governance problem, as many may argue—the common thread running through them is not the fact that some people made money; (instead) it is that the government operated on the assumption that a lot of this would not come out despite having promulgated the RTI (Right to Information) Act. When it came out, instead of saying “Ok, now we need to reboot the way we conduct these practices regarding reforms, land market, infrastructure and mining contracts", it went into a defensive mode and tried to fight these changes with old fashioned tools of secrecy—which has actually brought the system to a standstill. If we are serious about governance reform, it is not simply about getting another leader; that leader now has to take this underlying tide for change and run with it, much like how the progressives ran in the US.

I think that is where the political system completely lost the plot. The opposition party, instead of taking this new surge, again ended up in collusive behaviour with the Congress for the most part. So I think that is the biggest crisis.

The subtext of what you just said: the way out is presaged on fixing the institutions?

Right. You will have to reboot institutions and institutional practices, although you have to be careful about using the word institutions in the Indian context. Politicians are using the word institutions as a way of displacing responsibility.

Somebody has to take decisions for these institutions to be rebooted—someone has to say very clearly that we don’t do business this way any more. So, in that sense, there is a role for the political leadership.

What is your sense as to how the general public is interpreting this governance failure at its level, unlike, say, a political scientist like you?

It is a very hard question. Public opinion is one of those strange words that, honestly, even our politicians are struggling to figure out. It itself has become a construct. You say this is public opinion and that becomes public opinion because we say it. That caveat apart, I am a little more optimistic in the sense that there is a greater consciousness that the architecture of the current system is flawed. And there is beginning to be a little bit of consensus on some elements—for example, on transparency, decentralization. At least, abstractedly, there is a lot more commitment to it.

I think what the ordinary public, in fact even the politician, finds is to try and get the collective action to be able to invent a new architecture. And this is the paradox. (US President Dwight) Eisenhower once said that the only way you can fix small problems sometimes is to make the problem bigger. But the problem is that if you actually have a very divided society, then getting that conversation of the constructive aspect is actually much harder. It has also been made harder by the fact that the one mechanism you rely upon in a democracy to keep this conversation going—political competition—has weakened considerably, especially in terms of ensuring accountability. Almost all political parties are identical in some ways; they behave institutionally in the same collusive pattern oddly. So, for the public, it has become harder to find a channel in the political process by which to push these things up the chain as it were.

This will serve the agenda of the current crop of politicians well. In the sense that they can reduce the quality of discourse by focusing on less desirable tangibles such as religion and caste. Doesn’t this create a serious risk like we are seeing with growing communal polarization?

Actually the risk is deeper. In a sense, part of this risk has always accompanied Indian democracy; we always compensate for the failure of these institutions trying to craft political coalitions on other rights: religion, caste and so forth. The risk right now, and you can see that angst in the public, is that if the vacuum grows, the receptiveness to some form of authoritarianism can potentially increase; simply because someone shows some sense of will, you actually get attracted to it. That temptation is always there and, in some sense, (Indian) democracy has been through that. My own sense is that this kind of authoritarianism cannot work for long in a country like India; as I said, the underlying changes in complexity is too complicated for that authoritarianism to manage. Nevertheless, that temptation will be there.

S o you have institutional failure on the one hand and huge unmet aspirations on the other. This only creates even more favourable circumstances for an authoritarian figure to take charge, whether for the short or long term.

Absolutely. The risk is certainly greater (now) than in the recent past. But, I think, this is pretty much an open question, which is, in order to institute change, somebody will have to show some kind of leadership. And even successful chief ministers, if you want to take a model at the level of the state, have by and large have had something of an authoritarian style in this minimal sense I have described—where there is a concentration of power which allows them to undertake certain kinds of reforms. The question is whether that model can be replicated? In effect, what Mr (Narendra) Modi is promising is that; whether he can be believed and whether it is a terrible model is a different story. But the appeal is that somebody can, by sheer determination of will, fill this incredible political vacuum and re-orient it in a governance direction. Surely, he is a good administrator and there is nothing out there to disbelieve that, (but) the honest truth is that there is no evidence that on the fundamentals of institutional reform, police reform, judicial reform, he will, in any sense, be any different from the current system.

What then do you believe will be the big issues that will drive the next election?

My own sense is that the economy will be a big issue, particularly if the growth remains below 5%; it is going to produce an atmosphere of anxiety.

Through the lack of jobs?

Through jobs, yes. Fundamentally, what economic growth had done was give a lot of Indians a sense of hope in a new narrative. Whether they actually got benefits or not, whether they would get it in the future (or not), there was the beginning of the sense that India is no longer destined to be a basket case. I think that sense is beginning to fray. And that psychological dimension of slowdown of growth is going to be a big electoral issue in some ways.

In some sense, people measure themselves not by the tangibles they have but whether they can tell a story that the future will be better than the past, and that is what the slowdown in growth seems to be taking away from them.

That brings us to the issue of polarization that is most visible in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It seems to be very calibrated, unlike in the past. Is this good news or bad news?

I actually think there is underlying good news—it is that the social narrative had, in some ways, begun to shift a little bit. A sense of anxiety was not there despite terrorism—the BJP tried to raise it in the last election, but it did not generate any kind of electoral resonance. And you were beginning to get the sense that it was in the interests of the state to actually show that this kind of violence would not break out.

In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it (the social narrative) is very definitely beginning to shift.

What makes me optimistic is that this (the polarization) won’t go very far as there isn’t a groundswell behind it; I think it is an artefact of, let us say, an old political system again not adjusting to the new realities.

I think the second factor in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is again a good news-bad news story. The good news story is that for the first time since the Mandal politics (in the 1990s, India tried to reserve government jobs for people from other backward classes, resulting in large-scale, sometimes violent protests, across the country) broke, there is beginning to be the sense that a lot of the kind of caste politics is up for strategic grabs. What has happened in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh was that there was a very straight caste narrative that had completely cut across the communal polarization narrative.

Interestingly, as that caste narrative weakens, the remaining fault lines become a little more salient. As the Samajwadi Party is no longer confident that it has a transferable caste vote—or at least it may be fraying at the edges—it is more tempted to the other remaining issue of polarization.

Opinion polls show a deadlock between the main political formations. So, is the public confused or is it too early to call?

I don’t think they are confused. Their dilemma is the following. There is probably a very small group of voters that votes in a very deeply ideological sense. They don’t see huge differences between the parties; and, when you are going to vote, perhaps even more important than the party platform, the question you ask is “How credible is this person?"

I think what this hesitation points to is that is the question we can’t easily answer. It is not like asking. “What platform do you like?", “Are you for liberalization?". And so forth.

But if you change the question slightly and ask, “Do you trust this guy to deliver?", I think that question is much harder to answer.

And that is where a lot of the local nuance comes in.

Politics is a game about computing credibility and not a game of competing ideologies.

Your ideology matters only to the extent that you can actually build it on a history of credibility.

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