In a discussion moderated by Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta spoke on how this has been an election of low expectations, the erosion of institutions and the challenges after the polls.
This edition of Express Adda held in Mumbai hosted Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Vice-Chancellor of Ashoka University and Contributing Editor, The Indian Express.
A high-stakes, low-expectation election
You get this very palpable sense that Indian political culture is at a very decisive moment, which could fundamentally alter the nature of our politics. If you do get five years of a consolidated (Narendra) Modi government, India will become an irrevocably majoritarian state. All basic assumptions we made about Indian democracy — that it has a tendency to move towards the centre, that it has a very distinctive model in the way it accommodates pluralism and diversity — will be up for grabs. The kind of centralisation of power you’ll see will upend a lot of our institutional checks and balances. In all these dimensions, it’s a very high-stake election but it’s a low-expectation election because given the high stakes, certainly that hasn’t concentrated the Opposition’s mind. Even in public discourse, we are finding excuses not to confront the high stakes in this election. We are not looking at a visionary alternative or an articulate opposition, or a return to basic constitutional principles, but just a little bit of balance of power. There’s no promise of acche din, there’s no visionary articulation even of the kind you saw bits of in the 2014 election.
On the weakening of institutions
The ideological convictions with which the BJP is proceeding and the ruthlessness in using any means possible to consolidate power are contributing in making institutions more fragile. If we step back from Modi a bit and look at it in a larger perspective, as a civil society, we need to confront some basic questions. The financial crisis of 2009 is actually a much more pivotal moment for Indian political culture than we realised. Firstly, because India experienced an economic slowdown and we don’t have a serious answer to the question: what is India’s model of development going to look like in five years from now? Between 2000 and 2008, when we had 8 per cent growth, we grew complacent. The second thing that 2009 did was to bring to the fore a trend that it delegitimised elites across the world and by elites, I mean all the classes that had disproportionate intellectual or symbolic capital. The elites of society have become corrupt or self-serving or out of tune. This kind of identification evokes attack on media, universities or intermediate institutions and it’s a crisis from which we haven’t recovered. When elites become delegitimised and we don’t have a confident economic story, it will create conditions for nationalism to take centerstage because that is the only unifying story and the carriers of nationalism are the people who should know better.
On the points of hope
Sources of disenchantment and resistance or the need for it, is still a very powerful undercurrent in Indian society. There are marginalised groups that will assert themselves in one form or the other. The challenge they are having at the moment is that there is no credible articulation. My own sense is that the undercurrent of resistance is there but the structures of mediation still have not woken up to the possibilities of tapping into those. The second undercurrent in this election is that a lot of people who claim to be supporting Modi seem to be relatively clear in their recognition that he actually has not delivered much of what he has promised. In fact, it is not the kind of euphoric endorsement. It is “there is no other alternative” or frankly, we are just trying to find an excuse to vent. The political, intellectual and social spaces are there, it is just that our institutions, political parties and universities have been so moribund in responding to them, we have become much more defeatist. Maybe, this election will jolt us out of this.