New Delhi: Noted academic and political thinker Pratap Bhanu Mehta said that that there is a big surge created by the Congress leadership which can push Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi ashore.
In an interview with Karan Thapar on Devil's Advocate, Mehta also said that Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has been a source of immense disappointment. He added that there is nothing in what he does or says, and such little as he says and does, that actually reflects any big ambitions for India.
Here is the transcript of the full interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate and an interview with one of India's great political and social thinkers Pratap Bhanu Mehta about how he views the state of the country today. Dr Mehta, many people look at the paralysis of our Parliament, the slowing down of the economy, the indecisiveness of our government and its lack of performance, and fear that may be India has taken a wrong turn and somewhere lost its way. Can you understand and perhaps share that sentiment?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Yes, broadly that sentiment is right, but you know an interesting thing has happened in the last month. The government and the polity seem like the student who doesn't study all year and then right before exams begins cramming really hard. So if you look at the number of decisions that have been taken in the last two or three weeks, it makes you wonder what would have happened if we had taken this decision four years ago, five years ago.
Karan Thapar: Let's look at both halves of that answer. Students who cram at the last moment often actually don't do very well. They convince themselves they know enough only to fail. Is the government despite its last minute cramming in danger of failing?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: It is in danger of failing. I think what the cramming has done is in a sense, we had reached a point where the sense of crisis was beginning to be so overwhelming that people were actually beginning to doubt India's political future. I think what it has done is in a sense got us over that sense of deep crisis. But all we have done is in a sense postponed the day of reckoning a little bit.
Karan Thapar: Again you have said a very interesting thing. Because the government failed to act right up till the nth moment, a sense of crisis had developed and there was a serious question mark about India's future. In other words this government had brought India to the brink
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: It had brought India to the brink in every respect. You have a serious economic crisis, there is no question about it and despite some good news in the last two or three weeks the underlying sense of gloom and crisis still prevails. But most importantly we had a sense of a democracy completely paralysed almost for two and half to three years. Parliament did not do any substantial meaningful work. What would the meaning of Parliamentary democracy be if it takes 10 years to pass bills, if 95 per cent of parliamentary time is in disruptions and third and more important, for the first time I think in the last 20 years a sense that almost every institution, whether it was the CBI, perhaps even the judiciary across the board, every institution was facing a crisis
Karan Thapar: I will come to institutions in a moments time. I want to first pick up on your earlier thought that there is a paralysis in India's democracy. That's much more serious than just non-performance of a government. Who is to blame for this sense of paralysis in our democracy?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: The short answer is I think all political parties and I think they are to blame at two levels. One its an interesting question how do political parties actually read what the public mood is, and my own sense is I think that the ability of our politicians to gauge public sentiment has been diminishing because they are not socially embedded in the way they used to be. So public opinion becomes a construct in their heads which has made them risk averse, which has made them cling to traditional positions.
But, the second element is that some paralysis can be genuine where there is genuinely disagreement between parties and there is a stalemate. But what we have seen in last five to seven years is there is actually no disagreement. We pass the same Pension Bill that will be stuck for 10 years. In fact last Parliamentary session was spectacular.
Karan Thapar: They were just stupidly, shallowly, quarrelling over things.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: They were quarrelling over about who gets credit, the political strategy seemed to be obstructionism.
Karan Thapar: So pettiness is taking over rather than difference over policy. This is partisan politics rather than difference over policy.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: As Gandhi ji said our besetting sin is our littleness, its not our differences.
Karan Thapar: And our politicians are showing their littleness in spades so to speak.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Absolutely. I mean, there has never been this extraordinary contagion of littleness which has diminished our ambitions
Karan Thapar: In the context of the crisis that almost brought India to the brink lets actually try and form some sense of judgment about the major political players at this moment, because at the end of the day they carry the can for what is happening. How would you assess Dr Manmohan Singh's performance as the Prime Minister over the last nine years?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I think if we confine ourselves to UPA-II, I mean otherwise the argument becomes more complex. It has been nothing short of disastrous, not just in the fact that he has not only not exercised leadership, he has stood by while institutions have been decimated bit by bit. But I think the lasting damage he has done to the entire structure of government, well if you have the Prime Minister of the country who consistently abdicates responsibility. The way in which that sentiment then percolates down government, is truly extraordinary and I think that is essentially the core of what has happened.
Karan Thapar: So, he is guilty of three things, (a) not exercising leadership (b) standing by as institutions are destroyed (c) allowing a sense of helplessness to percolate right through the system so that it affects virtually everyone.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Absolutely! In fact all the norms of how government runs have been so shattered, I mean what does Cabinet responsibility mean, what does prime ministerial responsibility mean, so we will have to reboot the system radically.
Karan Thapar: Do you see him as a man who had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, but was hobbled for political reasons by Sonia Gandhi or was he himself uncertain, unsure and therefore indecisive?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I am not privy to any internal discussions, but my own sense is that he was himself unsure, because I think we have seen in the past that whenever he has been clear about what he wanted and has explained to the country and has explained to Sonia Gandhi and to the party, why what he wanted was important, he has actually managed to get it. I mean we obviously site the example of the nuclear deal, but you can site some more examples like that. So I think there is a big puzzle about what exactly did he want and what did he exactly argue for.
Karan Thapar: So the country has paid a price because the Prime Minister didn't know what he wants and because he is indecisive as a result?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Right!
Karan Thapar: So, we are really paying the price because the Prime Minister is not a natural born leader.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: And has no political authority and legitimacy.
Karan Thapar: Now the Congress government is particularly proud of bills like the Food Security Bill, the Land Acquisition Bill, the Street Vendors Bill, the Forest and Tribal Rights Bill. Its critics point out that it's completely forgotten critical reforms like autonomy to the CBI, like Citizens Grievance Redressal, like Lokpal, leave aside a whole range of essential economic liberalising reforms that are short formed as second generation reforms. What's your sense of what this government UPA-II has achieved or failed to achieve?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: See, when it came to power, the social contracts were supposed to be simple, which is create the conditions for growth. Growth will then translate into more resources that you can share with and use for bringing those who are left out of the growth process into the productive process. It's by and large paid attention to the second half and actually forgotten the first. Sort of, you know, what is the hen that lays the golden eggs and all the reforms that were necessary to sustain growth. It grew complacent about the growth. I think my own sense it was complacency more than
forgetting. I think we just came to assume, and I think frankly there has been an intellectual failure on our part as well of the community of intellectuals, where there was the mood in the country that 8 per cent growth became our birth right. That somehow we had reached a level of savings rate that if even we didn't do much India could grow by night.
Karan Thapar: Both the government and all of us intellectuals got conned by easy success in the early years.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Absolutely and I think we are all complicit in that.
Karan Thapar: But the government is more to blame, because as you said, they carried through with a whole range of welfare measures forgetting that if the growth to support them doesn't happen, those measures cannot be financed. They are indefensible almost.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Well I am actually not entirely convinced that the welfare measures by themselves are indefensible but I think what is indefensible is the fact that at least for the last two years all the bad news and the writing on the wall have been clear and when the government came to know, it did not then respond.
Karan Thapar: Till the very last moment, when it may be too late.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Yes, till the very last moment.
Karan Thapar: Now the Congress party considers Rahul Gandhi as their great beacon of the future, their great hope for the country. Are you impressed by his performances as an MP over the last nine years that we have known him?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Frankly, he has been a source of immense disappointment on a couple of fronts - 1) There is almost nothing in what he does or says, and such little as he says and does, that actually reflects any big ambitions for India. Well it's almost a kind of defeatism that we are destined to remain a poor country. What we need as a poor country is to give more palliatives to the poor people.
Karan Thapar: A small man with a little mind?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Well small man perhaps with may be with a big heart but certainly with very little ambition for the country. And I think you would look to a young leader to articulate, in a sense, the future belongs to us. I think the second is the personal example, which is frankly institutions are maintained partly by the force of those who inhabit them. Jawaharlal Nehru sitting in Parliament, rushing to the well of Parliament on every occasion enhanced the credibility of Parliament. Rahul Gandhi has been absent. And the third thing in every national crisis, he has been missing in action. When a healing touch is required, when you need the reassurance of somebody to say, you know somebody is in-charge, he has been absent.
Karan Thapar: Would Jawaharlal Nehru be proud of his great grand-son or disappointed by him?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Grandparents are seldom disappointed by grandchildren, In fact they are often corrupted by children and grandchildren but I would say he would be disappointed.
Karan Thapar: Does Rahul Gandhi in your eyes have the quality to be Prime Minster of India, possibly the next Prime Minster at a moment of crisis.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: He may have the qualities but on the basis of his current performance over the last 10 years he has certainly not earned the title yet.
Karan Thapar: In other words, if he has those qualities, he has kept them hidden.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: It is a very well kept secret.
Karan Thapar: Congress likes to compare him to David Cameron, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, all of whom came to top office in their early forties, the age at which Rahul Gandhi is today. Is that a justifiable comparison?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I mean, you know he loses by that comparison. They are all self-made politicians. We can disagree with them but they don't sort of seem to be riding somebody and they are not missing in action. They are taking
responsibility for what they are doing. This man is missing in action.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to the Opposition. Are you impressed by the way it's functioned under Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, or do you believe they have been needlessly obstructionist, may be even opportunistic because they frequently moved away from positions and policy that they espoused when they were in power a few years earlier?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: In fact in some senses they are guilty of what the Congress is guilty of many times over. Complete confusion about what they stand for. So the party of economic reform and liberalisation started calling itself some form of Gandhi and socialist. We have absolutely no idea what their core economic beliefs are. They had 10 years to reconstruct the party, very little has happened on the ground in terms of organisation and so forth. The factional squabbles within the party have arguably been greater than in Congress. The only thing that has saved them is the fact that they have had four or five states where their chief ministers have managed to provide some degree of successful administration.
Karan Thapar: Now the BJP looks upon Narendra Modi as the salvation of the country. Do you share that?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I personally don't share that but I have to admit I think there is a big surge on the ground in favor of Narendra Modi. It's not so much to do with his qualities, it's a surge created by the vacuum that people are experiencing in the Congress leadership and that sense of vacuum is actually profound. I mean the Congress will create the wave that actually pushes Modi ashore.
Karan Thapar: After the crisis that Congress brought the country to, would you welcome Narendra Modi if he were to become the next prime minister?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Let's put it this way, Narendra Modi's prime ministership is going to carry immense risks. One small example - we just had the Muzaffarnagar riots and if the Prime Minister of India cannot with a clean conscience say to a state government you should take moral responsibility for violence like this, it will reflect badly on the authority of the Prime Minister.
Karan Thapar: If he does become Prime Minister, would Narendra Modi because of his background, because of his lack of clear conscience, because of the fact that people believe he has made a career of taunting Muslims, would he threaten the harmony and secular fabric of India or is that an unwarranted and an unjustified claim?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I think the one thing about politics is that it is a very contingent affair. You could actually argue the opposite that precisely because he's been tainted by it, he's actually had to work extra hard on the development front at least. My own sense is given the nature of his personality and the lack of contrition that he has shown about 2002, he is going to remain a divisive figure.
Karan Thapar: Would an apology even at this late stage help clear the air for him or is it now too late?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I think it is not so much the apology. You know, as Machiavelli said those who appear to be liberal evoke even more suspicion than those who are liberal. I think more than apology, actions on the ground, can he rein the VHP in? Can he take control and get rid from his party of all the elements that create that atmosphere of intimidation and conflict? So I think actions will have to speak louder than an apology.
Karan Thapar: Till we see those actions, you have serious question marks about Narendra Modi in your mind?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: On this particular question he has shown no evidence that he is actually a changed politician. Will he allow the CBI or institutions like the CBI to function credibly in riot cases.
Karan Thapar: Particularly if they are investigating him and his government.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: And his government, yes, very little evidence that he is actually going to do that. In Gujarat, yes he has cracked down on Praveen Togadia but very little evidence that he is going to rein in these kinds of elements in states like UP.
Karan Thapar: Alright and in fact UP is the touch point because that's where Amit Shah seems to be stoking up Hindutva and that adds to your concerns.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Right. Absolutely and the degree of polarisation in UP is very worrying.
Karan Thapar: Dr Mehta let's come to India's institutions. Many people when they look at the media, the judiciary, the Election Commission, the information commission, perhaps even CII and FICCI, see vibrancy and good health and they say that contrasts hugely with things like the legislature and the executive. Do we have institutions that are thriving in the middle of the sense of crisis that we talked about in part one, or are we deceiving ourselves?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: We have few islands of excellence but let us face it that the institutions that matter the most, which go to the core sovereign functions of the state, the police, law and order, some would argue even the armed forces, increasingly judiciary, those are the institutions that are actually in crisis. So, yes there are islands of excellence but there is a storm brewing underneath.
Karan Thapar: And do you get the feeling that people particularly those who matter are aware of the crisis crippling these critical institutions, and if they are aware, are they failing to do anything, or are they unaware as well?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I think they are unaware in one particular aspect, which is because of the kind of civil society mobilisation we have had, it's very clear that you cannot govern the Indian state, if you premise it on great centralisation, wide discretion, secrecy and arbitrary exercises of power and they are not yet prepared to make the shift away from these principles in governance.
Karan Thapar: So unless they change their entire attitude to governance, the institutions that are suffering will continue to suffer?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Absolutely and compounded by the fact that there are very few iconic figures in the state that we look up to.
Karan Thapar: Let's talk specifically about the media. How do you view the Indian media? Do you share justice Katju's concern, that by and large its obsessive, its narrow-minded, it focuses on middle class - urban concerns, ignoring the real problems that affect India such as poverty, such as joblessness.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: My concern is not so much the issues it covers. It is that whatever it does, with a few exceptions, it is not bringing sufficient rigor and it is not performing frankly the function of being an honest broker in very, very important debates. The media is failing Indian democracy, I would agree with justice Katju to that extent.
Karan Thapar: I know you are not a participant on television debates but do you watch them or do you find them off putting or irritating?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: You watch them in the way you would watch an entertainment show. In fact my own sense is that I think people are very wisely making the distinction that news is entertainment. It is not news.
Karan Thapar: But of course it should not be entertainment at all.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: But of course it should not be. It's exactly that confusion of roles that is crippling us.
Karan Thapar: So TV debates may be entertaining but in terms of informing, educating, illuminating, they fail.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Actually they are quite dangerous because they present a false construction of what public opinion is.
Karan Thapar: Finally let's come to the great Indian middle class. There is no doubt that compared to the 80s and the 90s, it's grown exponentially in size. But has its willingness and capacity to espouse progressive and liberal positions increased? Because that in a sense is the hallmark of the middle class in the West.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I would put the big challenge for the middle class in structural terms. I don't think the attitudes of the Indian middle class are anymore progressive or aggressive than they were 10-15 years ago. But I think there is a structural issue. Which is we may end up with a middle class that is one of the most privatised middle classes in the world, which is to say, we all avail private education, private health, private transport, private security and we may reach a point where we may structurally begin to secede from public institutions.
Karan Thapar: We will become island republics?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: We will or least the illusion of the island republic and the fact of the matter is no successful society can run unless its best and the brightest have an investment in creating and maintaining public institutions.
Karan Thapar: And so this development of the middle class in this particular direction actually threatens our sense of nation hood and our sense of unity as one people.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: It threatens that in a sense very, very deeply because one of the things that we have lost is a sense of what does the idea of a public mean anymore. We are all thinking strategically, as individuals.
Karan Thapar: But are we also losing the idea of India as a result?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: Dr Mehta a pleasure talking to you.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Thank you so much.