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India at the Crossroads

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  • N. Ravi, The Hindu Editor-in-Chief, introduces the session to the audience
    N. Ravi, The Hindu Editor-in-Chief, introduces the session to the audience
  • John Elliott, Louise Tillin, and Sunil Khilnani, in conversation with Meghnad Desai at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
    John Elliott, Louise Tillin, and Sunil Khilnani, in conversation with Meghnad Desai at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
  • Meghnad Desai gestures during the discussion. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
    Meghnad Desai gestures during the discussion. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
  • Audience listens to the panelists. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
    Audience listens to the panelists. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

From the formation of new States, its implications for Federalism, the trust deficit in today's political leadership in India and the hopes generated by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the recent New Delhi Assembly elections, to the fears aroused by the possible rise of Narendra Modi, the optimists and realists among a highly accomplished set of panelists were locked in an absorbing one-hour session, 'India at the Crossroads', at the Mughal Tent at the Jaipur Literary Festival, billed the largest free festival of its kind in the world. The engrossing exchanges,at the discussion organised by The Hindu Centre on January 18 generated the much needed heat on a cold wintery evening.

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The panel discussion, moderated by Lord Meghnad Desai, eminent Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Labour Peer, witnessed by a large crowd, both young and old thronging the JLF, found both direct and nuanced articulations by three star panelists. They included Prof. Louise Tillin, Political Scientist at the India Institute, King's College, London and author of a new book, Remapping India: New States and Their Political Origins, Prof. Sunil Khilnani, Professor of Politics and Director of the India Institute, King's College, London and Mr. John Elliot, a journalist in Asia since 1983 who now reports for The Economist and author of his latest book, Implosion - India's Tryst With Reality.

Mr. N. Ravi, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu and member of the Board of Management of The Hindu Centre For Politics and Public Policy (THCPPP), introducing the distinguished members of the panel under the JLF's Democracy Dialogues series, explained how the Hindu Centre is a Public Policy initiative of The Hindu Group of Publications to bring critical issues into the public discourse.

As Lord Desai tossed up issues on a broad canvas with his inimitable humour and candour, Ms. Tillin as a quiet optimist refused to endorse the view that India was going down and under, even as John Elliot called for reforming the "system of political funding" and the need for the entry of new and young leaders into the political system to tackle major issues such as corruption.

"I shy away from an all-India generalisation," said Prof. Tillin. Rather than focusing on the "big shot way" to tackle corruption at high places, she preferred to put faith on the relative success stories in the various Indian states where there were serious attempts to tackle the issue of efficient delivery of public services to the people. "I am slightly more of an optimist, but also a realist," she stressed.

Drawing a sort of now-or-never predicament facing the Indian polity, the more outspoken journalist Mr. Elliot seemed sure that "we would be looking up at a new India", notwithstanding the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, if only Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the AAP, and the Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi had "got together a year ago and started to change politics". Kejriwal, now in power in Delhi, has no experience and "Rahul has never bothered to show any experience", commented Mr. Elliot, to the amusement of the audience. "But we need new and young leaders get into politics," he emphatically added.

Sunil Khilnani, author of the acclaimed book The Idea of India, taking a more philosophical overview towards the end, set much store by India's post-1947 experience, whose strength lay in institution building based on free India's Constitution. Notwithstanding the problems facing the nation, Prof. Khilnani strongly urged that the present 28 Indian States — and possibly a few more to come starting with Telangana by bifurcating Andhra Pradesh — should be seen as an “internal laboratory of different experiences”.

It was not merely a question of having strong leaders and strong parties, argued Prof. Khilnani in earnestly addressing the complex set of issues that the country faced now. Leaders might come and go, but there were bureaucracies at the state-level, like in Tamil Nadu for instance, where irrespective of the changes in political leadership and the parties, they have continued to deliver on basic public services like education and health care reasonably well, Prof. Khilnani pointed out, implying there was still sufficient grounds for enriching the 'Idea of India'.

Summarising the impressions of his latest book, Mr. Elliot said that India failed to accept its "failures" in its democratic experiment — its electoral system does elect people, but those elected people often bully their electors and govern badly according to the journalist-author — he cautioned that "there is a gradual insidious slow collapse of institutions that needs to be tackled".

Lord Desai, referring to the key themes in Ms. Tillin's work, pointed out that the linguistic reorganisation of Indian states in the mid-1950s was not the beginning of the end. Prof. Tillin responded saying that despite a potential threat in reorganising the states on linguistic lines then, India's Federalism was in fact strengthened as it led to "holding multiple identities which were not in conflict". She explained this was a striking feature of Indian Federalism, which was also the context of her latest work.

In broad agreement with that view, Prof. Khilnani also pointed out that the creation of new states did "sustain the Idea of India" in the 1960s. Though it strengthened India's federal system, since the 1980s, the challenges were different with the rise of violence secessionist movements like in Punjab. Then, smaller states were pressed for partly on the grounds of development needs, he said, adding, there was now a “modular system” with State-level parties playing ball in India's new coalition model.

However, the arguments in favour of and against the creation of Telangana, the latest controversy in this new States debate, saw sparks flying under the Mughal Tent. Lord Desai wondered whether it was "double rent seeking", amid creation of new capitals and infrastructure, a "small price to pay to entertain new identities" at the state level. Nigeria, for instance, has increased its number of State units from 25 to 36, Lord Desai pointed out to buttress his point.

Mr. Elliot, putting forward his "journalistic view", said the proposed separation of Andhra Pradesh was nothing more than political, with the Congress President Ms. Sonia Gandhi "wanting more seats" in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls (presumably from the Telangana region). But those opposing the split were all from coastal Andhra who had built businesses in Hyderabad over the years and "it is all politics at the end", he rued.

Prof. Tillin, nonetheless, took a more empathetic view of the dynamics of the Telangana situation. Despite its preoccupation with "small minded, local political history (of the Telangana Movement)", she said it showed the ability to question and change the boundaries of economic life. Leaders and Chief Ministers at the State-level have started to "re-imagine their States", she said.

At another level, Prof. Khilnani saw in this "India's capacity of institutional innovation", which has enabled the development and articulation of a vastly diverse country. But of late, that capacity to reinvent was on the downswing, while the way ahead was in showing how successful institutions "turn private vices into public virtues", he emphasised.

On the issue of corruption, all the panelists agreed that it had to be urgently tackled through institutional reforms, but differed on whether the immediate focus should be on eliminating “petty, local level corruption” as the AAP was trying to do in Delhi, or going in for deeper institutional reforms like instituting the Lok Pal at the national level and the Lokayuktas at the State level.

The record of the regional parties being quite dismal under the UPA-II coalition, the decline of the single party domination (read Congress) since the late 1980s coinciding with an alleged "implosion" in the judicial system, the varying quality of leadership and parties in the political spectrum leading to a polarising thirst for a strong leader like Narendra Modi on the one hand and "anybody but Modi" on the other, the nexus between allocation of natural resources, politicians and control of the media and the "huge amount of money" being generated in a liberalised economy which is a great temptation in itself for the politicians and the bureaucracy, were among the other hotly discussed issues by the panelists.

"Unless you change the funding of elections and the funding of politicians, you can never stop corruption," said Mr. Elliot, even as the panelists were inclined to shower encomiums on the AAP's transparent model of raising funds in the recently concluded Assembly elections in New Delhi.