'Is India at its kind of Progressive Moment?' was a lecture delivered by promient political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta at the inaugural Constitution Day Lecture series organized by Daksh, a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit organisation. Mehta delivered this lecture on 26 November 2012.

The speech

I was tempted to speak on why Bangalore and not Delhi should rule India. But I thought it might be actually misunderstood both in Bangalore and Delhi!

It is particularly humbling to be in the presence of Justice Venkatachaliah, they don't make many like him in the Supreme Court anymore and I think that has to be said on public record; and particularly given this audience, with some old friends, who know a lot more about the themes that I am going to be talking about today than I do.

Prakash Bhanu Mehta giving the inaugural Constitution Day lecture at Bengaluru, on 26 November 2012. Pic src: Daksh Video.

Today, in some senses, is one of those days which is now going to be marked with an over-determination of meaning: 26/11 - Mumbai, of course, as well as an important day in the history of our Constitution; a new political party is being formed in Delhi, which I am going to talk about a little bit, later on. Some policy wonks now feel that the announcement of cash transfers is a kind of a new constitutional moment in the history of the Indian welfare state. How does one tie all of these things together? A bit reckless, but I will actually try and do that because I think in some senses, it is important to see the evolution of our constitutional life in the context of these broader changes in state and society.

The title I give to this talk, which will sort of set the theme for today, is 'Is India at its kind of Progressive Moment?' The term Progressive Moment derives from analogies with US History and I will draw a lot of analogies and derive contrasts with US history. These are meant to be heuristic aids to thinking rather than to be taken quite literally.

The debate was sparked off by a claim that is being made generally that what India has been living through in the last 5 to 7 years is India's version of the gilded age. Ashutosh Varshney and Jayant Sinha made that argument, but many others have made a similar argument. By 'gilded age', we simply mean that period in a society when it is undergoing rapid growth, increasing urbanisation, a growing middle class, but is also associated with extraordinary rent-seeking, a nexus between business and politics that is unprecedented, and rarely, a view of life that says (as Mark Twain once put it about the gilded age), 'make all the money dishonestly if you can and honestly if you must'.

The argument that this follows is that what followed the gilded age in the US was the progressive movement, a kind of reaction against the excesses of the gilded age. Now, at one level this comparison between US and India strikes us as very odd since the historical circumstances are very different, and so are the social circumstances and our conceptions of national identity. But if you were taking a strictly policy-wonkish view, it is not an entirely outrageous comparison. Our per capita GDP is roughly around what the United States' was in 1880 and it's bearing that perspective in mind that we have to talk about our contemporary problems. Often we forget to ask this question, what kind of state do you expect to have at that per capita level of GDP?

I am not an economic determinist but I think, keeping a sense of the right historical perspective in mind is important.

I want to begin with setting the scene - going back to the founding movement and the constitution which we are here to celebrate. I think most in this room will celebrate the constitution. For all kinds of reasons, the sobering fact is that 80-85% of all constitutional transitions fail. Ours didn't. That itself is a remarkable historical achievement. This was an achievement made possible not just by the text of the document, but also by the surrounding circumstances in political culture that nurtured and sustained it. If you were to ask most people who engage themselves with the constitution, ‘What does the constitution mean to you now' or ‘How has the constitution acquired a place in our national life, what sustains it?' I suspect you would get two contrasting answers.

One, the idealist one, would view the constitution as some kind of semi-sacred text, the lode star for political existence which has given the basic frame work and underwritten the basic social contract of our society. And the claim on this view is that if only we could recover the constitutional morality that our founding fathers gave us, many of our problems would at least diminish in their intensity if not be entirely solved. Now the phrase, constitution morality, is used a lot these days (including in Supreme Court judgments) and I tried to do some historical digging about how this phrase was used during the Constituent Assembly debates. To my knowledge there are only three references to the phrase constitution morality. The most extensive one was made by Ambedkar, in one of his final speeches, in which there is an extensive treatment of what he actually meant by constitutional morality.

I think it is worth reading that speech because it is really different from what we understand by constitutional morality. We take it literally to be the precepts of the constitution - that is, it's the text which gives you morality, while Ambedkar is actually not talking about the text at all. He is talking about the underlying sensibility, an appreciation for plurality, the spirit of the constitution that sustains that text. But one element of what he highlighted is what I want to begin with. When he describes what he means by constitutional morality, he quotes extensively from George Grote who was a great 19th century Greek political historian (and who sparred with John Stuart Mill on many issues relating to liberty) and he describes constitutional morality in these words, "Constitutional morality is a paramount reverence for the form of the constitution, enforcing obedience to authority and acting under these forms, combined with the habit of open speech subject only to particular legal control but unrestrained censor of those authorities as to all their public acts."

One of the parts which Ambedkar chose to emphasise is the unrestrained censor of all those acting in the name of public power and (if you were to discuss his definition of democracy and ask, is democracy really government by discussion?) he makes this remarkable claim that one of the great features of the Indian constitution is that no part of government or no entity can claim monopoly in representing the people. His idea was that, people in that sense cannot be represented; no institution can stand up and say we are the sole repositories of what the people mean. The conception of what the people want and require is a conception that emerges through open speech and discussions and debate. In that sense, Ambedkar's vision of constitutionalism was firmly rooted in the influence of his teacher John Dewey, one of the great thinkers of the progressive era. This is sort of one version of the constitution - constitution that facilitates a kind of democratic experimentalism by consensus.

What, however, is the practice of our constitutional morality? I think most people would agree that it is best summed up in another picture of ancient constitutionalism, given in Heinrich Meier's view of the Roman Constitution and in particular, Caesar's relationship to it. Meier writes very powerfully that Caesar was insensitive to political constitutions and the way they operate. He was unable to see them as autonomous entities. He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. He had no feeling for their power but concerned himself only with what he found useful or troublesome about them.

So, on one hand, there is the idealist or normative promise of constitutional morality and on the other, there is the reality of using the constitution as a tool by which to knock other people on the head rather than viewing it as a set of norms which we all internalise and share. I think the struggle for the soul of Indian politics is which version of constitutionalism will triumph?

Mind you, the instrumentalist version of constitution can be quite stable as Adam Jaworski, political scientist, reminded us that often constitutions can be stable not because there is a normative consensus about them, but simply because lots of different forces in society find them convenient instruments in this interplay of forces. To that extent, our constitution has been a huge success. It has fragmented power in a way that has produced its own stability. But the question is, can we make the transition from the constitution being simply an instrument in the interplay of forces, convenient in the hands of some to beat up another? (Everybody invokes the constitution without really adhering to what the norms require).

Now, a contemporary version of this rather abstract philosophical dilemma is being played out right now in our politics. I think one of the hopes that India is at its own progressive moment comes from the fact that there seems to be widespread consensus that the old principles on which the Indian state administered the country are on the verge of breaking down or have broken down irrevocably, and this breakdown is all for the good.

What were the old principles of the Indian state? They were those that were embodied in the 1935 Government of India Act which we adopted full scale; it says that power is organised vertically - you are answerable only to people above you, power is associated with secrecy - the relative asymmetry of information between the state and society favours the state, the state has wide discretion which is not subject to public reason, the state is centralised (and mind you, the first 3 elements are key attributes of that centralisation, so you can exercise discretion because there is secrecy, which in turn produces centralisation, which in turn produces forms of vertical accountability) and the final principle that by and large, the identities of social actors within this polity are relatively simple identities - either they are simple ethnic identities or they are relatively simple class identities.

Now, the revolution that we are undergoing is that it is very clear that no government can hope to run India if it now organises governance on any of these principles. Secrecy is gone, and by secrecy I don't mean the RTI kind - that is only one element, it is also the generation and production of information about social working. If the government doesn't tell you that your air is polluted, then some nice NGO in Bangalore will tell you that it is. So there has been a sort of relative shift in power.

Vertical accountability is gone thanks to the dispersal of power within the institutions of Indian state and outside, like what Daksh is doing - holding legislators accountable by examining their records. We have seen different examples of this in the CAG, media, all kinds of institutions. A state official simply cannot say I have done my bit to be accountable if I have satisfied my boss, which is really the way in which the principle of accountability operated in practice in the past. Centralisation is clearly unsustainable to the extent that the Indian state exercises. So one of the hopes of this particular moment is what we see as this great angst about corruption. It really is a reflection of the breakdown of the fundamental principles by which the old state governed us.

The question is: What will replace these old principles? Will discretion be replaced by public reason, or another form of arbitrariness? Will the fact that the asymmetry of information has shifted lead to more opening or will it lead to more ham-handed attempts by the state to control and repress information? Will this clamour for participatory governance lead to genuine decentralisation or will the state again find ways of subverting the genuine devolution of power that's required?

Now, all societies, in some way or the other, have gone through versions of this dilemma. This is just a very stylised, ideal kind that I am positing, between principles of the old order and those of the new order. The question is what are the pre-conditions that enable a more successful transition to a new order that is based on more horizontal accountability, decentralisation, open transparent government, government by public reason and discussion rather than arbitrary power? It is in this context that the analogy with the US progressive movement is often invoked: if we had a progressive movement of the kind that the US had in its revolt against the gilded age, we would be successful.

India is not unique in this dilemma; almost every developing country - Brazil, China - in different ways are also facing the same structural dilemma.

What can we learn from these different successes? As I said, the old order is collapsing with the birth of this new order, but in India it is going to be extremely difficult, and I would argue, perhaps more difficult than anywhere else.

The first reason paradoxically is that despite the fact that India is a democracy, India's ruling order is one of the most closed that any modern democracy has seen. To put it provocatively, we have one national party which is a kind of quasi-monarchy legitimized by democratic mandates and another party which is a quasi-church and a pretty dysfunctional one at that. You have to go back to 1840s' France to think of these analogies: so, a party of a monarchist legitimate order and a party of a decaying corrupt obnoxious church are your two national parties. As with any old legitimist order involving a party of the monarchy and another of the church, they have been in collusion with each other.

They are in collusion about the fact that they both subscribe to Heinrich Meier's description of what the constitution means to them. For both, the constitution is an instrument for governing, not the source of norms. Both are in collusion in the sense that 90% of those members of the church and monarchical party could have easily been members of the other party, if you take the 10% fanatic right out of the picture. But interestingly, what has emerged very powerfully in the last two years (and this has shocked me) is that, both of them have an interest in subverting or not appropriating the anti-corruption agenda that is sweeping through society.

The Indian political order is comparatively a more closed order - I was recently in Brazil, which over the last 8-10 years has gone through a process similar to ours - great civil society movements clamouring for change. The interesting difference with India is that the minute those civil society movements started, the structure of the political system was such that it became an incentive for new entrants into politics to actually appropriate the anti-corruption agenda. So, for example, you had Lula running against Cardoso, and in particular taking on board the anti-corruption agenda.

On one hand, there is the idealist or normative promise of constitutional morality and on the other, there is the reality of using the constitution as a tool by which to knock other people on the head rather than viewing it as a set of norms which we all internalise and share. I think the struggle for the soul of Indian politics is which version of constitutionalism will triumph?

* * *

The Indian Middle class is the most 'privatised' middle class, sociologically. On any index of engagement, therefore - education, health, water, sanitation, transport and possibly even energy and electricity, it is the most historically privatised middle class that I have seen in comparative development literature.

-- Prakash Bhanu Mehta

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What is interesting and really quite sobering about this political moment in India is that the one mechanism that democracy relies on for accountability, namely competition, is simply not working. No political party is willing to articulate or stand up and say, this is our vision for transition from the old order to the new order. By accident, some have subscribed to elements of this but you do not have the emergence of a political structure that can actually make this transition.

You can see this over and over again, in every institution; the real scandal is not simply that Parliament is not functioning - we can argue who is to blame, but I think it is actually very nicely choreographed among all political parties - but even in routine institutions like the JPCs or PSEs, where you expect competition, the core mechanism of democracy to work, it has completely broken down. Ask yourself, why no political party in Maharashtra seriously meant to take on any of the anti-corruption agenda - there is a pantomime-ish reference to it but they don't want to build a political movement around it.

So, in comparison to other democracies, because power in political parties is so centralised, we don't get these natural openings at the top that other political systems do either because of term limits or Presidential forms of government. In a Parliamentary Federal System, the entry barriers to politics are also going to be high. I don't mean entry barriers at a local level, but entry barriers in terms of being able to generate sufficient nationwide momentum to form an alternative to these monarchical and church parties are much higher because there is no natural locus of political mobilisation. So, we must acknowledge, despite India's openness, it has a much more closed political system at the top than in any other contemporary democracy that I can think of.

The second feature which I feel will make the struggle harder in India has to do with the character of the Indian middle class. A lot has been made out of recent discussions over whether the Indian middle class will finally transform politics? Now, we have to be very precise about what we mean by the Indian middle class. There are two forms of middle class: one is the global Indian middle class with incomes of $10 PPP and above, comprising about 8-10% of the Indian population; the other would be the Local Indian middle class, with a median income of roughly $4-$10 PPP. Alternatively, if you are distributing them around a median income of the population, then those whose incomes are not below 80% of the median income, or not higher than 200% of the median income.

Historically middle classes have played an important role in this transition for a variety of reasons - education, a different kind of engagement with the state etc. To me, the most important dynamic of a growing middle class is the following: if you have a very small middle class, you have a kind of two- track politics - a small group is engaged with the state at this high level of abstraction, but most citizens rarely engage in the ordinary politics of survival and the State creates structures of patronage to keep them that way. Once you have a rising middle class, the anger against breaking rules increases, not because the middle class is virtuous but because the middle class is in a sense in an aspiration to join a particular game. If more people feel that they are being excluded from that, you have a very different kind of pressure.

Section of the audience at the lecture. Pic src: Daksh Video.

Based on some number crunching, the distinctive thing about the Indian middle class has been found to be a huge race between exit and accountability. Compared to the middle class in any other country (including the United States in 1910-20, most certainly Europe or even East Asia), the Indian Middle class is the most 'privatised' middle class, sociologically. Take any attribute, such as primary school enrollment: urban India is soon going to approach 60 -70% (in population), which is unprecedented in historical terms. If you take consumption of two-wheelers, the consumption graph looks very nice but the fact that in India, even the lowest 20th decile has to have a two-wheeler to be able to get around is actually a very bad sign. On any index of engagement, therefore - education, health, water, sanitation, transport and possibly even energy and electricity, it is the most historically privatised middle class that I have seen in comparative development literature.

Now, the jury is out on what this extent of privatisation of the Indian middle class will actually do to the race between its exit and its demand for accountability. I don't want to go into whether this exit was justified or what created it or whether this was a rational response to the way that the state delivered goods and services, but once you are locked in to an exit mode of coping - for example, the Indian middle class doesn't have a stake in public schools, public hospitals, water, transport - even with the best of intentions, is it going to be the site for that kind of democratic experimentalism with institutions of the state which Ambedkar and Dewey hoped and talked about?

I am not saying there is no middle class civic engagement - there is huge engagement - but in some senses, it is something that works outside the interstices of your own construction of your life chances vis-à-vis the state. In sociological terms, this is totally unprecedented and a characteristic worth bearing in mind.

Coming to the second characteristic of the Indian middle class which again is historically very interesting, most middle classes elsewhere are usually an amalgam of forces - old landed elites transiting to modern modes of life. In England, for example, this happened due to primogeniture. That mattered a lot to the self-identity of that middle class. One thing that I find amazing about the Indian middle class is that it is attuned to thinking of itself as a pure meritocracy - which is a middle class that has risen by dint of its own talent. Again, sociologically speaking, for the politics of common good and experimentalism, a meritocratic society is about the worst form you can imagine, because meritocrats feel that whatever privileges they have got are the ones that they are actually entitled to. As the slogan goes, you can shame an aristocracy but you can never shame a meritocracy. I am not saying that meritocracy should not be there as an institution, but I feel the self- identity of this middle class in relation to the rest of the society is more likely to exacerbate the exit mechanisms than you have sociologically seen elsewhere.

The third reason that I feel we still have a long way to go despite the possibility of such a revolution is this: I think Ram Guha has very rightly pointed out in many of his writings, most recently in his new book, about the death of the bilingual intellectual. In India, even 15-20 years ago you had genuine bilingual intellectuals who could bridge the politics of the vernacular with larger cosmopolitan concerns and social changes. Intellectuals may not matter that much but I think we could argue that we are also witnessing at the moment the death of the genuine bilingual politician.

By a 'genuinely bilingual politician' I mean a politician who is both embedded enough in society to perform the function of social mediation and yet connect that arm to a larger national or international narrative. Is the new emerging breed of politicians able to do that?

For me, there are two indications of the loss of the vernacular politician. One is the fact that except for one or two politicians who are at a leadership position at the state level - like Mamata, Jayalalithaa, Modi or Naveen Patnaik (or even if you look at the structure of the Congress Party) - there are no politicians beneath them today who actually come to Parliament commanding a social base of any kind. What this does is that it diminishes the capacity of political parties to perform any kind of social mediation.

As a proxy to this, look at the new breed of urban politicians; who are the politicians running cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad? Who are your corporators? 70% of them are actually contractors. It is an extraordinary social profile. It shows that we have moved away from the idea that politics is a form of social mediation to a much more deepening of the idea that politics is really about an access to instrumental growth.

State leaders, like Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik are an interesting phenomena. Some states are certainly doing better than others. But I would caution against over-celebrating these state leaders for the following reason. Most of them have been able to create their legitimacy in the last 8-10 years based on two cardinal facts. One, which is very important for the politics of accountability, is that the scale of the Indian State has changed enormously. I think one of the most under-examined things in the study of Indian politics is the fact that, by and large, between 1975 and 2000, most state governments were either relatively bankrupt or grew at an incremental rate. Even the best performing state leader at that time had small marginal impact on his population. To just give one example, Bihar has given out more road contracts in the last five years than in the preceding 40 put together. When Rajiv Gandhi came to power, central spending on centrally sponsored schemes was to the tune of Rupees 8500 crore, whereas today it is Rupees 265000 crore!

The scale of the state that was transformed by growth along with some incredible debt restructuring that happened in the late 1990s and 2000 (in retrospect, I do think it was a miracle that we passed the FRBM Act which paved the way for the largesse of the last 10 years) allowed some good Chief Ministers to use that scale to create an alternative basis for legitimacy. But it rested principally on bypassing their own political parties. So the common refrain is that Nitish has successfully insulated the bureaucracy from his party as has Modi in a very different way, as has Naveen Patnaik. The question with all of these states is, can they make the transition from this sort of low-hanging Neo-Keynesian expansion to a more genuinely participatory form of state? The fact that they are all resisting decentralized modes of governance makes you feel as if you are in Bismarckian Germany in these states - so, you will have this moment where an individual does very well for 10 years but the underlying structures do not quite change dramatically.

I would actually argue that, despite the fact that power has moved to the states, it is too premature to say that what you are finding in state structures today is the genuine kind of decentralisation that is needed. In this context, one thing that you have to say in favour of India Against Corruption, whether you agree or disagree with a lot of what they do, is that they have brought about a couple of things in common with the progressive movement in the US. One is the politics of muck-raking (the term muck-raker was actually invented during the Progressive Movement when intrepid journalists simply held press conferences every month exposing one form of corruption or the other); the second, for which you have to give them credit, is that they are the first to have actually placed decentralisation, front and square, on the political agenda.

The fundamental question that the big constitutional negotiation in India needs to address is at what level will what service of government be performed? This current architecture of centralisation simply cannot continue. I don't think decentralization is in any sense a vote-catching slogan; I doubt there can be great political mobilization on that but I do think that what it picks up is very interesting at this moment - you cannot think of restoring the existing architecture to the new order without a radical form of decentralisation.

The last and final difficulty which I will present is the following: the old system for all its faults had a certain equilibrium - we had all adapted to it. It made us complicit in it but we had accepted that's how the state runs and that adaptive equilibrium worked at all levels of society. Big business knew how to operate that state and there was also lower level complicity in corruption.

The difficult moment for any society is that when you transition to new rules there is a great danger of choking off the small freedoms that the old order had given us. When you move from zero or weak enforcement to mild enforcement of rules, the first thing that would expect to happen is that most people - particularly those who invest and not just big investors - will stand back and say, 'We don't know what the new rules of the game are going to be." This is true at all levels of society.

One of my consistent critiques of Indian liberalisation has been that it has been a liberalisation programme for big business only. It facilitated all the exit options for big business in terms of preferential credit. However, what it also did was, in a sense, make life difficult for small business for whom life had always been difficult. But right now India is in this very precarious position, where nobody knows what the new rules of the game are going to be. The telecom sector is the most dramatic illustration of that with a lot of agencies trying to engineer the new order. The Supreme Court has got into the act, TRAI has got into it, and even civil society has got into the act.

Now, this moment of transition in our case is creating more uncertainty than is necessary, for the reason I mentioned at the start: when you have a political system which is not willing to run with this new tide, the cost of this transition is going to be much higher, because that negotiation which the political system needs to do during this transition is simply not taking place. The old system is still too entrenched, not just too defensive but frankly, still using every trick that it can of the old order to try and subvert the seeds of the movement.

The danger in this situation is that, if growth slips as a result, then all bets are off on this moment of Indian revolution. I am not a growth fanatic, and do feel the need for more intelligent and sustainable conceptions of growth; but, there is no absolutely no doubt in my mind that growth was the single most unsettling and potentially revolutionary fact about modern Indian history, particularly post 1998-99. It unsettled social relationships at so many different levels. I think that it is something interesting about our national psyche, that on one hand it generated this instrumentalist concept of the state while on the other, it reduced the political anxiety that we had about our future. If growth slips below 5-6% for the next two years, all bets will be off on the Indian experiment.

If you look at the different elements required for progressive politics of the kind that I have assembled, they would be

1. An emphasis on growth and macro-economic stability which are absolutely essential.

2. A form of inclusion - both in a social sense (where you can actually speak the vernacular language to create a political culture and make people feel a part of that political culture) as well as in an economic sense.

3. A commitment to radical decentralisation which allows a form of experimentalism to emerge, without which we cannot survive.

4. A premium upon innovation, knowledge and productive energies

5. A transition of the state from a hierarchical to the horizontal order.

The trouble with the Indian political landscape, and I shall conclude on that note, is that there is no political formation wherein all of these elements go together. So Arvind Kejriwal has picked up decentralization, Congress has in principle picked up the inclusion element but without recognizing the revolutionary transformation that must take place within the party and state for the inclusion story to function, while the BJP - much like a Church caught up in theological disputes - has no idea what it is going to pick up next. It is this bifurcation of the progressive agenda into these warring factions that is going to make mobilisation around a new progressive politics much more difficult.

So what can we hope for? I don't think, given the structure of Indian politics, there is going to be any grand way, there will be lots of these little by-ways. But the one thing that is clear is that the climate is propitious for the muck-rakers to now really take up the battering ram and try and break down both the monarchy and the church.