The separation of politics and politics in India
There is a division between politics and politics in India. Decision-making on virtually all governance issues is decoupled from politics and the mobilization of public opinion. The repeal of the agricultural laws is thus a remarkable example of politics and politics coming together, albeit in conflict. What is striking, however, is that the politics came from peasant groups, not from political parties. The way the government rifled through the three bills, tried to harass and delegitimize the protests and then repealed the laws shows that not only has the government not tried to reach a consensus in favor of the bills, but that the Feedback channels on the floor did not work properly themselves. The opposition supported the protests but, with a few notable local exceptions, played little part in actually mobilizing local public opinion. The unanimous opposition of the opposition in parliament helped, but the heavy lifting of organizing in the villages and maintaining the protests was done by the peasant groups.
This political-political divide is not a new development, although it manifests itself differently depending on the political divide. The liberal side has a policy-first lens, but is unable to articulate its ideas in the way that constitutes good politics, and keeps formulating its ideas within a bureaucratic framework that is detached from the political organization . The impetus for a bureaucracy-oriented policy framework stems from a desire to remove local political discretion that is believed to be anti-grassroots; the result, however, is to widen the distance between the political initiative and the political organization, thereby increasing the channel for public relations and communication with the public. Furthermore, the bureaucracy is downstream of politics, and this approach, rather than containment of the state, could instead have helped undermine the democratic process of political accountability, as the political class is not a priori the focus of politics.
For its part, the Right has a policy-oriented lens, but largely derives its policies from its social agenda and not from governance issues. In India, the Right has an idea of a Hindu India, but it lacks conceptual clarity and a governance agenda for the state. The political imperatives, if any, are ad hoc and appear to be driven by the demands of the leadership of the political apparatus rather than a clear governance agenda. Instead, the right mobilizes public opinion on cultural and social issues where the state’s expectations are not necessarily about governance, but about patronage and protection of preferred social groups. Despite these differences, the non-political use of the state as a donor of different economic generosity, especially shortly before elections, as political parties are looking for simple ideas for simple mass communication, is cross-party.
There are many reasons for this sweeping breakdown of our political process. Indian politics and the state are initially weakly institutionalized, which leads to a general blurriness in the relationship between politics and politics. However, this is both an effect and a cause, with the direction of change towards greater deinstitutionalization rather than the opposite. Another factor is that traditional places of consensus-building such as the media, civil society and political parties have developed pathologies that make sustainable consensus-building almost impossible. As a result, even on issues that are at the center of the public imagination, we cannot find a way to act constructively.
One reason is of particular interest because it raises the bar for mainstreaming new ideas through democratic representation to an impossible level: the excessive centralization of power in party programs and heads of government (state and federal). As a result, the individual elected representative becomes alien to the government even in his own constituency, where his raison d’etre is to have representation and supervision. This causality calls for a more comprehensive argument of its own, but there are two incontrovertible consequences of this centralization. First, elections can be used to change regimes, but not to enforce political accountability as there is no clear channel for “representation”; and the consolidation of partisanship, which has captured the public interest and leaves no room for majority on any subject outside party lines. An additional consequence of this frozen partisanship is that party supporters also have no influence on their party to initiate new ideas or considerations.
Too much is at stake to continue such a situation. We have the largest youth population in the world, but in many ways the political process in our country is particularly ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of making our young people feel positive and engaging. It is important to protect the public interest from partisanship and to break at least part of the bad faith crosstalk across the partisan divides. There are many topics that are suitable for cross-departmental collaboration outside of ideological affiliations. Institutional reforms are required to create such a space, but common good individuals across political rifts can lay the foundation for such collaboration through thematic discipline, moderation, and intellectual independence.
This column first appeared in print on December 3, 2021 under the title “Cutting the feedback loop”. The author is co-founder and director of the Future of India Foundation. Views personal