The Lessons of Padmavati

Bad ideas are driving good ideas out of circulation in India. This is because of a fundamental tension at the heart of our society.

The recent controversy on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie based on the life of Queen Padmavati may seem like yet another storm in a tea cup, but the questions it raises are anything but trivial. Is it merely a one-off incident that will soon be forgotten? Or is it the proverbial canary in the mine, a harbinger of problems to come? Around twenty percent of the world population below fifteen years is living in India. Will these young men and women grow into a society that, to borrow a phrase of VS Naipaul, “can be easily set on the boil?” Alternatively, will they grow into a society where “the mind is without fear?”

To understand an incident, it helps to strip its specific features and look at the broader picture. The Indian state is not a totalitarian state; it is not a liberal one either. What we have is an unstable arrangement. We have a constitution that is liberal in theory. It grants certain rights to individuals. In case there is any conflict between individual rights and the collective will as expressed through laws, the individual rights prevail. In theory if not in practice, the constitution has created a very strong institution in the form of the supreme court to defend individual liberties.

One the other hand, our polity is deeply communitarian in the sense that groups and not individuals remain the unit of political mobilization. On the surface, these groups vary in sociological details. Some are based on real or imagined biological kinship (caste); others are based on ideological cohesion (religion). Sometimes we have sects which are caste-like in some ways and religion-like in others.

But these sociological details often obscure the more interesting analytical commonalities these groups share. First, these groups enter in the process of political bargaining as a single unit, often represented by their self-proclaimed leaders. The entire group is claimed to possess common interests, common sensibilities, common intellect and common behavior. This is implausible since no group, no matter how cohesive, can be entirely devoid of individual idiosyncrasies. Among even the most anonymous and faceless groups, there must be a few who can think and therefore dissent. Naturally, a leader can credibly participate in political bargaining on behalf of his group only if he has instruments to make its deviant members fall in line. The more a leader can suppress the dissent in his base and herd his supporters, the more successful he will be.

At any point of time, there are just too many leaders vying to be representatives of their communities and one never knows who can deliver the goods. In the sense of economics, there is an adverse selection problem. Before you buy a car you may want to ascertain that it is not a lemon. Before a leader is taken seriously, he must demonstrate his ‘worthiness’ in a concrete manner.

These leaders signal their ‘worthiness’ by creating mischief, either in the name of the economic interests of their community (say by demanding quota in government jobs) or in the name of protecting community honor. What seems like total madness to a casual observer has a very rational justification in terms of political incentives they face.

Groups that are based on the voluntary association of their members are compatible with the liberal constitution; groups that are based on coercion are not. There is a fundamental tension between the Indian polity as practiced and the Indian constitution as envisaged.

The tension between freedom of expression and hurt sentiments is but an example of these dynamics. In the future, it will be resolved in one way or the other. The constitution can act as a bulwark, but only up to a point. A constitution is distinguished from an ordinary law in that it has no external enforcement mechanism; it must be enforced by the very people whose behavior it seeks to constrain. In this sense, a constitution is more difficult to enforce than an ordinary law. Because of this, the triumph of constitutional values is not guaranteed; at the very least, it cannot be taken for granted.

Since the right to think and express oneself will remain the main bone of contention in the foreseeable future, it is important to understand the ways in which challenges to freedom to expression in India differ from classical totalitarian societies. Because we are conditioned to think that freedom of expression can be subverted only in totalitarian societies, the Indian specificities have received less attention than they deserve, and that has created a false sense of confidence.

In a classical totalitarian society, there is a central dogma. There is one particular ideology that is held sacrosanct and any critique thereof is not tolerated. By contrast, what we have in India may be called a cartel of dogmas. In economics, cartel is a market structure where several producers are engaged in phony competition to fool the gullible consumers, but behind the scene they are united to protect their common interest.

Similarly, in India we have different denominations which differ in terms of their theology, cosmology, interpretation of history and so on, but they are absolutely united in the idea that certain beliefs are sacrosanct and must remain beyond critical scrutiny. In this respect at least, Indian threats to free speech are far more insidious than in totalitarian societies. In those countries, the taboos are clearly defined and well known; in India, the list of potentially controversial subjects is open-ended and keeps growing over time.

Second, India remains a curious case of an ‘argumentative society’ where the freedom of expression is in grave danger. The key to understanding this paradox is realizing that agitations protecting religious sentiments and community honor do not raise the cost for speech per se. They raise the cost for investment in ideas.

Ideas are somewhat complex products. They are are difficult to produce but very easy to replicate, disseminate and consume. Consequently it is difficult to censure ideas at the stage of dissemination (as typical in totalitarian states); but it is very easy to deter the production of ideas at the production stage itself (as often happens in India).

Socially useful, innovative, creative and original ideas often entail a huge sunk cost (in terms of time, money and resources). As an example think of the Copernican revolution. It is well known that Copernican heliocentric cosmology ran afoul of Ptolemaic orthodoxy. What is less commonly known is that Copernican revolution was made possible due to the cumulative work of decades, even centuries. Supporting data for Copernican theory came from the astronomer Tycho Brahe. Brahe had spent decades in taking meticulous and detailed observations of the celestial phenomenon. He himself didn’t believe in a heliocentric universe, but his assistant Johannes Kepler did.

Kepler used this data to formulate his celebrated laws of planetary motion, and championed a heliocentric universe. Modern science was born. in contrast, even in those days the cost of dissemination of ideas was reduced due to the invention of the printing press; nowadays, it has practically become zero. In optical cables, ideas travel at the speed of light. It takes merely a computer and an internet connection to broadcast your stream-of-consciousness to the whole world.

In India, due to rampant politicization, the cost of producing ideas (which was already high) has increased even further. On the other hand, due to technical progress, the cost of disseminating ideas (which was already low) has been lowered even more. The result has been a version of Gresham’s law. Bad ideas have increasingly driven good ideas driven out of circulation.

To see this Gresham’s law in actual practice, the example of Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi would be pertinent. Dwivedi has directed popular serials like Chanakya and Mrityunjay, and also critically acclaimed movies like Pinjar. He subtly glorifies Indian tradition without losing nuance or distorting history. If there is something like a contemporary conservative cinematic tradition, he must be surely part of it. But guess what? His production of Mohalla Assi (a movie based on a literary work) has been shelved due to mischievous and selective circulation of scenes which have apparently hurt the sentiments of people! While a garden variety troll gets to enjoy his freedom of speech, a creative person like Dwivedi cannot. The difference is not one of ideology. It is merely that one is putting money, time and effort in saying something creative and hence can be easily put through the wringer; the former has no skin in the game, and can hence get away with anything.

As I said at the start of this piece, the Padmavati episode raises uncomfortable questions. The answers of these questions are not comfortable either. Agitations like these are a result of skewed political incentives that are difficult to resolve. Unless this trend is reversed, its impact on Indian intellectual evolution will be most unfortunate and mostly invisible. India will remain a loquacious, hyper-argumentative but intellectually stagnant society. Indian society will not have its share of Voltaires, Giordano Brunos, Charles Darwins or BR Ambedkars. But more importantly, thoughtful reinterpretation of tradition, so typical of Indian intellectual history, will increasingly become difficult too.

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About the author

Avinash M Tripathi

Avinash M. Tripathi is an Associate Research Fellow (Economics) at the Takshashila Institution. His research interests include competition policy and financial risk management. He prefers a profound answer to a silly question rather than the other way around.