Welcome to Brainstorm, Pragati’s attempt to create a space where diverse minds can discuss big issues in a respectful way. Every month, we will gather together five thinkers (and one moderator) who will discuss one big subject in a thoughtful, unhurried manner. The discussion will unfold over a month, with pieces from our participants every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The modalities of the discussion are explained here.
The subject of our first discussion is ‘The Future of the Indian Republic.’ Our five panelists are (in alphabetical order of last name) Pratap Bhanu Mehta, JP Narayan, Nitin Pai, Shruti Rajagopalan and Shashi Tharoor.
Independent India is around 70 years old, so for just a moment, indulge me and imagine this discussion taking place in 1947, without the hindsight knowledge of what has since transpired. What would be the main points of discussion? What would be the different counterfactual realities that would emerge (none of which would take place, of course)? If BR Ambedkar, MAK Azad, SP Mukherjee, Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel had this discussion, what would they say? And if they were to be brought back to life and shown the India we live in, how would they react?
I imagine they would all be anguished, for different reasons. Their different (and hypothetical) disappointments are worth examining separately, and might be beyond the scope of this particular debate. However, they are why this discussion is worth having. We are a country that is very far from fulfilling its potential. And these are times of great churn, when we face challenges we could not even have imagined in 1947. So what is the future of this republic?
The Challenges We face
To start this discussion off, here are some observations I have about the challenges we face today.
One, there is the demographic challenge. India is a young country, and getting younger. The average age is 27. For perspective, consider that 60% of our population is born after the liberalisation of 1991. The dogmas of the past that we absorbed by osmosis, such as the mai-baap-ness of the state, don’t come intuitively to them. Also, they have grown up with technology shaping the way they live, and even those of them who are parochial by outlook are globalised in habit. (And deeply connected to the rest of the world, whether they like it or not.)
But they face a problem of jobs. More than one million people enter the workforce every month; almost 13 million a year. The jobs that they need are not being generated. Our prime minister, Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014 promising to create these jobs. But government alone can’t create jobs: it can only enable an environment conducive to job-creation. Everyone agrees that many reforms are needed for this. Everyone also agrees that, as a practical matter, reforms are difficult to carry out. What is it about the nature of government, and of the political economy, that makes it so hard?
Two, there is the disruptive effect of technology. Technology will exacerbate the shortage of jobs in the short to medium term. The digital economy is making middlemen redundant. Artificial intelligence will wipe out millions of jobs, especially in the IT services sector. Automation will see to it that we never become a manufacturing superpower.
I am one of those who believe that technological disruption is always a good thing – in the long run. The gains in productivity get spent somewhere or the other. But this is no comfort in the short run, when those jobs get harder to come by, and political turmoil is likely.
Three, the competition in the marketplace of ideas is no longer between different solutions to commonly accepted problems, but between different versions of reality itself. Everyone talks about fake news these days. Well, here’s my theory for why it has proliferated so fast in these times. Back in the days before the internet, there were gatekeepers to publishing and disseminating information. There was a broad consensus on the facts, and those with alternate views of the world had no way of getting their ideas out at scale – or of connecting to others like them. The internet changed that, and the gatekeepers vanished.
The internet made sure that no one would ever be alone again. No matter what your beliefs or proclivities were, you could connect with others like you, and feel validated and empowered by that connection. The formation of echo chambers was inevitable, as was an end to what social scientists call Preference Falsification. If you held politically incorrect views – say you were racist or misogynist – you no longer had to keep your views to yourself. There were now many of you, and could be loud and open, and dog whistles were no longer necessary. In my view, this goes some way towards explaining Trump – and Modi too?
This is a challenge because there is now no longer a consensus on what the facts are. Every side believes what it needs to in order to validate their beliefs. Truth is no longer likely to prevail – instead, the side with the stronger narrative machine will win. How will this change our country? What is the flip side to this?
I must clarify here that technology is actually the only thing that makes me hopeful about the future. Technology can empower individuals and reduce the oppressive effect of an all-powerful state. But it also further empowers oppressors – one reason why I am wary of Aadhaar!
The Perennial Questions
So these are the unique challenges we face today. Now, what are the perennial questions that we have confronted over 70 years and must continue to confront? The most fundamental one, of whether we will endure as a union, seems to have been answered. Maybe inertia has a greater role to play in this than we realise, but we haven’t split apart into splinter nations, and we are still united. That is a minor miracle, isn’t it?
But here’s a quick list of other matters that our hypothetical panel of discussants in 1947 would have concerned themselves with.
One, the role in our nationalism in our nation’s growth. For a nation to prosper, the individual rights of its citizens must be respected. Is nationalism inimical to this? What if the brand of nationalism that is ascendant is a divisive one?
Two, the removal of social barriers. I used to think identity politics in India would end with growing prosperity: self-interest would dictate that people be part of the widest economic networks they could manage. (This is why there is less caste discrimination in cities than in villages, for example.) But identity politics, perhaps facilitated by the echo chambers that technology allows, perhaps prodded by the angst caused by the scarcity of jobs, has only grown. This is dispiriting. Will it continue to be like this? What can be done?
Three, what should be the form and function of the state? My own preference is for a state that is limited and strong, that does a few things and does them well. Our state is large and weak. Maintaining the rule of law should be its primary function, but there is effectively no rule of law in India today, especially for the poor. And in many areas of our lives, the state is a parasitic presence, extracting rent without delivering value. What can be done about this? Is change even possible against this mighty beast?
India is layered and endlessly complex, and I’m sure I’ve missed out on aspects my panelists would consider important. I shall leave it to them to lay out their analysis of why we are where we are, and what lies on the road ahead. What are the greatest problems we face? What is the future of the Indian republic?