In an interview with TNM, Rajshekhar talks about his recently published book, which examines a deep crisis in states that has gone largely unexamined in India.

A file photo of migrant workers walking home amid the coronavirus pandemicImage for representation: PTI
news Interview Thursday, February 11, 2021 - 16:41

What ails a democracy? This question is usually analysed at the level of the nation. But what makes up a nation? Among other things, the states, the primary bulwarks of democratic functioning, get overlooked, according to investigative journalist M Rajshekhar. With reportage from six states over 33 months, Rajshekhar looks at a deep crisis of state delivery that has gone largely unexamined in India in his recently published book Despite the State.

The idea is summed up well in the book pitch: “This is a tale of India’s states, of why they build schools but do not staff them with teachers, favour a handful of companies so much that others slip into losses, wage water wars with their neighbours while allowing rampant sand mining and groundwater extraction, harness citizens’ right to vote but brutally crack down on their right to dissent.”

In an interview with TNM, Rajshekhar talks about the idea behind the book, democratic decay at the state level, how citizens cope with it and, essentially, what ails India’s democracy.

How did the idea for the book come up?

While working on Ear to The Ground, the six states reporting project for Scroll.in this book is based on, I was quite vehemently convinced that I wouldn’t do a book. A sharp founding question seemed like a necessary pre-condition for a book while Ear to The Ground was anything but that. It was just me moving around, writing a clutch of reports about six different states. It was only in the months after the project ended, when I was sitting in Bengaluru trying to process a jumble of impressions and thoughts, and reading, as a response to the puzzling commonalities of state failure and decay in the practice of democracy in each state, that a book seemed possible.

The book begins with an outline of the inner workings of Amul. Any particular reason for this choice?

Over the last couple of years, there is greater talk about India slipping into a democratic crisis. That is a simplistic assertion. Democracy has been malfunctioning for a while in India’s states — political parties turning kleptocratic, the social contract between them and the people mutating in ugly ways, etc. This dysfunction spurred a wider disenchantment with India’s democratic project which left so many Indians seeking a strong leader, and set the ground for the BJP to come to power.

This pattern of leaders weakening systems for their own gains — and, in the process, unwittingly creating the grounds for a larger capture is exemplified by Amul. Like India, the milk cooperative was an audacious experiment, seeking to use new institutional formats (cooperatives) and technology to attack the persistent problem of rural poverty. Control over its milk unions, however, slowly moved into the hands of district leaders. The machinations through which they obtained and retained power undermined the cooperative’s fidelity to its founding principles and subsequently allowed career politicians to replace them.

India is the same story. We started off as an idealistic constitutional democracy, trying to remake a people, fissured by caste, religion and more, and stripped bare by colonialism, into equal citizens. And look at us now. One crisis setting the stage for a larger crisis.

The book highlights democratic decay at the level of the state. You say that political parties have become self-centred institutions that are ‘extractive, dominant, centralised and clientelist’.

In a democracy, political parties are the principal problem-solving agents, the ones who have to take the issues important for society and address them through policy. How should the media monitor how well they perform this function? Focusing on top political leaders, their utterances and the practice of politics (like forging political alliances) is not enough. We have to study parties in their entirety — how do they act and what makes them behave so.

In every state I reported, I found political parties sharing the four traits you flag. They were extractive — an extractive political institution is one which, loosely, transfers public wealth to itself. Dominant is from systems theory, which says that a strong system will try to take over a weaker system and use it for its own gain. Centralised is the concentration of political power atop the party. And clientelism is the business of directing benefits towards one’s voters.

Each of these, needless to say, severely cramps their capacity to act as problem-solving agents.

How do people cope with a failing state? At one place, you write that they become more self-centred and disengaged.

Democratic protest is one response, of course. But what we see most of all — like in other countries — are individual responses to systemic failure. These take the form of measures like working longer hours, intensified extraction from our environment, debt and migration.

People, when faced with rising insecurity but not finding state support, also fall back on kinship structures like religious, caste or sect-based groupings. These are troubling responses. To get support from the kinship structure, one must also demonstrate fidelity to its values. And so, each of these push people towards greater orthodoxy, deepen fissures in society and, as a bonus, strengthen political parties which slice and dice vote banks along these lines.

What we also have then is not a democratic feedback loop that closes — where state failure results in a party being voted out — but one where state failure results in people behaving in a manner that further strengthens political parties.

To answer your other question — about insecurity making people more self-centred — I’m reminded of how satirical novelist Aadhavan Deetchanya explained this. “When a person wants to do something for a cause beyond the family, the first thought that strikes you is that some money will go out of your pocket. The rationale for disengagement with things that don’t affect you starts from there — ‘What else can I do with that money?’ People get more self-centred”, he had said.

The book elaborates on how parties retain power with denial, diversion, cultism, elections and endorsements. What do you think will force them to break out of this rut?

That is hard to answer. At this time, political parties run a fairly successful model. They have figured how to retain political power even as they enrich themselves. And so, the mere entry of a new political party might not be sufficient. Outside political parties, where could such an impetus come from? Democratic watchdogs? They suffer, to varying degrees, under political parties’ trait of dominance.

What about the people? Does cognitive reality always catch up with physical reality — that people will slowly wisen up to these tricks — or do people also normalise the ongoing moment? I could argue that, in India, these patterns of dispossession and inequality are deepening over time.

As a follow-up, how can we fund democratic politics in a way that it is insulated from vested interests?

State funding of polls is one answer that is trotted out. Apart from that, we have to demand — and get — full transparency from political parties and leaders regarding their financing. At this time, both their statutory filings for the Election Commission and MP and MLA affidavits are entirely misleading.

What role does the media play in this decay and what role should it ideally play?

Journalism should monitor the centres of power. What we have right now, barring a few honest exceptions, is a press that obscures and oversimplifies injustice and pushes state propaganda, and hampers the capacity of our society to make sense of where it is.

Do you think the pandemic changed things?

It’s too early to say, isn’t it? We know, coming as it did on the heels of demonetisation and the slowdown, it pushed millions into poverty. Beyond that, what has it done? Did it alert people to weak state capacity? I don’t think so. They already knew. Did it hurt the government in migrants’ eyes? It’s really hard for me to say. I’m sure some people will be more sceptical regarding political claims. And others, pushed deeper into vulnerability, will disengage further from politics.

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