Two men with strong ideas of India. Co-chairman and former CEO of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani, and political scientist and author of The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani, met in the exclusive lounge of the Maurya Sheraton Hotel in New Delhi to discuss Nilekani’s new book, Imagining India. The four-hour long conversation lasted well past midnight, straddling a wide arc from economic reforms to reimagining political and social landscapes. Nilekani lives in Bengaluru while Khilnani holds the South Asia Studies Chair at Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC.

Sunil Khilnani: What struck me about your book is that you recognise the complexity of the situation we are dealing with in India. Often, there’s a tendency to focus on a fixed idea — some smart idea about the economy, some technological fix. You don’t do this. Obviously, you have great faith in information technology etc., but I liked that you recognise that politics is ultimately the horizon within which we must act.

Shoma Chaudhury: 
But Nandan, you also argue for greater reforms, opening up markets and a break from the Nehruvian psychology. Can you elaborate on this? In the 20 years since we began reforms and opening our economy, there’s been growth, but little equal access or the famous trickle down.

Nandan Nilekani: I greatly appreciate Nehru’s contribution in terms of setting up our institutions of democracy and creating a free

society. But the reform question is actually about creating equal access for the poor. My agenda of reforms is not to bring in some tenth level of derivative financial product to the market, or enable some fat cat to buy his next yacht. It’s about providing equal opportunity. I live in Bengaluru, go to a good English medium school then IIT, and become part of the global-techno elite, while a child in Bihar lives in a village with no lights, no schools, no teachers. To me, reform is getting that child the same opportunities. It’s outrageous that the country’s elite have taken care of themselves but denied English language skills to the bulk of our kids. The poor have been treated very shabbily.

SC: What shape should these reforms take?

NN: Let’s take primary education. The good news is there’s a huge and growing demand for education. The poor have realised they remain poor because they didn’t get educated and are clamouring to send their kids to school. In the earlier era, education was seen as something pious, like going to a temple, but the poor didn’t see any great benefit. One unintended consequence of economic growth has been the poor realising that being uneducated has cut them off from income mobility. So, they are keen on education now. But the public education system is dysfunctional. Schools don’t work; there’s no electricity, no blackboards, no teachers.

So what have the poor done? They’ve started sending their kids to private schools. More than 50 percent of urban slum children are going to private schools — not fancy ones, just one-room huts — because one, the quality of education is slightly better than government schools, and two, they teach in English. But half of them are unrecognised. There is a black market in education going on there, which we, sitting in our elite circles, cannot understand.

SK: But it is, after all, the state’s responsibility to secure a certain standard across the educational system, so we are back to the idea of politics and political will — which needs to create the universalism that real citizenship requires.

SC: Yes, do we want improved state intervention, or does reform mean the retreat of the state?

NN: I’m trying to say that we must find a balance between market and state. Markets do some things well, some badly. They are customer-focused and great for innovation, new services, lowering costs, generating entrepreneurial energy. But markets can’t be unregulated. So, you need to define the ground rules, the policies. I’m not a leftist, but this is not a book about market fundamentalism either, it is about how we can solve problems without wearing ideological hats. And if we don’t fix this problem in the next ten years, we’ll have a disaster on our hands.

SK: On the question of growth: I think growth brings in as many problems as it solves. One obvious one is something you touch on in the book, and which is, I think, going to be a central test for the idea of India in coming decades. We are growing in a very skewed way, skewed across sectors, across regions and across social groups. I think managing these imbalances will become crucial if we are to hold together as a union. For instance, what we are seeing in the western and southern states is a major trend. Over the last 20 years, these regions have grown at rates of three times or more, as compared with UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh. That is something we all recognise, but can’t address. We are becoming a nation that contains both Switzerlands and Swazilands, unrecognisable to one another; and unless we find ways to address this, it must call into question the idea of India, as a community united in common project.

NN: Yes, that’s right. Some of the growth in southern and western states is because they have better literacy, particularly female literacy. Fertility rates have dropped; infant mortality has dropped. Now, the challenge is the north and the huge population growth there. To fix that, we need to create opportunities. This goes back to fixing education, infrastructure, job markets…

SK: But do you think that the market will make the investment decisions to build opportunities in areas that most need them? The market is driven by concern for profit. Why should it invest in the weakest sectors of the country?

NN: The market won’t set up a factory in Bihar from altruistic intentions. But given the huge population there, you must create jobs in those regions. Otherwise, they’ll keep coming to Mumbai and you will have Raj Thackerays mushrooming. How is one to create jobs in UP and Bihar? Better urbanisation is one way; create more manufacturing units, etc. But for that to happen, you need urgent labour reform.

SK: Those are actions only the state can take, which returns us to the question of politics. You take the idea of politics seriously, but what about the mechanics of politics, the messy business of parties, elections and deals?

NN: I’m making a fundamental assumption here: that you have a young, impatient, explosive population, be it in UP, Bihar or Chhattisgarh, whose aspirations have been raised in an unprecedented manner due to technology and media. Ultimately, politicians will have to respond to the expectations.

SC: The recent state elections were a sign of this trend. They were dominated by governance and local issues, not terrorism or communalism.

NN: Yes, look at what happened in Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. It’s the low-profile leaders trying to fix things who won. This is a clear message and it’s going to accelerate. By 2020, we will have a huge percentage of the population below 30, and voting; 90 percent literacy; more functional English than ever before. The level of media and technology will be ten times what it is today, and we’ll have urbanisation of about 40 percent. What will be the impact? I can assure you the politics of 2020 will be completely different from that of today. SC: You write that Nehru and his peers had a vision of India whereas today’s politicians are purely tactical. If you were free to have an untethered vision of India, what would you work towards?

NN: You can see some of the trends already. In the Tenth Plan, our expenditure on education was 7.7 percent. In the Eleventh, it is 19.9 percent. The money we’re going to spend on education is unprecedented in Indian history. A lot of that will be wasted, but at least there’s demand and money supply. So, how could it all shape up? One possibility could be that the money is wasted, in which case there’ll be more private schools. The other could be that the government comes out with a different model of education, spending on the student, not the school, and students choose the school. All this will get sorted in the next few years. India will have 90 percent literacy. That’s a done deal.

Similarly, I think infrastructure will happen — in a lurching way — because people want it. The election statement has gone from roti, kapada, makaan to bijli, sadak, pani. This differs from the rich wanting flyovers and airports — the poor want roads, light, better energy systems. The third is urbanisation, and the fourth is India as a single market. These four things need to be implemented rapidly, and they will be because there’s political consensus about them.

I think the really contentious issues are reservations, labour reform and control of higher education. In these areas, we are denying the poor opportunities in their name.

SK: Why can’t we get our higher education on the right course? There’s a fair degree of consensus on what we need to do. At a time when this has been priority and we’ve had both money and a smart group of people in the government, nothing has happened in higher education. More money has poured in — but the fundamental, disastrously ineffective structures remain unchanged.

NN: That’s because of a combination of vested interests in the university system and the Ministry of Human Resource Development — but it’s nothing a new, well-intentioned, 40-year-old minister cannot change. First, we need an independent regulator, not a handmaiden of the government. Second, we need a scheme where private and international investment can enter education so more universities and colleges start.

Aligarh Muslim University and Benaras Hindu University were started with private money, Delhi’s Hindu College by Chandni Chowk businessmen, Annamalai University by Raja Sir Anna Malai Chettiar. Our tradition of philanthropy and private money in universities has been muzzled by state intervention.

SC: Apart from education, the other sectors you emphasise are labour and infrastructure. What shape should labour reform take? China may have the cheapest manufacturing units, but one would imagine worker conditions are even more inhuman than here.

NN:We have a very cosy arrangement with labour, okay? The business guys don’t want labour reforms either, because they’ve figured out how to have completely unorganised labour with no worker rights. It’s an industry dominated by politicians and criminals. We have created a bad, unregulated labour market, and we have a small bunch of guys inside the system, protected by a zillion rules. The ideal scenario is that we demolish many of these rules and have simpler ones, with a social security system I elaborate on in the book.

But companies should have the flexibility to change how many people they hire, because today entrepreneurs don’t want to hire people. We have an absurd situation: in a country with the highest number of people who can work, companies invest in labour-saving devices.

SK:We’re embarked in the most drastic period of social change in our history. It’s worth stepping back for a moment, to think about the trajectory of that history. As a democracy, the only way we have to learn is reflecting on our own history. We can’t turn to ideology, nor religion, but only reflect on the cumulative effects of our actions — our history — to figure out how to negotiate this period of immense change; how to direct it positively. I felt your book was sometimes a little in thrall to the present. It helps focus on the importance of self-knowledge: but social and historical self-knowledge are equally important to a democratic society. In the move towards economism today, there’s a sense that economics will resolve all our political difficulties, but we need to debate this more.

NN: I have not been prescriptive in my book; I have stated the position I come from. I’d be happy to have more debate on it. There are two or three things I believe are happening. One, we are obsessed with our vertical divides, with caste, religion, language, north vs south — that’s today’s political language. I’m saying there’s another way of looking at it: to focus on our unifying aspirations. Second, there are too many intellectual ghettoes in India. The business guys meet in their clubs and have their pet peeves, NGOs their own, the media theirs. They reinforce each other’s worldviews. They need to start talking to each other. SC: What I find disturbing is that even in a supposedly free market the relationship between big business and government is feudalistic. Look at the SEZ boom — cosy arrangements with government, land taken over by the state, often through force, subsidies, tax breaks for big business…

NN: I think you are unduly obsessed with the nexus between power and big business. You are focussing on only one aspect, on a crony capitalism. I can point out a hundred new entrepreneurs who don’t come to Delhi, don’t meet the state, don’t need SEZs, they’re just getting on with what they want to do.

SC: I’m not denying that, but given the global meltdown and some of the directions capitalist economies have taken, isn’t it time to imaginatively rethink the meaning of growth and the route to it?

SK: There is a current negative reaction to the market that we should be suspicious of. I think we need to differentiate between the short and the long term. In the short term, markets do make mistakes and fail. But to read that as an indictment of the effects of market systems in the long run would be a mistake.

NN: Yes, I’m also saying don’t have SEZs. I’m worried about small entrepreneurs: what reforms do we need to make it easier for them — the guy with one machine, with a small shop? But the global crisis as a reason for not going ahead with reforms is a useless argument. Soon, there’s going to be a highly combustible new generation, hungry for jobs, for advancement. We have to get ahead in the education and job sphere. If we don’t enact the reforms to make these things happen, we’ll get into a negative spiral of increasing divisiveness and violence, and all its consequences.

SK: One has to think at multiple levels. And also scale — we have to think at an ambitious level. If you go back to the founding vision, it was exactly that. The ability to think on a grand scale, multiple levels — while in adverse circumstances.

NN: I make this point in my book. Nehru wanted to build 300 cities. That was the vision, right?

Photo: Trilochan S Kalra

SK: Yes it was. Now we only fall into anecdotal tales to make us feel the crucial issues are being addressed: somebody is doing good work here, some great NGOs over there. Yet, on the question of scale, we’re back to the state. We want the state as an actor, to protect us, to provide security. It’s not a question of pushing the state away, but of re-imagining it, making it more effective in delivering what we identify it really needs to. The market ultimately works within the framework set by the state. The continuing and growing impact of the state across our history is something one needs to recognise; and the state needs to become more accountable, effective and responsive. That is, we need to be able to acknowledge its accruing powers, and even augment these, while establishing mechanisms of restraint and accountability.

SC: Sunil has drawn attention to unequal development. You have written about how access to everything from justice to jobs depends on religion and caste. Do you think, in a country as populous and diverse as India, the growth impulse will play itself out in a way that won’t break the country?

NN: You might call it a Pollyanna response, but I feel obligated to point out the huge potential of this country: the force of ideas and implicit aspirations of people will drive political change. You saw the response to the [Mumbai] attacks. It’s not just that people spoke up; it’s that the political system was forced to respond.

SC: But look what they came up with — a hasty, ill-thought-out NIA, a draconian law passed without debate in Parliament.

NN: Yes, that may be the wrong response, but let’s not debate the nature of the response. The fact is they responded. Or the fact that developmentoriented politicians were re-elected. These are the straws in the wind of the phenomenon I’m talking about. It is easy for us to sit and bemoan the state of affairs and say we need better leaders and political will. How are we going to get there?

SC: The two great energies of our time are economic and political. It’s disturbing that business proudly claims to be blind, and is completely uninvolved in its socio-political circumstances. In a conversation about new visions, is it time to suggest that business get more involved? Take Mr Ratan Tata going to Gujarat and publicly endorsing the governance there.

NN: What’s wrong with that? Now you are displaying personal prejudice. Why should we hold him to a different bar?

SC: No, this is not personal. He’s a businessman, but he’s also a highly influential citizen. In an era when large slices of one’s private and public life are being ceded to corporate influence and governance, I think all of this will start to have increasing significance.

NN: It’s true that the Gujarat riots were shameful, but other than that Gujarat is an extremely well-administered state, with better public services than most. That’s what people want. If we neglect that and keep harping on ideological issues, we’re making a mistake. People keep voting Mr Modi back. If we have a vision of India that differs from his, we also have an obligation to create good governance and good public services.

SK: But the question of Gujarat is very interesting. It is one of the most developed and globalised, but also one of the most bigoted states in our country, with the most terrifying politics. Modi has developed a particular kind of populism: a democracy of fear.

NN: No, Gujarat is not a populist state.

Booked Nilekani believes the poor now see the fruits of education and are hungry for it
Booked Nilekani believes the poor now see the fruits of education and are hungry for it
Photo: AP

SK: Not in economic terms: he’s not throwing subsidies around. But politically, Modi is a demagogue on issues of identity, and one can’t overlook the fact that in his state, so often described as ‘well-governed’, there’s no importance attached to the rule of law, using laws to adjudicate and resolve conflicts. All that collapsed in Gujarat 2002. In a democracy, once you give that up you’re crossing a precarious line into despotism.

NN: The only point I’m making is that if we want an alternative formulation, you have to make sure you’re also providing quality public goods and services. You cannot win the game by criticising the other side. People with liberal views are not recognising this enough.

SC: You might accuse me of prejudice again, but I think the Nandigram and Singur face-offs in Bengal are interesting for similar reasons. They may have been politicised and chaotic, but it’s because of those people’s movements that the government was forced to amend the SEZ Act, Land Acquisition Act and the Rehabilitation Bill. Not because Buddhadeb Bhattacharya or Ratan Tata was playing philosopher-king and worrying about the collective good.

NN: Frankly, I don’t agree that it was some dramatic people’s revolution there. I think they should have allowed them to have the factory. It was completely politicised, and as a result of that politics, the state lost a golden opportunity. The right thing would have been a negotiated settlement, which, in classic Indian style, didn’t happen because people take such strong positions.

SC: Could you talk about the agricultural economy and possible alternates? Do you think corporatised, consolidated land holdings is the only way forward?

NN: Certainly, the fragmentation today is unviable and some amount of consolidation could happen, but not necessarily through corporate takeover. One route I’ve proposed is virtual big farms. With technology, a hundred farmers with one acre each can come together to create a big virtual farm. They might physically farm their own acre, but you can maximise the resources you give them. There are ways to create a virtual aggregation without consolidating ownership.

More importantly, our farmers don’t have access to markets. We have created APMC (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees) and all these command area models where they have to sell in only one place. This is unfair: we must give them freedom to sell elsewhere, real access to competing supply chains.

SK:We spoke of reservations as a thorny issue. The era of reservations may be reaching the end of its intellectual logic. We have gone through three ways of trying to bring about social justice and redistribution: land reform in the 1950s, which didn’t really work; punitively high taxation in the 1970s, ostensibly for redistribution to the poor, which was a total failure; and reservations. Now, the question we face: how can we re-imagine the different means through which to address the question that hangs over both our growing and out stagnant regions, the question of social justice?

Peace Yatras Khilnani and Nilekani are certain the rabid communal virus is at an ebb
Peace Yatras Khilnani and Nilekani are certain the rabid communal virus is at an ebb
Photo: Trilochan S Kalra

NN: Reservation happens because of limited access. In such a scenario, people who’ve been denied access but have aggregated themselves politically will use the political system to prise open access. This is a legitimate response. If I were in Mayawati’s shoes, I’d do exactly what she is. But this won’t solve the problem because you are only carving a piece out of a limited access system. It’s a dead end. We can’t have a merely political response to this. We must create surplus. If there were hundred colleges or jobs to choose from, why would you need reservations? The debate would go away. Fundamentally, it is about supply-side changes.

SK: Yes, one major function of reservations was to politicise the lower castes. That, in a sense, has been accomplished. You brought these people into the political process and that’s been energising, but it hasn’t really delivered greater social justice, so it’s time to draw a line, at least analytically. The fact is reservations were designed in a situation of scarcity, when everything was state-controlled.

NN: The best thing for the Dalits is better access to markets, because markets are caste-neutral. A combination of more markets, education, English and urbanisation is a more potent enabler than anything else.

SC: A lot of what you suggest sounds interesting, but we are always tripped by our delivery mechanisms. Do we need a complete overhaul of those?

NN: If you are talking about execution, the system will only change under pressure from outside. Under enough pressure, it will hunt for ways to change.

SC: You write of Latin American countries reaching a particular level of prosperity and then imploding. Is there a danger of that in India?

NN: The challenge there was also very high feudalism; in a sense, inequality there was much worse than here. They had a very narrow elite and the gap between that and the people never closed. Our advantage is that because of our sheer size and diversity, it’s difficult for a small group to co-opt the whole state.

SK: But we must remember that we can always go backwards. This idea that there is tipping point after which everything will be smooth going is illusory. That’s what I was alluding to, partly, in saying that growth brings its own problems. You have to constantly watch what, as a society, you are doing: reflect on it, devise new institutions and new ways of managing the present. Each problem a society solves brings a new problem.

SC: Yes, this is something people like Stiglitz have been talking about. Rethinking the idea of growth and development to include the idea of ‘well-being’ and environment. Why must we insist on walking the route western developed countries took, make the same mistakes, rather than use hindsight to think about other routes to economic progress?

NN: I agree. There’s no reason why we should follow the health or environment patterns of the West. In fact, there’s no way we can go that route because in the West development occurred with much smaller populations. They could also export environment problems; they had colonies that absorbed collateral damage. Also, those countries developed using hydrocarbons, whereas with global warming we need a different model for energy. Once we address the economic and political challenges of creating inclusive, equitable growth, we have to deal with the challenges of prosperity. We have to learn from where they got into trouble and take a different path. I have five ideas about that. One is about how we must look at health, energy, environment and social insurance differently. And how, because of my background, we look at technology differently — to build a better society, with more openness, transparency and democracy.

SK: You spoke of looking at our population as an asset, but I return to the point that we are seeing the greatest demographic growth in parts of the country least able to handle it. I don’t think we can be over-sanguine about the demographic dividend. It can certainly be an asset, but it can also be an albatross — provoking enormous social volatility and even violence.

SC: And do you think we need to rethink consumption, stop inflating human desire? At the heart of what we’re discussing lies the big question of unsustainable growth across the planet

NN: Theoretically, yes, but that genie has been unleashed and you cannot put it back in the bottle.

SC: Sunil, would you agree there is an inevitability to these things? History has changed tectonically in so many ways, but do you think there’s an inevitability to human behaviour?

SK: I don’t know about inevitability, but that certainly describes the trend in the last quarter of a millennium. Across the world, the pursuit of economic growth through higher consumption and invention of needs has proved irresistible, and wherever there have been attempts to secede from this, through oligarchy or socialism, such attempts have failed. Whether or not it’s ultimately sustainable is a very open question. That it may not be hangs over us today. It’s an important function of public and political debate, and for intellectuals, to warn us of the dangers of what we are doing, of the solutions we believe we have discovered.

Waste, Want The consumption genie is out of the bottle and can never be pushed back again
Waste, Want The consumption genie is out of the bottle and can never be pushed back again
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

NN: Yes, this’s why Sir Martin Rees has written about why this could be the final century. That the world has a 50-50 chance of surviving. The current conversation on climate change is one aspect of that. Certainly, the world has to figure out a model wherein individuals feel life is getting better, but its collective impact should be within the planet’s carrying capacity. We need to strike that balance, but it’s not clear whether or how that will happen. We may collectively hurtle towards doomsday, or perhaps there will be so many earth-shaking events people will be forced to really pull back.

India, in its early years, genuinely thought about these big issues. What’s the kind of society, democracy, legal system we want? These were huge debates, if we look at Constituent Assembly discussions, they were phenomenal. Today’s conversations have degenerated.

SK: Interestingly, those conversations were also taking place under threat of catastrophic endings — there was the huge domestic question of poverty and, globally, the threat of nuclear extermination. Nehru was constantly worrying about that. Also, in 1949 there wasn’t the kind of optimism available now; and yet there was a determined attempt to grasp the larger picture, to address many issues at once, and to think in terms of long historical horizons. It’s worth remembering: the conditions for this were more adverse than they are today.

SC: Why this implosion of intellect then? Why hasn’t our affirmative action yielded more inspirational leaders?

NN: Take US history: War of Independence: 1776; American Civil War: 1865; Women’s right to vote: 1920’s; the Black civil rights movement: 1950s to 1965. If you take the 1965 American Civil Rights Act as the milestone, when the US gave unrestricted freedom to everybody to vote etc, you realise it took them almost 200 years — from 1776 to 1965 — to realise their vision. What is it that we want to make happen tomorrow morning?

SK: Look at how other feudal societies moved from the feudal to the modern world. England has its own distinctive case — and had its empire. But if you look at the histories of France, Germany, Russia and China, they’ve been fraught with violence, oppression, and very traumatic histories. We, on the other hand, have been holding on relatively well in that historical context.

NN: The key difference is we’re doing it at an accelerated pace. What they did in 200 years, we’re doing in 100, with much larger numbers, and in an environment of complete electoral democracy, heightened awareness, and no colonies to ship our toxic waste to. This is unprecedented. If we get it right, it’ll be worldtransforming; we will demonstrate that a billion people of extraordinary diversity can live fairly amicably together, that you can have political legitimacy and still grow. We would essentially be able to sort out the world’s environment issues.

SK: This is certainly a source of inspiration. It gives one the energy to really want to make this work. We were all so weary ten minutes ago. It’s also what makes the Indian experiment so extraordinarily significant. That was something Nehru and that generation of leaders understood: that India did have something to say to the world, about how human societies could be. It wasn’t just about emulating others to become a homogenous national society; it was actually saying: we can live with difference in peace, we can supply the poor with a certain quality of life, and we can do this as a single nation-state, one that is not nationalistic, aggressive, expansionistic.

The Final Century Can our panet sustain market-driven desires?
The Final Century Can our panet sustain market-driven desires?
Photo: AP

SC: It’s become fashionable to reject Nehru and, with the economic muscle we have developed, one is jettisoning the earlier idea of India. Tolerance and peacefulness have become bad words.

NN: That’s true, especially the muscularity developing within certain people. But we’re underestimating the world Nehru left us. All said and done, we’re still having this argument within the framework he left us.

SK: I think we have been over-focused on electoral democracy. It’s really time to ask questions about the exercise of power, the legitimacy of not just how power is won, but how power is exercised. Certainly, there is growth and a new entrepreneurial energy. But when you look from Kashmir through Uttar Pradesh and to the North East, and large parts of central India, in a vast crescent of the country the state has tenuous authority. The challenge is how do you expand one (democratic politics), and contain the other (violent dissent)?

SC: What about religion? At TEHELKA, we have been very concerned about bigotry and communal politics, but do you think communalism is a big stumbling block, or is there overemphasis on it?

NN: I think it’s not religion, it’s politics masquerading as religion. Fundamentally, religion today is a form of political aggregation. It’s the same reason you want to bring Dalits and Brahmins together. The BJP and the Babri Masjid was a reaction to the Mandal Commision. The Mandal Commission was a way of slicing Hindu castes, and if you’re a Hindu party the only way to react is by consolidating. These are political manoeuvres: as long as you get political capital by dividing India, you will divide India. The solution isn’t telling politicians: “Don’t divide us on religion or caste or region”. Instead, change how the political debate aggregates voters. If you can aggregate voters not on caste but on governance issues, the game changes.

SK: The politics of the 1980s and 1990s was full of attempts to divide us. The gratifying thing is that, so far, that hasn’t happened at the national level: it’s been restricted to local parts of the country. But we are potentially in a very dangerous situation, where it’s no longer entirely in our hands. That we allowed religion to be used to cleave us internally has exposed us to international faultlines, which emanate from our regional neighbourhood and globally. We have extended an invitation to religious extremists to haunt us into the future. This, perhaps, is the ultimate tragedy and stupidity of the politics of Hindutva.

SC:Would you say that, internally, the Hindu right is running out of steam?

SK: I’d say it doesn’t have the immediate, explosive quality it had a decade ago. That’s hardly any cause for relaxation though. And the more we get hit from across our borders, the more profit accrues to the Hindu right

NN: It’s highly unlikely that somebody today can do a rath-yatra and get away with it. People aren’t going to buy that simplistic argument. The real challenge for liberal thinkers and leaders is to present pragmatic alternatives, not just bemoan things. If you don’t provide alternatives, you cede space.

SK: TEHELKA has been doing terrific stories — on Gujarat and SIMI and other issues of rule of law and justice. But I also think that

the liberal intelligentsia has abdicated questions of security — of how one deals with the question of terror attacks and so one — to the Right. That’s a very dangerous thing to do.

NN: Because people are in a hurry. They are willing to give space for any point of view, but if the alternative isn’t offering any solution, they’ll marginalise it.

SC: You mentioned political start-ups. Is it also time to do some radical thinking on our political structures?

NN: I don’t think we should be obsessed with the infrastructure of politics. It’s not about changing it from parliamentary to presidential, or state funding to private funding. These are mechanical arguments; the crucial difference will come when political choices are based on different parameters. I believe this will happen in the next 12 years. The swing vote of people who want better governance, a fairer, rule-based state is inevitable.

SK: On the question of political parties though, I do think they are a vital vehicle for democratic politics. They are the primary mechanism for identifying and aggregating interests and channelling them into the system. Their other crucial function is to socialise people, particularly the young, to groom them into the political process and make them citizens. We have to find ways to revive this sense of political parties.

SC: One final question about the global meltdown and evidence of corporate malpractice and greed. I know both of you warned that one should not be knee-jerk about it, but what are the most crucial messages to take away from this?

NN: One, the failure of regulations and the state. Then, that you had incentives for managers where they could take negative short-term decisions for longterm gain. Markets must continually prove themselves useful in society. Done well, markets can benefit huge masses and act as solvents for our differences. But they have to function within a sand box of regulation, rule of law and public policy, aligned for maximum public good and long-term benefits. The crafting of that sand box is a challenge for those who govern.

SK: Yes, but what we may see over the next few years is the return of a kind of economic nationalism or protectionism in other countries. That’s not going to be in our interest. We have to assert our role in making arguments against that to the US and other parts of Europe. We have a role to play in the designing of the global financial architecture — even though we do not have China’s economic weight, we have always punched above our weight, be it in the UN in the 1950s or in the WTO. But again, this requires thought and imagination, and a strong sense of where our interests are and how to pursue them. This crisis, then, is also an opportunity.