‘India Has Often Rejected A Politics Of Polarisation’

The Oxford Companion to Politics in India – a new collection of essays attempts to canvass all of Indian politics and its paradoxes. Co-editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta says what we need most of all in our political discourse is a sense of historicity and empirical rigour. Excerpts from the interview

What was the main idea behind such a comprehensive political reader?
The idea was to obtain three things: a survey of our state of knowledge of Indian politics, an introduction to the questions we should be asking about it, and to bring distinctive viewpoints to each topic. We got not just political scientists but also economists and sociologists, as well as a mix of generations across the globe.

Which contributors particularly intrigued you with their essays?
There are the expectedly great pieces by people like Sunil Khilnani, Partha Chatterjee and Ram Guha. Two particular ones were Uday Mehta, who makes a subtle argument about our Constitution’s character, and Steve Wilkinson, on using data to study Indian politics.

Are coalition politics ideal or do we need more national-level parties?
We need to have some historical and empirical rigour. The period of so-called coalition politics has seen amongst the best performance by India in economic terms. One has to unravel this paradox. We also have to acknowledge the fact that the sharing of power by so many different constituents has created a more inclusive power structure. Of course, you could look at the downsides of coalition politics as well. There is another paradox that the proliferation of parties has also produced more ideological convergence. The essays in this volume will show how paradoxically power works.
What’s the real importance of nonpolitical institutions like the Election Commission, Parliament and NGOS?
The volume vividly illustrates our ability to engage in institutional improvisation. So there are stories of abject State failure, but there are also stories of remarkable institutional resilience. Non-elected institutions and NGOS can act as a check and balance. But their own authority and ability to do so varies considerably; sometimes they compensate for State failure, sometimes they reproduce it.
Can ideas like secularism and internationalism still provide social justice and compete with identity politics?
Several essays reflect on the complicated strands that go into the making of India’s national identity and sense of self. I can’t speak for all the contributors, but there is a powerful strand running through these essays that India has often profoundly rejected a politics of polarisation.
Violence is becoming a favourite political tool for the disenfranchised. What is broken in the Indian political system that denies social justice to citizens?
There are plenty of things wrong with Indian democracy. The State’s institutions have been abject failures in some areas, while they’ve been successful in others. The issue of violence needs to be disaggregated. Something political scientists are interested in is enormous variation in violence over time and space. Often, you don’t get violence where you expect it, and often you get it where you don’t. Even a state like Bihar has seen great variation. We need a deeper understanding of why that’s the case.
There’s no simple story about what’ll produce social justice. The first task is to deepen our understanding of all the relevant factors and bring some empirical rigour and conceptual imagination to the debate.