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The PM will have to bend the Sangh Parivar to his will: Devesh Kapur

Interview with Director, Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Aditi Phadnis 

Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania and holder of the Madan Lal Sobti Chair for the Study of Contemporary India tells Aditi Phadnis in an e-mailed interview what India's challenges in 2015 will be. Edited excerpts:

It is now almost certain that ghar wapsi - or conversion of those who are perceived to have "strayed" away from Hinduism - is going to be the dominant theme in the coming year. What kind of changes do you think this is going to bring in Indian society and politics? Are there any international parallels? If there are, what has happened to society and politics in those countries?

There is an inherent structural tension in the relationship between the prime minister (PM) and the Sangh Parivar. On the one hand, the cadres of the Sangh Parivar are essential for winning elections. On the other hand, their priorities are not those of the PM. His goals for the country are future-oriented - tapping the aspirations of a young country was a major factor underlying his electoral appeal. But many in the Sangh Parivar are obsessed with the past and their forays into deeply divisive and contentious issues such as ghar wapsi are at a minimum, deeply inimical to the development and foreign policy goals that the PM wants to achieve. The uproar in the Rajya Sabha on conversions has stalled his legislative agenda, forcing the government to take the ordinance route, which can only go so far. And externally, the goodwill that the PM had earned as a result of his successful foreign visits is now vulnerable. The PM had put much of the bad blood with the US behind after his very successful trip there. But now the Sangh Parivar's actions are gratuitously putting these hard-won gains at risk. It's almost as if through their actions they are saying "Aa bail mujhe maar" (inviting trouble). But the fact that this is happening is not happenstance. The Sangh Parivar is worried that what happened in Gujarat may happen in India, namely that its leaders would have to play second fiddle to the prime minister's leadership. Recall how Pravin Togadia was run out of Gujarat and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was not particularly happy either. This is an internecine battle and the manner of its resolution will fundamentally affect what this government will be able to achieve.

Successful leadership always requires a strong foundation of legitimacy. It is very hard to build but it is amazing how easily it can unravel - what happened with Rajiv Gandhi is a sad testimony to this harsh reality. For the PM to retain his legitimacy, he will either have to bend the Sangh Parivar to his will or else he will find it hard to govern and impossible to achieve his ambition of emerging as a historical transformational leader.

In the coming year, what do you expect the politics of the Opposition to be? Who will be the Opposition in India: caste-based parties, parties to the right of the right wing or groups that rally round the radical Muslim?

The Opposition parties are in disarray. Most have become like family-owned businesses and have no fresh ideas. The winner in India's electoral landscape is increasingly the party that scores fewer self-goals. If the Bharatiya Janata Party can avoid that - and it is not clear that it can - it can maintain its new-found pre-eminence for quite a while.

A lot has been made of India's place in the world. Has anything changed?

There is no doubt that India's image has improved, in large part because of the PM's energetic external travels and meetings. But India's place in the world will, in the end, depend on improving fundamentals at home. There is simply no substitute. That means raising growth rates to 7-plus per cent and ensuring that this growth is inclusive. It is not going to be that easy since the rot in the system is pretty deep. We have a mind-boggling number of government interventions, many of which try to set right the wrongs of sundry other government interventions. It will require not just changing policies - which are hard enough - but even more, changing institutional structures, which is much more difficult. It will also require fundamental improvements in India's human capital since our predominant asset is our Regrettably, I am afraid that the actions of the human resource development ministry do not inspire confidence that there is any understanding of what is required. If we do not invest wisely in the human capital of our young, we not only destroy their future but the country's as well.

India's place in the world also requires that we fundamentally rethink our security policies. This requires, first of all, not being stupid in fomenting sectarian strife for short-term gains. And second, asking harder questions of our larger security establishment. It is hardly a revelation to say that the basic institutional structure of internal security - the police - has been systematically undermined. There needs to be much greater accountability of the leadership of our para-military forces that have become bloated but which casually send jawans to slaughter due to sheer incompetence and callousness; the entire intelligence apparatus, which uses the cloak of secrecy to hide its weaknesses and misuse of funds and personnel; the Defence Research & Development Organisation and Ministry of Defence, whose records have been decidedly inadequate; and the armed forces, which are spending large amounts of scarce budgetary resources to fight wars of the 20th century rather than preparing for the future.

Can you see the emergence of a new Indian woman? Who is she?

One of the most arresting images last year was the image of our women scientists in the command control room of India's Mars mission - most wearing saris - celebrating the successful Mars space mission. That juxtaposition of tradition and modernity could be viewed as emblematic of what you refer to as the "new Indian woman". There are a host of structural factors weakening the deeply rooted structure of patriarchy in Indian society - declining fertility, growing (albeit still quite limited) access to technologies that liberate women from back-breaking household chores (such as the washing machine and dishwasher), education, greater exposure to the wider world (electronic media, cell phones), growing migration and urbanisation and so on... The diktats of the khap panchayats are the response of a system that is being challenged from below and is struggling to maintain its hegemony. But make no mistake - the struggle for gender equality will be long and arduous.

The defining feature of India today is the mobile phone. What happens to a society when from communicating intermittently, communication suddenly becomes instantaneous? In the past, it was hard to build institutions, but once built, they seemed unassailable. Now, you can build institutions - like the Aam Aadmi Party - very quickly, rectification is even faster and demolition follows... in what ways has mobile telephony influenced Indian society?

I agree. Future historians will see the cell phone as one of the most transformative - and empowering - technological revolutions of our age. I don't think we have more than a superficial sense of the multiple and complex implications of social media; and let's be clear - not all will be for the good. If we can roll out 3G and 4G across the country and keep costs low, its potential can be leveraged in so many ways.

There has been a lot of talk of federalism and passing on powers to the states. But we haven't seen much happening. Will 2015 see a new alignment in Centre-state relations and federalism?

I think the scaling back of centrally sponsored schemes and passing on some of those resources directly to states, as well as the growing momentum for the passage of the Goods and Services Tax will both strengthen federalism. However, to a considerable extent, the real challenge is less the distribution of power between the Centre and the states and much more the astounding degree of centralisation within states. India is facing the most singular urban transformation of the 21st century and is woefully unprepared in considerable part because urban local bodies (ULBs) are not empowered. State governments have deliberately gutted the spirit of the 74th Amendment for obvious reasons - there is so much money to be made in urban land and real estate that everyone wants their finger in this pie. If the PM wants his agenda of "smart cities" to take off, its foundations will have to be rooted in radically decentralising power from the states to ULBs.

First Published: Sat, January 03 2015. 21:46 IST