Why Ideas Matter

When Ideas Matter

Ideas and Political Decisions

Political science almost always falls back into discussions of institutions and interests. The human element gets extracted from serious research, because it does not fit well into statistical analysis or spatial models. Instead, ideas and opinions become diminished into political interests. In other words, scholars largely assume ideologies do not evolve independently, but depend entirely on the personal motivations of leaders. However, Bilal Baloch reverses the relationship between ideas and interests. He views interests as “simply one form of idea” rather than ideas as a manifestation of personal interests. 

Baloch believes ideas become central to political decision-making in moments of uncertainty. In these high stakes moments “decision-making is rarely, if ever rational.” It’s a novel notion, but it does follow a wider trend among social scientists and historians. Serhii Plokhy has recently shown how Kennedy, Khrushchev, among others made a series of mistakes in their approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a forthcoming book, Mark Beissinger argues urban revolutions succeed because they force quick decisions that lead to poor decisions by the ruling parties.  

Nonetheless, Bilal Baloch goes well beyond a skepticism of rational choice theory. He argues “elite ideas… dominate policymaking.” Moreover, he uses two historical examples from India to explain this idea about ideas. So, many readers will delight in the ways When Ideas Matter opens the black box of public policy formation, but others will discover it makes sense of some important moments in Indian political history. Either way the book approaches the examination of political decisions from a novel perspective in more ways than one.

The Emergency

Writers on democracy regularly refer to the brief period of authoritarian rule in India known as the Emergency. It refers to a 21 month period where Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency to consolidate political control through dictatorial powers. Donald Horowitz elaborates, “This was a period of unlawful arrests, abductions for forced sterilization, and attempts to undermine the independent judiciary.” It’s not uncommon to come across this period in India’ history in the scholarship on democracy, but few political scientists take the time to explain why it happened.  Too often scholars oversimplify it as a power grab. 

Baloch adds important context that changes how the reader thinks about political decisions. He explains how it developed out of a credibility crisis over a series of corruption scandals. On top of that the Jayaprakash Narayan Movement added pressure through the mobilization of large segments of the population. Moreover, the movement threatened Gandhi’s ideological sentiments when it established an alliance with the RSS. In other words, the corruption scandals spiraled into a condensed period of high stakes decisions with ideological implications. 

Gandhi’s ideological inclinations made her wary of the alliance between the RSS and the JP Movement. However, it was her ideas about how politics works made the Emergency a reasonable response. “Gandhi was fundamentally a populist,” according to Baloch. She distrusted institutions as much as she distrusted dissent. Moreover, a few years earlier she encouraged an ideological break between different factions of the Congress Party. So, her government had less ideological diversity and hence less political creativity than previous Indian administrations. In other words, it’s not simply the quality of ideas, but the diversity of ideas available that shape political outcomes. 

India Against Corruption

I was entirely unaware of the importance of the India Against Corruption Movement and how it led to the collapse of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. It’s a recent event that allowed for Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to retake power. So, the historical moment has significant consequences for the trajectory of democracy in India. Yet, most scholars focus exclusively on Modi without any reference to the previous UPA government. The story of the India Against Corruption Movement explains how yet another anti-corruption movement had lasting political consequences for very different reasons. 

The United Progressive Alliance is a coalition of different center-left political parties in India largely led by the Indian National Congress. Their coalition governed India from 2004 until 2014 under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while Sonia Gandhi acted as its political leader serving as the chairperson of the National Advisory Committee. The partnership made sense. Singh offered a competent technocratic hand. Gandhi delivered a political vision. 

On the surface the UPA should have overcome the problems Indira Gandhi’s government faced from too little diversity in ideas. A coalition government naturally draws in multiple perspectives, because it brings together different political parties. However, the UPA split its leadership into two different channels.Manmohan Singh provided the formal leadership as Prime Minister, but Sonia Gandhi was its informal leader. They failed to establish a true partnership where they complemented one another. Instead, they acted at cross purposes in high stakes political moments. In the end, their approach exacerbated a credibility crisis. Moreover, their failure did more than bring down their government. It fostered the conditions for the BJP to establish its political hegemony for the past decade. 

Do Ideas Matter?

Many readers will find the case selection in When Ideas Matter unusual. The thesis implies something universal. It refers to the importance of ideas in public policy. Many will argue Baloch could find examples in American or European democracies with greater familiarity for the audience. However, Baloch purposely selected what he describes as a developing democracy. He writes, “In most developing democracies, state institutions are not neutral decision-making apparatuses, but rather reflect government decision-makers’ perspectives and power.” In other words, the lack of institutionalization made elite ideas more apparent in the political process. They may well exist in other democracies, but established institutions can disguise the importance of ideas in policy formation. 

Instead, Baloch draws the reader into an entirely new historical environment where the stakes in politics transcend typical policy formulation. He shows how humans show their humanity and their frailty through their mistakes. Finally, he demonstrates the importance of political leaders in moments of crisis. But Baloch recognizes leadership is about more than just character. It involves what leaders think and how they think. Leadership depends less on the quality of their ideas than how they evaluate the ideas of others. In the end, politics in conditions of uncertainty fall back onto our ideas, because “before interests can be established, ideas provide a cognitive guide.”

Bilal Baloch joins the Democracy Paradox to discuss his recent book When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India. 

Further Reading

Yamini Aiyar (2019) “Leveraging Welfare Politics,” Journal of Democracy

Bilal Baloch (2021) When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India

Mark Beissinger (2022) The Revolutionary City: Urbanization and the Global Transformation of Rebellion

Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane (2021) To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism

Sumit Ganguly (2014) “India and Its Neighbors,” Journal of Democracy

Donald Horowitz (2021) Constitutional Processes and Democratic Commitment

Madhav Khosla and Milan Vaishnav (2021) The Three Faces of the Indian State,” Journal of Democracy

Rahul Mukherji (2020) “India’s Illiberal Remedy,” Journal of Democracy

Serhii Plokhy (2021), Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Ronojoy Sen (2017) India’s Democracy at 70: The Disputed Role of the Courts,” Journal of Democracy

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Bilal Baloch on Indira Gandhi, India’s Emergency, and the Importance of Ideas in Politics

Christophe Jaffrelot on Narendra Modi and Hindu Nationalism

More Episodes from the Podcast

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