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

Bilal Baloch


Bilal Baloch is the Co-Founder and COO of Enquire, formerly GlobalWonks. He is also a non-resident visiting scholar at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India.

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We have core ideas that form a part of our worldview, but those core ideas are not fixed in the way in which we talk about rationality and interest in that they can evolve. And we have to, when we think about human behavior, political behavior, we have to give serious attention to those ideas and go beyond just fixed material interests.

Bilal Baloch

Key Highlights

  • What was the Jayaprakash Narayanan Movement?
  • Why did the State of Emergency happen in India?
  • How do ideas influence governance?
  • The differences between technocratic and political leadership
  • Is it more important to foster a diversity of ideas or support the best ideas?

Podcast Transcript

Today’s conversation features Bilal Baloch is the author of a new book called When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India. He places ideas at the center of political decision-making. So, in the book he writes, “Before interests can be established, ideas provide a cognitive guide.” You’ll notice that he’s unlike most political scientists because he really does believe ideas explain politics better than interests do. 

Our conversation explores Bilal’s insights about political decision-making through two examples out of Indian political history. They both involve two different anti-corruption movements. But the concern for Bilal is more about how leaders react to what he calls a credibility crisis. So, you’ll probably find that this conversation approaches a big concept about ideas but at the same time involves some real specific examples about India and its history. So, I hope it provides a lot for you as a listener to learn about. 

Now, before we begin I want to thank Stephan Kyburz, host of the Rules of the Game podcast. He recently wrote a review on Apple Podcasts where he called Democracy Paradox “insightful and inspiring.” But my favorite part is when he says, “I would simply love to join the conversation.” Thank you so much Stephan. Anyone who listens to Democracy Paradox should also check out his podcast, Rules of the Game: Discussing Democratic Institutions. I’m a huge fan myself and you’ll find his show really complements Democracy Paradox for those who want to learn more about democracy and its institutions. So, on that note it’s about time for my conversation with Bilal Baloch…

jmk

Bilal Baloch, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Bilal Baloch

Thank you for having me, Justin.

jmk

Bilal, I approached your book, When Ideas Matter, in two different ways. I actually read it as a book that had a big picture idea. A big picture idea about ideas. But I also read it as a window into Indian political history. It’s a subject that I always want to know more about, but a subject that I haven’t read enough about yet. And so, I want to start with the history first, because I found it absolutely fascinating, but also because it helps explain many of your ideas.

And so, your first example actually touches on the emergency which is among the most dramatic periods in India’s history, of course, following its independence and partition. But after that, it might actually be the most dramatic period in Indian history. But before it happens, the Jayaprakash Narayanan Movement arises, which is something that I’d never heard of. But in your account, it’s pivotal to understand the emergency that follows it. Can you tell us a little bit about this movement and how it began?

Bilal Baloch

Sure. So, let me start with a very famous graph that tends to do the rounds in academic circles, political science circles, policy circles pertaining to India. And it’s a graph based off of Freedom House scores. Now, Freedom House scores, as your audience may be aware, are points awarded along different political rights indicators, civil liberties, so on and so forth. Zero represents the smallest degree of freedom and four the greatest degree of freedom. And there’s a graph that has historically done the rounds which shows that India as the world’s largest democracy has fared near the top of that score and witnessed a very steep blip in the mid-seventies.

And the particular date that’s pointed out is 1975 when the Indian internal emergency was instituted by then sitting Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Civil liberties were paused and crushed and, for all intents and purposes, the constitution came to a halt as India went through what was essentially a period of about a year and a half of authoritarian rule. Now, back to your question, why did this happen? Its origins, its history, there’s a lot that’s been written up about it. The context in which I and the book, When Ideas Matter, looks at this period is against the emergence of the Jayaprakash Narayanan movement as you mentioned, which is an anti-corruption movement set of protests that started to emerge and started to around about 1973 onwards in India, starting off at the local level in states such as Gujarat, then Bihar on college campuses.

And from there really rising and swelling up under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayanan or JP, as he is often known, which culminated in a series of national level protests and marches and then also in different parts of the country that fundamentally went from capitalizing on the corrupt state narrative, the corrupt state being the corruption of government institutions, ministers and governance more broadly under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to asking for the entire removal of Prime Minister Gandhi and her government as a way to solve for the corruption and the political ailments and the corruption disease, as JP would often like to reference it as, that the country had been overcome by now.

Why was this movement of interest to me? For that we need to fast forward to the smoldering summer months of 2012. I happen to be in India that summer. And this was a time when India was in the full throes of another anti-corruption movement, slightly different, but still, at the same time, capitalizing on that corrupt state narrative that the JP movement had capitalized on which essentially claimed that the guardians and custodians of government of the state had lost their right to govern by virtue of the steep levels of corruption that that government had been mired in. There’d been several scandals that had been revealed and exposed by the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Office, which is tantamount to a parallel ombudsman, although not explicitly an anti-corruption ombudsman.

jmk

So, we’ve got these two different anti-corruption movements that occur about almost 40 years distance from each other. Is the corruption that these movements are trying to reform, is this endemic to the state of India that it’s always present and never really resolved? Or is it something that’s improved, but then starts to decay and starts to get worse again before it begins to improve again? Or is it maybe blown out of proportion? What’s the actual state of corruption in India during these periods? And is it something that’s getting worse, which is why the movements are arising during these periods?

Bilal Baloch

Yeah, that’s a very good question. In other words, when does the corrupt state narrative becomes salient? And I think that’s why these two movements are very interesting. Right? Because corruption itself, everything from petty corruption to sort of grand level corruptions of the type where scandals are implicating ministers and skimming of government contracts as being revealed and exposed in media and other forms of investigations, those kinds of incidents are quite common. One could argue they are constant in places like India and elsewhere and, quite frankly, as we now know they also are in our part of the world too. Right? But when do these protests, when do these movements become salient? And I think there, we have to go beyond the anti-corruption movements themselves, and look more broadly at what I refer to as the credibility crisis.

In these political episodes where economic conditions are weakening, in both scenarios there are international financial crises emerging or the countries in the full throes of one. The credibility of the incumbent leader or leaders is being questioned by virtue of them not taking strong enough action on the corruption or them being seen as implicated in the corruption. So, there’s more to the milieux in which these anti-corruption movements emerge than simply the fact that corruption is a salient issue. And that’s why it’s better to look at them in terms of a credibility crisis. And, you know, a credibility crisis in my book has two parts, external and internal as I mentioned, poor economic growth and international financial crises and a rising sense of unfilled campaign promises.

Exposure to corruption scandals, in the Gandhi case that was, you know, ministers such as L. N. Mishra, including Indira Gandhi’s own son, Sanjay Gandhi, being implicated in pretty large-scale scandals. And in the UPA government under Manmohan Singh, corruption scandals covering the Commonwealth games that happened in 2002 as well as scandals around the rollout of 2G Telecommunications. Very large scale, several billions of dollars of apparent skimming and, corruption being involved in those cases. And so, those are the conditions that you have to look at equally when assessing these movements. They don’t happen in a vacuum.

jmk

So, you already mentioned the leader, JP, who the movement is named after. Who is this person? Like where does he come from? Why does he become the face of this anti-corruption movement in the seventies?

Bilal Baloch

For anti-corruption movements, the symbolism of who leads them is equally as important as the political and strategic leadership that guides them as well. And it is no surprise that in both cases, whether we look at the movement and the leadership of JP as well as the India Against Corruption Movement and the leadership, certainly symbolic, of Anna Hazare, these are both individuals that had by and large devoted their lives to social causes. Working at the very ground level on social justice issues, on fighting for and advocating for civil rights organizations, civil rights groups, whether that is corruption, whether that is small businesses, whether that is devolving government and devolving political power. Whatever it may be these were individuals that came with essentially clean backgrounds that people believed in and who symbolism was equally as important to charge these movements.

In the case of JP, he had been part of the Quit India Movement in the lead up to and proceeding the independence of India. He had been close to founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He had his own following. In the case of someone like Anna Hazare, similarly had worked at the local level in the state of Maharashtra on social causes, and social issues and campaigning on corruption. So, the credibility and background, and quite frankly, the record of these people to fuel and mobilize is critical to the success of these organizations.

jmk

Now as we look at how these two movements create almost a crescendo, a political crescendo. In the seventies it leads to the state of emergency. In the 2010s it effectively leads to the rise of the BJP, or the second rise of the BJP, and the emergence of Modi. That one seems to make a little bit more sense, because it’s just the emergence of a new political party and a new politician and in democracies you shift between political parties, but the state of emergency is quite dramatic. That’s a significant shift. And again, it’s something that does not happen very often. Many people thought it was the death of democracy in India. How did an anti-corruption movement lead to the state of emergency in India in 1975?

Bilal Baloch

So, the anti-corruption movement, I would say, most proximately led to the actions that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took in 1975. But there’s more to the story. Right? Why Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975? This is a topic that has increasingly received academic attention in recent years because of archives opening up and more research being done on this period. But, you know, the long and short of it is she did it to maintain power in the face of political and an economic crisis. But this much is constant in most governing contexts. If we go deeper, the conditions that allowed her to take that step, where the unfettered control she had over the party organization in the state which her party had been slowly subsuming throughout her reign, whether that was the upper echelons of the judiciary, whether that was state level governments.

All areas that would have otherwise have played the role of a checks and balance in a democratic architecture whether that’s institutions or federalism or, quite frankly, even ideological diversity, which is what I argue in the book, were slowly eroded away since she rose to power in 1971. And there’s also the ideological opposition of the anti-corruption protests she faced. One thing, I think, it’s important to keep in mind as we study protest movements further and further and more deeply, especially given how ubiquitous they are today and how they can be organized and mobilized certainly through the penetration of the internet and other technologies, is that they are themselves fluid entities. An anti-corruption movement on day one may not look like it did on day 10 or day 100.

And as the JP movement evolved, political entrepreneurs and other forms of groups latched onto it. And the main one being the RSS which is ostensibly a social movement and a civic organization in India, but in very real terms is a Hindu right-wing sectarian organization. And they are involved in political mobilization across all layers of Indian society and the Indian political system. And most notably are the mobilizational force and ideological force behind the BJP. But going back to the JP Movement, back then they were able to latch on to the JP movement.

Now Jayaprakash Narayanan had a very clear fork in the road. Does he disavow his previous statements and views of this right-wing organization and shun them, consistent with his own approach to social development and civic growth in India, or does he capitalize on their mobilizational zeal and ability to really propel his organization and his movement so that it can reach its aims? And I think that kind of a dilemma for any social movement is one that’s often faced by movement leaders. Now the RSS came very firmly within the fold of the JP Movement and the range of scholarship on this goes from it was a tactical move to it was a coming together of ideological world views.

And as the RSS came into the fold of the Jayaprakash Narayanan Movement, it took on very clear political hues. But also, ideological hues that were oppositional to the makeup of the Indira Gandhi government which was certainly center-left or a leftist organization and government certainly in terms of the world views of the main bureaucrats and technocrats in that government. And so, as the standoff between the anti-corruption movement and the incumbent government became more political and therefore more ideological, that together with the unrestricted power that Mrs. Gandhi enjoyed over her government made the crushing of the movement and the declaration of the emergency one of the clear-cut options that were in front of her.

I must say that the third layer that comes into this is, of course, the legal battle that Mrs. Gandhi was mired in at the time which essentially accused her of being guilty of corrupt campaign practices and a legal battle that then concluded that she should resign from her post as Prime Minister, the revision of which then suggested that she could no longer serve as Prime Minister. And so, going back to the start of my answer, I think maintaining political power alongside the ideological opposition to the anti-corruption protests what really made the emergency far more probable.

jmk

So, a big part of your answer is focused on Indira Gandhi as a leader. And I found that in your account in the book, you look to Indira Gandhi as a real break from past leaders within the Indian National Congress and within India as a whole. You write, “While Nehru can be considered a nationalist, Gandhi was fundamentally a populist.” It’s an interesting description of Gandhi that I’ve heard of before. But it’s interesting because we think of Narendra Modi today also as a populist. But they’re very different leaders, yet at the same time they seem to parallel one another. Can you kind of describe a little bit about how Indira Gandhi was a real change in the style of leadership from the past leaders such as her father Nehru and maybe some others?

Bilal Baloch

Yeah, I think that’s a very good question. First of all, I think all these leaders are very different and even if there are shades of similarities. It’s important not to over-read the comparison. I think there are many similarities between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but they’re also fundamentally quite different too. I think to kick off your question, you asked about nationalists and populists, the simple answer is that nationalists work through institutions and populists do not. You know, true to the divergence, populists focus squarely on the elected institutions that get them to power, and that maintain their power, and the general will of the people.

So, when populists talk, they’re talking to the people. People that they believe that they can manipulate and influence and shape. Independent institutions are often strengthened by nationalists and, you know, Prime Minister Nehru strengthened federalism in India, strengthened, , elected institutions in India, policy mechanisms, whether they were to do with the country’s foreign relations and having a doctrine and a blueprint for what that should even look like.

So, I would argue that nationalists, such as Prime Minister Nehru not only work through institutions, but have a focus and a blueprint on the substance of public policy, whereas populists such as Indira Gandhi, and I would classify Prime Minister Modi in that too, they certainly use nationalist frames and concepts of the nation to rule and they are certainly ideological. But in their style of governance, they are populists in that the institutions, independent institutions, that can check and balance their power and specifically their ideological program gets subsumed or sidelined with a focus on creating a bridge directly between the people and the leaders themselves.

jmk

So, something you hinted at earlier when you were talking about why the emergency occurred, you were starting to introduce the way ideas impact governance. And when you’re describing Indira Gandhi you hinted at the fact that there weren’t enough ideas in her government. There was a single ideological direction that they were moving. And so, what I’m curious about is when we think that ideas matter, the kind of assumption that I would make is that, ‘Oh, ideas matter. We need to get the ideas right.’ But I’m getting the impression from you that it’s not about the substance of the ideas. It’s also about the diversity of ideas that’s present within the government. Am I reading that right?

Bilal Baloch

I think you’re absolutely right. Yeah. So, you know, the ideas that I point out in the book can be reduced down to ideas around nationalism and ideas around economic development. Now, those two buckets tend to be quite universal and popular and common areas of recourse for leaders. I want to be very clear that those aren’t the only types of ideas that could exist out there that leaders and decision-makers make recourse to. The second part of the analysis, you’re absolutely right, are the structures around those ideas. There simply was not a diverse set of decision-makers in terms of type, so Indira Gandhi’s government was mainly dominated by elected political elites that came with political power. Political bases that were ideologically party people.

They shared in the vision and the concepts of the nation that Mrs. Gandy proposed or certainly expounded. And there weren’t a sufficient number of technocrats and bureaucrats that could bring alternative ideas and specifically policy prescriptions, so that when a credibility crisis did emerge and it emerged slowly, but the interventions that could have taken place had Mrs. Ganhiy had the right bench of expertise, and the right bench of decision-makers with alternative views around policy interventions, and were her government to be set up to structurally invite those individuals in and let them execute on their ideas. Then things would’ve been different.

jmk

There was even a break that you described in the book that had been quite a few years before the emergency. It happened before she had her…

Bilal Baloch

In 1969, yeah.

jmk

Yeah, where the Congress Party broke into two different halves. That essentially, she expunged out one half of the party, or less than one half of the party, that disagreed with her so that the party became even more ideologically consistent. Can you talk a little bit about how that had an impact in terms of limiting the diversity of ideas in the government?

Bilal Baloch

Yeah, absolutely. And this is an example of how ideological divisions can also manifest and lead to concrete political vehicles being born. Right? So, in the lead up to 1969, Mrs. Gandhi had been installed as an interim leader of the Congress party, but it was a succession plan that happened very randomly as the former Prime Minister had, suddenly passed away. And she had been installed by the political brass of the Congress party as a face, as a symbol of a continuation of the Nehru family’s involvement in the Congress Party. And quite frankly, as a leader that could be shaped and molded in the image of the top brass. Now that is the well accounted for surface level explanation about what happened in those years.

But side by side with that, and this is at the heart of what the book is about, is to take leaders and people and their worldview seriously. And Mrs. Gandhi, as well as leaders around her that she trusted, that she was close to, that had come up through the party with her. There was not just a generational gap between them and the top brass of the political party, but there was an ideological divergence too. And in the political battles between the leadership of the party, there were manifestos placed at Congress Party meetings. There were ideas floated at Congress Party meetings. There were suggestions made most notably around bank nationalization or the removal of princely privy purses. That discussions around these issues created very clear ideological cleavages.

And so, that came to a head in 1969 with Mrs. Gandhi’s faction of the Congress Party breaking away from the more traditional wing of the Congress Party. And it happened exactly around the decision to nationalize the banks, the 14 major private banks in India. And that really revealed as a proxy issue, the ideological differences between the top brass leadership within the Congress umbrella and the center left faction under Mrs. Gandhi in the Congress umbrella. And I say umbrella, because it was a party that had many shades and hues within it. Remember, this is only sort of, you know, 25, 24 years after independence. It’s a party very much in the form of a national level party where different ideological factions were subsumed and a part of it and those fissures came undone in the late sixties.

jmk

Now, we’re talking a lot about India, but obviously this concept that you’re describing. The way ideas matter is something that’s translatable to other parts of the world. And you actually go through some different examples near the end of the book. But I want to just ask about it as more of an abstract concept for a moment. The examples that you give focus a lot on the way political elites use ideas, especially elites that are part of the government. So, when we consider ideas in politics or government are the ideas of elites effectively the only ones that matter.? Like can ideas really truly percolate from outside of political elites and make a difference?

Bilal Baloch

Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question and the short answer is absolutely. You know, I don’t necessarily view ideas as positional and elite alone. I see them in terms of dominance. And positionality is important in hierarchical organizations like governments and cabinets where, you know, the ideas of a prime minister or the ideas of a chancellor of the Exchequer or the ideas of the chief of staff to the president may, in terms of positionality, afford them more currency. But what makes an idea popular or rise up in the zeitgeist can be due to a confluence of advocates. People on the street, businesses, academics, and more pushing an idea forward and through.

You know, oftentimes you can have ideas that are popular among elite circles. But you step outside of those dinner halls or classrooms and it’s not until advocates across the board take them forward and execute on them do they gain currency. You know, I talk a lot in the book about the ideas of technocrats that are formulated and developed in graduate school classrooms or in institutions they work in. Now we know a lot of these ideas today as sort of market liberal ideas around economic openings in countries or ideas around impact investing or social democracy, et cetera.

But the point at which these ideas are formulated don’t always come from elites sitting in governments. And certainly, sometimes even if they do come off or are formulated by elites sitting in academic classrooms or in other privileged positions. They don’t gain currency until nonelites take them forward. Write about them. Push them forward. So, I think there’s definitely more of a mosaic to idea formulation and where it meets the currency of those ideas.

jmk

Now, anybody listening might think that a lot of what we’re talking about when we say ideas seems really obvious. It seems very simple as if all political scientists discuss it this way and think about it the same way. But I think it’s important to note that you’re really making a break from traditional political science when you’re referring to ideas and putting the emphasis on them. In the book, you write, “Interests are simply one form of idea.” And that’s really what most political scientists talk about. They talk about the role of interests and the negotiation between interests. Can you talk a little bit about how interests are really just a different way of thinking about ideas?

Bilal Baloch

Yeah, and let’s try and be even less abstract and conceptual than that. You know, much of political science and I would argue even oftentimes our policy formulations, certainly in some of the Western capitals that we sit in, assumes a certain set of rational motivations and assumptions around behavior. Right? So, decision makers and leaders in a place like India, their politics is invariably going to be motivated by power, by votes. They will do whatever it takes to maintain power. They will make decisions on public policy based on wherever their base shifts and moves. They are a political system and a political architecture where corruption and rents between leaders and principals and agents are rife. And that’s what motivates decision-making and politics in places such as India and other emerging and frontier market countries. The power of the idea is completely ignored.

Now, what do I mean by power of the idea? The power of the idea, the best way to make that very clean and clear and obvious is that there are times there are moments where your ideological underpinning whether that is how you conceive of an economic system or how you conceive of identity or how you conceive of nationalism can overpower your material interests. You know, if ideas didn’t have their own independent force, if ideology didn’t have its own independent force above and beyond what is in the material best interests of me as an individual, as a rational actor, we wouldn’t have suicide bombing. Ideology, the way in which it can dominate our political decisions and I say that as we, as citizens as well, and even certainly as elites, can often overpower what is in the best interests of me and my party materially.

Now that’s something, I think, we can all point to examples throughout history for that. Why would people go towards where tens of thousands of people would die when there is no material benefit there at least ostensibly? But you can make an ideological case for why you would send tens of thousands of young men out into the theater of war and quite frankly why they would choose to go. Now let’s take that concept of a difference. If we can agree that there is a difference between what is in my material interests as an individual, as a rational actor, and how my ideas around the world may be separate from that than what I explore in the book is.

When you’re faced with a crisis, and a crisis by its very nature is not necessarily a black swan event. But it certainly throws up issues and events that you didn’t legislate for. That you may not be able to have a playbook for. Not every crisis is the same either. In my book, the very strong argument that I make is that decision-makers make recourse to their ideas and I lean on insights, not just from political science and sociology, but also social psychology and cognitive psychology around how does the brain and how does human behavior function when it’s under these pressures of crises a loss of power. And it’s very clear that the kind of heuristics that our ideas present and the kind of experiences that our ideas guide become quite dominant because you don’t know what your interests are.

jmk

So, you write in the book, “Decision-making is rarely if ever rational.” And you’re referring to it, even now, the idea that in a crisis you’re leaning on your ideas that may or may not make sense in the bigger picture. That if we had some time to flesh them out, maybe they’d be good ideas. Maybe they wouldn’t. In politics and government, should we be aspiring towards making decisions that are rational or is there any benefit to the poetry, if you will, of all these different ideas and the ways that we come about them? Should we be trying to pursue something that there’s one correct answer or is there a benefit to all these different ideas and these different directions that we could ultimately go in the end?

Bilal Baloch

I think the idea is that things can change. And that I would say two things. I would say that we have core ideas that form a part of our worldview, but those core ideas are not fixed in the way in which we talk about rationality and interest in that they can evolve. And we have to, when we think about human behavior, political behavior, we have to give serious attention to those ideas and go beyond just fixed material interests. And that’s what I mean when I talk about decision-making is rarely if ever rational. I mean, this in the strict sense of how we think about rational choice models in social science at its core. Rational choice models are about self-interest and individual driven decision-making. Game theory is a pertinent example of how we go around modeling that.

But again, human beings, if they are acting purely from a self-interested lens, do not do so in a lab with all the other conditions. Outside of that individuals and variables and pathways to outcomes are known. And in that, real life is less in equilibria and more in disequilibria. In that it’s an asymmetrical context and that’s more reflective of political realities. It’s tough to make purely rationalist arguments as though you have perfect information. You can make a purely self-interested choice and take policy action as a result of it. That’s just not what political contexts are like and that’s certainly not what messy institutional places like India and other developing countries are like.

jmk

Now, when we look at the second of your examples, which is in the 2010s and India’s facing another legitimacy crisis. I find it interesting, because there is a prime minister who is much more of a technocrat and yet the political leadership of Sonia Gandhi and others is almost more of a different form of leadership in that kind of environment. Do technocrats make better decisions under a legitimacy crisis than politicians or do politicians make better decisions?

Bilal Baloch

The unhelpful answer, Justin, is both. You need the policy prescriptions and the idea formulation and program of technocrats and bureaucrats whose job it is to put it crudely, do the thinking as well as the politics. Because you have to navigate messaging, narrative and more concretely the collective interests of a democratic process and not just one constituency when you’re governing as a politician.

So, you know, ostensibly the blueprint of Sonia Gandhi, and just for your listeners, Sonia Gandhi, being the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, who years later in the case study of India in the 2010s became the president of the Congress Party and became the de facto leader of the UPA government. That political power and the ability of a political leader in her sense to be able to navigate the party organization, be the symbol of the party, and navigate a multitude of interests sitting side by side with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was technocrat and came with policy ideas and a blueprint on the face of it would work quite well. But unfortunately, the positionality here was tricky. Right? It wasn’t such that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi was a Deputy PM or in his cabinet.

She ended up having her own political locus in the form of the NAC and the role of the Congress Party made it very difficult for this to be less a diverse cabinet and more a set of polycentric power areas. And so, instead of playing the role of coming to consensus or coming to execution with different ideas as part of the same lab. These were essentially separate units fighting for turf. And that’s where the divergence comes down.

jmk

So, in the book you’ve got a line that I love. You write, “Toleration defines democracy.” Now these days, many would interpret this line as toleration of different forms of identity, but I get the sense that toleration for you also refers to ideas, tolerating, other opinions, tolerating other perspectives. But when we’re trying to govern, we do need to make a policy decision. We have to pick one of those ideas. So, how do we balance the toleration for these different ideas in a democracy with the need to ultimately favor one single idea in public policy decisions?

Bilal Baloch

Yeah. So, well, thank you for that. The quote that you mention, “Toleration defines democracy,” first of all refers to my discussion around the theoretical precepts of democracy and non-democracy and governance. Right? So, in short, we expect democracies to be more tolerant, less arbitrary, when dealing with opposition, especially on the streets. Let’s call it peaceful transitions. And this is what was at the heart of what really alarmed people the most about the January 6th riots.

It wasn’t that suddenly President Trump had revealed himself to be a leader that suddenly people didn’t believe in. It was the first time in a long time that people said, ‘Whoa. Okay. It’s one thing to govern with a set of narrow right-wing ideas, but to threaten peaceful transition of power and to shun tolerance in the face of political and ideological opposition. Well, you know, that threatens the very fabric of democratic governance.’ That’s why January the sixth is such an important date in America’s sort of modern-day democratic history. To the second part of your question, look, I think we have the systems in place. But I think we’ve bruised them. Consensus or something approximating it in government is important, but consensus among all citizens quite frankly is not. And this comes down to information and procedure.

So, to put it simply and perhaps crudely, elected officials are there to represent and bureaucrats and technocrats are there to formulate ideas and policy thinking. The government is a strong incubator for these dominant ideas to come together and work and for it to turn into a governing program. But when that bleeds out into the street and when that bleeds out into direct bridges between leaders talking not to the individuals that have been represented and not to the technocrats that have been brought in, but directly to the people like we’ve seen over the last half a decade around the world. That’s when the waters get murky. And then the audience for decision making becomes the street and not the halls of legislating in India.

Politicians spend more time speaking to the street than they do debating in parliament. In the US we see decision-makers filibustering more and tweeting more in talking directly to the people. So, that’s where, you know, I think, it’s not about favoring one idea. It’s really about the process of how we get to the dominant ideas that should be governing whichever country or context that you live in and are a citizen to. But I think we have the frameworks in place for those ideas to emerge.

jmk

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Bilal Baloch

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