‘Mechanism mapping’ for policy design

I just finished reading a recent working paper by Martin Williams, titled “External validity and policy adaptation: From impact evaluation to policy design”.

In this paper, Martin tackles the question – how will a policymaker apply evidence available to her to design a policy/programme that will fix a particular problem at hand? He first takes us through the ways in which we think of this currently – primarily by attempts to strengthen the external validity of evaluations – and points out the limitations of these approaches. The central critique is that most of this thinking puts the evaluators/researchers at the centre and tries to devise ways in which the evidence generated by their research can be generalised beyond their specific study samples. This is at odds with what a policymaker (in this paper, a public official in a given country) needs in order to make decisions about how to use evidence from elsewhere to design a policy/programme for her specific context.

The answer, Martin suggests, is ‘mechanism mapping’ – a five-step process where the public official lays out:

Step 1: The theory of change (ToC) of the programme that generated the evidence at hand;

Step 2: The context within which the programme ToC worked;

Step 3: The context at the destination – local factors that will affect a potential replication;

Step 4: By doing the above, interrogate the evidence with the new context, and suggest design modifications; and

Step 5: Iterate, until the gaps are plugged.

Sounds reasonably straight-forward, and would seem to function quite well as a way to break it down for a public official who needs inputs into designing programmes. At the same time, introducing a structured way to do this lends a degree of rigour that will benefit the process.

A point made repeatedly in this paper is that a lot of the thinking around research, evaluation and evidence is focused on the researchers/evaluators. As a result, many of these conversations focus on whether (and how) a certain body of evidence that has been generated would apply ‘elsewhere’, without necessarily specifying a destination for this policy design. Thinking about this from the perspective of the public official ensures that the problem is framed as “what tools do public officials need to apply evidence to their specific context” instead of “how can our evidence be applied in the design of public policy elsewhere”. This switch in perspective allows us to do more than just empathise with the constraints that public officials function within. It enables us to think of solutions that focus on the end-user, even if that might mean trade-offs in statistical rigour.

This brings me to an important factor in how this would work – is the availability of information, and the institutional set-up where the mechanism mapping might take place. How well equipped is a public official in a capital city of a developing country to do this? Who should he consult? Will he? How decentralised is policymaking in the said country, and how does that factor in? My first frame of reference is India, so please pardon my concern for size and complexity. It will ultimately boil down to having reasonable limits to such consultation, and to the amount of information that will be fed into such an exercise.

Another factor to consider is the capacity of public officials. At a time when even researchers hardly fully understand (or bother with) complex theories of change, assuming that public officials will do this on their own requires a certain faith in their capacity. Martin’s core experience of bureaucracy and public management comes from Ghana, where he spent two years working within the Ministry of Trade and Industry. This is reflected in what I think is a key characteristic of this paper – Martin’s ability to think like a public official. Working in a stable state with a reasonably functional public sector, as opposed to a nascent or a failing state, shapes one’s perspectives of state and bureaucratic capacity in significant ways. If your canvas is the former, you are more likely to trust that public officials are reasonably able to competently design and implement policies, and that their work lies within a stable policy context. But even so, public officials will need training and support. And researchers will need to be trained to resist the temptation to turn up their noses at these inevitably ‘messy’ exercises.

Below, is an illustration (this is not from the paper) of how a public official might approach this process, beyond going through the ‘mechanism mapping exercise’ – by considering the combinations thrown up by the interaction between “complexity of the ToC” and “complexity of Context”.  For simplicity, I present four scenarios, and in each, the responses a public official might have in order to move ahead with policy design. The top-right quadrant represents a complex programme ToC that needs to be applied to a complex context – a big challenge, where the response has to be a willingness to experiment and iterate. On the other hand, is the quadrant on the bottom-left, which is likely to be satisfied by technical fixes. Note that this figure does not directly mention ‘information gaps’, although a high level of complexity indicates a high probability of information asymmetries on both counts – in the ToC, as well as in the Context.

Capture

Finally, I did not forget to ask myself this – “did we not already know all this?” Like with a lot of the work on ‘adaptive management’ and PDIA, I think the honest answer is that we do, but certainly not enough of it, and not in a systematic manner. Good programmes travel, and policy adaptation is a continuous process – public officials (and other practitioners) learn and adapt continuously. ‘Mechanism mapping’ is a powerful tool to systematise this iterative learning process, and potentially, shorten the learning curve. In a context where the application of evidence to policy design cannot be taken for granted, this paper and its illustration of ‘mechanism mapping’ is an important contribution.

Here is the policy memo. What we need next is a training module for public officials – I hear its coming soon, to a website near you…

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India at 70: democratic accountability is now an endangered species

Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Take just the following four aspects:

  • Propaganda rules over facts: Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known – not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.
  • Dissent is anti-national: The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.
  • Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader – it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.
  • Narcissism and hero-worship: When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest – the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this – to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives – together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.

It’s not about the ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, but about ‘power’

In our theatres of war, brought to us live on primetime television and on social media, we are presented with a rampant muscular ‘Right’ taking on an anti-national ‘Left’. But if you look closely, you will realise that the political and social conflicts that are being tagged as “Right vs Left” have almost nothing to do with the labels being used for them.

For instance, muscular nationalism today seems to belong to the ‘Right’, while all forms of dissent that makes the government see red denotes the ‘Left’, although this is not really the case if you consider Cold War-era communist regimes and their remnants. When it comes to society and culture, conservatives are ‘Right’ while progressives are the ‘Left. On matters relating to the economy though, free-marketers and innovators are on the ‘Right’, while those favouring state intervention are on the ‘Left’. Yet, India’s right-wingers rarely seems to mind a government that continues to expand its mandate, something that Communists (or the leftists) have been justifiably accused of.

Essentially then, what we are witnessing around us is a pure play for power – power that extends into the lives of people. Researchers have studied ‘power’ extensively: Steven Lukes in his seminal work, Power: A Radical View, introduced us to a three-dimensional view of power: a continuum in ways one can exercise power, ranging from coercion to agenda-control to manipulation. Others, such as Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller have termed the different forms Visible Power, Hidden Power and Invisible Power.

Coercion or visible power is fairly easily understood (and visible) as the exercise of power where one prevails over another by force, where the more powerful can simply over-rule decisions made or sought to be made by the others. Where one’s view is imposed on another through outrightly overruling the latter, or use of violence, it is clearly coercive power at work. For instance, when the Government of India launched demonetisation last year, it effectively expanded the realm of its ‘coercive’ powers, demonstrating that the government could subject its citizens to mindless “inconvenience” at will. The more recent spate of violence and murders in the name of the cow is nothing else, but a means to intimidate Muslims, and coerce them to accept the RSS narrative of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Not surprisingly, the Emergency of 1975, (most prominently, the media censorship and the mass sterilisation camps) is the other stellar example of the state’s coercive power at work.

The second form of power, or ‘Agenda Control’ is the ways in which decisions are prevented from being taken on potential issues over which there is conflict, where the one in power can ‘decide what to decide’. There are elements of ‘coercion’ in this approach, but more importantly, the ability to set the rules of the game. For instance, the government of the day can decide whether to or not to debate a particular issue in Parliament. The manner in which Finance Bill amendments were railroaded through Parliament earlier this year reflected the manner in which the BJP now commands the power to ‘decide what to decide’. Rajiv Gandhi’s use of his brute Parliamentary majority to overturn the judiciary in the Shah Bano case in 1986 is another example that comes to mind.

The third form of power is the one that Lukes called Hidden Power, and VeneKlasen and Miller called Invisible Power. The most insidious form in which power is exercised, this is the “ways in which potential issues are kept out of politics, through social forces and institutional practices or through individual’s decisions”. Through a process of socialisation and normalisation, this form of power controls not only particular behaviours and preferences, but also underlying wants, desires and interests. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum (talking in the context of gender relations) explain how power works when those who are at the receiving end adapt and accept a hegemonic relationship with the ‘powerful’.

By all accounts, this sounds like real power. The exercise of such power is a long-term process, the kind that is initiated by altering textbooks, control of key political battlefields such as universities, subtle advertisement campaigns, and strategic use of ‘dog-whistle’ politics. It is the kind of power the Communist parties wielded in the past, and the kind that RSS and BJP are seeking to capture now. The nationalism debates that seek to establish that there is only one political party that stands up for the nation are clear efforts in that direction. Sycophants chanting “India is India” and “Making of Developed India” are one and the same. Those who wield such power, use it to support and justify acts of coercive power. Violence against political opponents under the Communists or RSS, and the terror unleashed by gau-rakshaks are both backed by those seeking long-term domination through the exercise of hidden power.

It is in the nature of a government to exercise power. Every political party in power manifests power in one form or the other – never mind if the one exercising it is being labelled ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Often, these labels allow us the convenience of picking sides based on who we like, rather than the issue at hand. This only serves to lower the quality of public debate. In reality, it would appear that at their extremities, the Left and Right are indistinguishable; and that is a clue that what we need to really discern is the manner in which both sides choose to exercise power. And for citizens unaffiliated with these labels, understanding power is the first step towards engaging with it.

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A slightly different version of this first apeared on Pragati

Ramnath Kovind and BJP: Politics first, always.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are clear about one thing – all major decisions are first and foremost, political. The latest example is the nomination of Ramnath Kovind as the National Democratic Alliance’s Presidential candidate.

In this government of “two and a half men” (as Arun Shourie called them), a Presidential candidate has to meet certain first-order criteria. They have to be people who nobody would have thought of as a hopeful, and it follows naturally that they are insignificant in national politics. They would thus be a candidate who would be beholden to the party and specifically, to the leader for being rewarded with this nomination. It goes without saying then, that such a candidate if elected President, would not pose the slightest threat to the Prime Minister’s personal authority by questioning or even asking for a review of any government decision.

These are the pre-requisites. (Yes, UPA and Sonia Gandhi did more or less exactly this with Pratibha Patil, but note that Pranab Mukherjee by no means fit that mould).

The facetious Dalit politics of it all

The choice of Presidential candidate needs to serve a political goal. Ramnath Kovind is Dalit, and as many have pointed out, his nomination is an effort by the BJP to varnish its pro-Dalit credentials. BJP has been under fire from the media and the Opposition over the anti-Dalit factions that have taken wing under their tutelage. The violence in Saharanpur and Una, and numerous lynch mobs later, this is how BJP responds. The electoral calculation is clear too. Those opposing Ramnath Kovind’s candidature are essentially anti-Dalit.

“This is an historic decision. The Opposition should support the NDA candidate, rising above politics. If they don’t support, it would mean they are anti-dalits,” 

Ram Vilas Paswan

On social media, BJP supporters are already asking why those agitated by Rohith Vemula’s suicide are now opposing Ramnath Kovind’s nomination.

The silly season of false equivalence never ends in India. Rohith Vemula was a Dalit student who was driven to suicide by campus politics, where his rival faction, the ABVP had the active support of both the Hyderabad Central University authorities and their political patrons, the BJP. Rallying behind Vemula was natural – he was victimised, and the violence wreaked upon him was because of his caste identity. Remember his letter that should have shaken the collective conscience of this nation?

“May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

On the other hand, Ramnath Kovind’s contribution as a Dalit-warrior is marginal, which is entirely his personal choice at one level. Kovind’s decision to shun radical politics is his personal choice, and arguably, has been instrumental in his getting to the highest constitutional office in India. In his column, Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprastha  concludes:

…given Kovind’s views on social justice and empowerment, choosing a loyal, conformist leader like him was much more of a natural choice for the Sangh parivar than any radical shift in its traditional position on the caste system.

Dalit activists will not be satisfied, but it is hard to argue that everyone must be a radical activist. But when one sees the laughable efforts made by news channels who are ‘more loyal than the king himself’, one has to wonder about the kind of spin this government and its cheerleaders want to give to Ramnath Kovind’s track record.

The numbers game

Finally, for BJP, losing is not an option. Their desire to expand their political footprint, and killer instinct in contests, is unmatched. In fact, the Opposition parties would do well to learn some lessons from the Modi-Shah duo. The BJP is well aware of how they are positioned in the electoral college that would vote for the President. This is where Ramnath Kovind’s final set of attributes come in handy. Kovind is the Governor of Bihar, and he hails from Uttar Pradesh. Prominent political parties of Uttar Pradesh (or whatever is left of them in any case) are unlikely to oppose a son of their soil. It would also have been very difficult for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to oppose his candidature. With Nitish Kumar’s declaration of support, the BJP’s calculations have been proven right. Breaking Nitish Kumar is particularly critical, since he is one of the few alternate poles around which there could have been a consensus candidate from the Opposition.

Thus, the nomination of Ramnath Kovind does not alter the template. The selection of Pratibha Patil set the precedent in recent years, and looked particularly bad as it followed the popular APJ Abdul Kalam. BJP, as is its wont, has carried forward some of the worst aspects of India’s ruling parties in the past, as demonstrated by it’s recent Chief Ministers and appointments to several important institutions (including the Reserve bank of India). BJP’s contribution to this trend has been to give primacy to political and electoral calculations. Ramnath Kovind is merely a manifestation of this phenomenon.

#Modi@3: Three years in, dark days ahead

In many ways, Narendra Modi’s celebration of three years in power represents what the man and his government stands for.

He inaugurated the Dhola-Sadiya bridge in Assam, which is immediately spun as a great achievement of his, with hints laid out in good measure, that it also means some sort of a challenge to China on our north-eastern borders. As he did at the inauguration of the Chenani – Nashri tunnel, this provided Modi with an opportunity to stride around alone purposefully on the bridge, looking down at the river below, beckoning people from afar, etc, while cameras clicked away. This bridge was someone else’s vision. You know what Modi’s vision is? To spin colourful expansions of the two letters – N and E – New Energy, New Economy, New Engine, New Empowerment, etc. The man can ramble, I will give him that.

Meanwhile, the full-page newspaper advertisements that greeted the nation today curiously do not have even a single woman, in spite of the Ujjwala Yojana (of providing new LPG connections to households) being one of this government’s most far-reaching achievements. Neither did it have a message dedicated to the poor who stood by Modi even after he had sucked out cash from their pockets. The messaging from the government was only about an astonishingly narcissistically named MODI Fest, where we are supposed to believe that MODI just stands for Making of Developed India.

Part of this MODI Fest seems to have taken place at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, where Modi’s monthly monologues were released as a book. I am willing to bet that soon, the book will pop up at a classroom near you as compulsory reading. Amidst all this, BJP President Amit Shah stepped in and explained to a befuddled nation that it was impossible to provide jobs for all, and hence, the government was creating self-employment opportunities – thus proving that even the ‘jobs promise’ was chunaavi jumla. Finally, as is its wont, the government ended the day with a bit of gau seva by declaring a ban on sale of cattle for slaughter.

These events marked three years of Narendra Modi’s prime ministership. At the end of three years, Demonetisation stands out as the symbol of the both the deceit and incompetence that this government represents – that it will inflict havoc on its own people in the pursuit of electoral advantage, and that schemes are spun from harebrained ideas that have no scientific basis. Propaganda trumps all, as concerns of minorities, and political, media and civil society opponents are brushed aside and labelled anti-national.

Meanwhile, the rest of it – lynchings, harassment of critics, crony capitalism, listing fake achievements, dodgy national statistics, using the military for propaganda – continues unabated, and should come as no surprise to supporters and critics alike. These three years have shown us yet again that our institutions are perhaps not capable of withstanding a determined attack by a populist demagogue. These institutions work reasonably effectively when there is a weak government, by propping up the basic structures and ensuring a level of service delivery. But faced with a Modi, our institutions are suddenly found helpless – the press is not free or frank, the Parliament does not function as it should, the investigative agencies are completely state-controlled, the judiciary is soft, the bureaucracy is terrified, the central bank has lost its autonomy, and so on…

Given the corroding institutional safeguards, a thoroughly propagandist government, and an incoherent and weakened opposition, it is hard to imagine that any #AccheDin are round the corner for India. Dark days ahead.

Amidst the euphoria of the French elections

The current crop of populist leaders who deploy the language of political aggression, mock their opponents, and show impatience with the time-consuming procedures of institutionalised democracy, cannot be typed as anti-democratic. But they have, as contemporary history shows us, revealed scant respect for the rights of minorities, for civil liberties, and for civil society. Democracy has been reduced in country after country to a system of transfer of power. The political party system is once again in crisis, and this time the alternative to the ‘crisis of representation’ is not a democratic civil society, but populist leaders. It is time that political parties suspend their preoccupation with winning elections and work towards building up a powerful support base for democracy. Reliance on a single leader truncates imaginations, cultivates dependence, and devalues solidarity. It is only when parties begin to instil, particularly in young people, the importance of participation, respect for civil liberties and rights of minorities, democratisation of social relationships, and the development of shared meaning through debate and dialogue, that the democratic spirit can be reignited and political parties rehabilitated in the public eye. At stake here is not only the continuation of the party system, but democracy itself.

This is Prof Neera Chandoke, writing in The Hindu. This is a really critical point

This is a really critical point – it may often seem that the only answer to a populist leader is to find a polar opposite. But eventually, this weakens the democratic framework.  The French election is good news, but only if it strengthens the democratic processes in France – not if it results in the emergence of another one-man messiah, irrespective of which side of the political divide one may be on.

The vigilantes are here. How do we fight them?

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath continues to inspire service-minded citizens to lead the fight against illegal slaughterhouses. Some other men have also ganged up to combat the menace of eve-teasing “Romeos,” but expanded their scope to harassing couples in consensual relationships.

Those accused of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 defiantly declare that their actions are as pious as that of the brave men who fought for the country’s independence from the British.

India has finally got the vigilantes it always wanted – those who protect our honour, fight against corruption, and restore pride to the country. Cattle traders are thrashed in the heart of Delhi, even as the police vacillate between booking the culprits and charging the victims with ‘animal cruelty’. As expected, superstar vigilantes inspire several more in their mould, and we have at hand a spate of incidents. So we have videos surfacing on social media of a man threatening to kill Muslims while brandishing a gun, and public hoardings in Uttar Pradesh threatening Kashmiris with dire consequences unless they leave immediately. Meanwhile, a has-been Bollywood singer, Abhijit, raves and rants on TV and on Twitter, threatening violence against Muslims. Also, some men in our armed forces in Kashmir think its fun to slap around some young men and force them to shout “Pakistan murdabad” slogans.

And do not forget the events from the recent past:

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly announced a decision to revoke the legal tender status of 86% of currency notes circulating in the economy.

And this year, finance minister Arun Jaitley’s Finance Bill 2017 sneakily included 33 (yes, thirty three) amendments that were hardly discussed in Parliament.

These are other forms of vigilantism, barely sanctioned by law (usually exploiting every possible loophole and a complete disregard for propriety). A government that will push through a faulty universal identification system and will amend political party financing rules with impunity to make them less transparent.

Tales are spun to justify these acts of vigilantism. The Uttar Pradesh assembly election threw up its own set of post-facto theories, most of which sought to assert that Modi’s demonetisation was a great success, that caste and religion-based voting was a thing of the past, that the voters in UP wanted Adityanath for better ‘law and order’. All of this happened just as Dalits and Muslims started being targeted across the state.

The vigilantes are taking over everywhere, and the constitution is slowly taking a backseat. In the cacophony of a reactive news cycle, it is difficult to maintain a consistent battle against an increasingly communal and authoritarian government. In a country beset with serious socio-economic problems, where job creation is at a record low, and farm distress shows no signs of relenting, we are busy debating cows, statues, and couples in love. On the one hand, this reflects the absolute failure of the political opposition, which have lurched from poll to poll, failing to counter the government’s divisive narrative. On the other hand, this is an indictment of our own inability as citizens to hold on to values of morality and empathy. We have allowed lunatics to set the agenda, as we sat back to ‘consume’ (and occasionally react) via traditional and social media.

Some people are of the view that as a country we went too far with constitutional principles (especially secularism, welfare and equity) even as the masses were not ready for it. While that argument itself is elitist, they go on to argue that what the ‘intelligentsia’ (another derogatory label these days) see as progress has always been opposed by a voiceless majority who felt their glorious culture and traditions were being taken away from them. The moral voice on Kashmir, for instance, is now seen as a weakness and a failure to assert our territorial sovereignty. Progressive voices on protecting minorities is now widely derided as appeasement. Support for equity through affirmative action is brutally criticised as being anti-merit. A free press that questions those in power is suddenly anti-national. A kind of free-wheeling vigilantism is seen as the answer.

Last week though, former Delhi high court chief justice A.P Shah delivered a stinging indictment of the current state of affairs in India, asking what nationalism really meant and questioning whether the state’s tendency to interfere with people’s food habits, film censorship and the wider curbs on freedom of expression behoves a country that aspires to greatness. I quote:

At the end of the day, it is important to question, what is the defining characteristic of a nation – is it the territorial boundary or the collection of people that is a country’s defining feature. Our constitution starts with a solemn declaration of “We, the people of India…” In this context, is being anti-national equivalent to being anti-Government or is the hallmark of an anti-national that they are against the interest of the people, especially the minorities and the depressed classes? Can an entire University and its student body be branded “anti-national”?

It is heartening to read this in these depressing times – a voice of moral authority that is in contrast to our elected leaders and most public voices. If we are to win the battles against these vigilantes, it is moral voices like these that we have to amplify – not just from eminent jurists and other public figures, but from the ordinary man on the street.

A firm adherence to constitutional principles by elected leaders can set the tone for citizens. But it can also work the other way around. A country benefits from a large majority of its citizens adhering to a core moral code, and willing to rely on the constitution to iron out differences. Can a movement for change begin with them? This is not a case against the utility of political parties. But there is a need to mobilise people around issues that extend beyond immediate electoral cycles. Civil society has to lead this effort.

This might sound like asking for too much, but when you see the vigour with which this government has cracked down on dissent in academic institutions, it gives you a clue as to what they fear the most. Remember how vehemently artists and writers who opposed the government’s intolerance were attacked and even partly blamed for the BJP’s loss in the Bihar elections? Could the voices of students, farmers, artists, writers and army veterans come together and challenge the government’s narrative? Even if they don’t win, imagine how spectacular the fight would be.

I live in hope.

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This column was first published on The Wire