Exquisite bias and mesmerizing intellectual calisthenics of Pratap Bhanu Mehta – Manthan Samvaad 2020

Pratap Bhanu Mehta addressed at a conference on ‘The Crisis of Democracy in India’, organised by the Manthan Foundation on 19 October, 2020.  It is a tour-de-force of profound intellectualism and forcefully puts forth the crisis of Indian democracy as  he sees it. Mehta is a very well-rounded intellectual with in-depth grasp of humanities scholarship which is increasingly rare in today’s world of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and more quantitively inclined disciplines. He is blessed with gravitas of a philosopher and expression capabilities of a beloved columnist, both of which he actually  is. One of the few true public intellectual that we have. Here, in this lecture also, he is in his usual form and weaves an impressive tapestry of scholarly argument and brings the topic alive with cogent description of its inner dynamics and epistemological dimensions. 

He eloquently introduces the topic by mentioning the undeniable presence and popularity of current political dispensation, followed by what he thinks, is wrong with the present moment and how it is a dark phase for democracy. Pre-empting the possible backlash, he acknowledges the wrongdoings and weaknesses of the Congress regime wistfully adding that while the critique of the Congress System provides a background to the rise of current regime, it doesn’t explain the trajectory that today’s politics and society has taken. Then he dwells on some theses that explain the current crisis of democracy. Most of them are the pathologies of our times that have made the darkness of the current moment possible.

Firstly, he says that general consensus in economic thinking has left political contestation to cultural and identity arena, creating a fertile ground for identity politics. Secondly, concentration of capital has led to more repression in negotiating the aspirations of protesting classes. This concentration is condenser than the earlier crony capitalism as that system was more fragmented and spoils were distributed more widely. Thirdly, this right-wing regime was entirely based on minting new enemies leading to populist targeting of independent thought under the guise of hounding elitism. He puts forward situation of Hindi- marginalization despite numbers due to elite secession, as one of the major reason for resonance of this politics of resentment in the Hindi heartland. Finally he talks of cross party allure of nationalism which prioritizes order over freedom and citizen rights, creating stage for repressive consensus. 

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As mentioned above, Mehta’s presentation is accentuated by rigor and depth. His arguments are internally consistent and also enlightening. It provides a theoretical framework which is reasonably strong. However, on multiple hearings, the clever artifice of the argument  becomes clear and it doesn’t look all that impregnable. We will take some of the weak spots of this very impressive speech of the worthy Professor, to indulge in the similar intellectual callisthenics which is so exquisitely deployed in this speech by Mehta himself. 

Lip service to objectivity?

Bias, by definition, is inevitable in opinion. Mehta does a good job of hiding it by pre-empting the argument of his opponents. He acknowledges the critique of the Congress system, he accepts the popularity and energy of right-wing upsurge. But this ostensible display of objectivity comes out more as an academic ploy and a ‘reasonable excuse’ to attack the right-wing. For example, he starts by saying that for a very large section of the Indian citizens, current right-wing upsurge is moment of correction and in some sense a redemption. Then he goes on to call the phenomenon as ‘bravado’ and brings in the dangers that are being posed to the liberal democracy. This he does without examining or debunking the democratic claim that the resurgent right might or might not be making with reference to the first part of the speech while devoting his entire speech to the dynamics of dangers to liberal democracy. While any author is free to decide the focus of the argument but Mehta’s treatment of the critique of the other side is not free of charge of instrumental exploitation of an argument. The critique while being acknowledged, is mentioned selectively for propping up the argument of the author and has not been given “intellectual respectability’ which Mehta so forcefully asks for other ideological constructs in his speech (24:25-24:45). 

Deflection by presenting critique as cause

Pratap Bhanu Mehta acknowledges that the critique of the Congress System is correct, however, according to him, this doesn’t explain the trajectory of the right-wing. Again the artificial cleverness of the trope is visible here. He talks of critique and then expresses the dismay that it is not the cause. Trajectory that the right-wing has taken is not explained by the weaknesses of the Congress System it needs independent analysis of the dynamics of right-wing mobilization.  Instead of studying the grievances of the right-wing, he analysed the pathologies of our time which is not wrong but also an indication that it is an argument and not objective analysis. He is right that the right-wing trajectory can’t be explained by the critique of Congress System. But there is nothing new here, any system of critique is just that – a system of critique. The later trajectory, apart from the lenses of pathologies of the moment as Mehta did, should also be seen in the light of agenda, grievances and struggle for hegemony. He sounds devastatingly lethal when he explains that the deficiencies of Congress system don’t explain the dark trajectory of the current moment. It is a fair point, but this is not supposed to explain the trajectory. Deficiencies of the Congress may be central to the demise of the Congress System but they should not be made so critical to the rise of the right-wing which has its own agenda, grievances and political entrepreneurship. Avoiding them, may be, is an indication of a mind that has taken sides in a struggle and not ready to give the “intellectual respectability” to the other side of the ideological divide while going through the motions of acknowledging the other side to bolster one’s credentials as an objective analyst. 

It is ok for me to provide pat answers

While critiquing the right-wing, Mehta criticized the ‘simple’ understanding of history by the current regime as conspiracy of Muslim and secular elite avoiding the complex march of historical forces that have created the rich reality that is India. Absolutely correct depiction of a fanatic mode of thinking that steam-rolls over the complexities to push an agenda through slogans. However, when it came to analyse the current moment, Mehta didn’t shy away from over simplification himself. He summarized the dominant philosophy of the current regime as emphasis on authoritarianism and reliance on communalism. While, catching the drift of the moment, this analysis is a as good an example, as they come, of over simplification, even granting the limitations of 45 minutes speech. Mehta used the phrase “not to put too fine a point on it” may be 5-6 times in his lecture and, mostly, it was used to introduce some pat thumb rule type of analysis to the detriment of complexity of the current moment. 

Deterministic certainty

His thesis of depoliticization of economics leaving culture as main arena of contestation is not new. Read Andy Backett’s excellent article on how our fantasy of politics without strife is creating the age of anger. However, with Mehta, the proposition takes up a very simplistic causal or deterministic relationship between consensus on economic issues on the one hand and rise of cultural and identity conflict on the other. A similar eagerness for seeing causality is evident in other theses too. However, he is never wrong. Just a matter of slant and emphasis. It is only that one expects a little higher standard from the scholar of his stature.

Not perfect but important speech

Any Pratap Bhanu Mehta output is never less than superlative, this speech too is profound and enriches the listener with the breadth of its scholarship and depth of its arguments. If the presence of clever artifice can be a point of criticism for the speech, it is never bereft of exhilaration of witnessing exquisite performance of a seasoned player in the ‘akhada’ of intellectual debate. Here, his summation of the darkness of the current moment is indeed a neat packet of complex knowledge. His analysis of cultural marginalization of Hindi due to Hindi heartland elites seceding from the language creating a fertile ground for politics of resentment and populist anti-elitism, is one of the nuggets of distilled brilliance.

Furthermore, public intellectuals should take sides which Mehta takes and does so with panache, sobriety and skill which are nothing short of mesmerizing. For all serious students of polity, Pratap Bhanu Mehta is first stop for any clarification in these uncertain times and even this video is going to be a reference point for a long time to come.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.


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