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Our intellectual life has become too academic


Bhargava says politics today is the art of making a deal between two sets of interests.

Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has been home to leading political thinkers like Rajni Kothari, Dhirubhai Sheth and Ashish Nandy as well as prominent civil society activists like environmentalist Vandana Shiva and Narmada Bachao Andolan's Medha Patkar. As it celebrates its golden jubilee, director Rajeev Bhargava speaks to TOI-Crest on the importance of nurturing political study and research in India. The post-Mandal divide that has developed between intellectuals and politicians must be bridged to correct the imbalances that have crept into our politics

What is the relevance of an institution like CSDS in India today?

CSDS was the first Indian research institute that studied Indian politics in a systematic, empirical manner. Because it is outside the university system, it doesn't have the same pressures as universities have to give mass education. It can concentrate on advanced research. In the past 50 years, CSDS has made three valuable contributions to political thought in India. One was to make people realise the irreducible importance of democracy through the study of the internal dynamics of our political system. The second was to highlight caste as integral to the political process. People, including political parties, began to notice caste as a central unit of political analysis only after the Mandal agitation in the early 1990s. But CSDS scholars were talking about in the 1960s. The third was to launch a serious polemical attack on Western social sciences, Western categories and Western modernity in general. We floated the idea of multiple alternative modernities and the polemical attack on Western political theory became central to the development of post-colonial theory and had a major influence on scholars worldwide.

There was a time when CSDS helped bring political thinkers and politicians together in a kind of symbiotic relationship, particularly in the 1970s during the anti-Emergency struggle and the days of Janata Party rule. Why don't we see this kind of interface today?

The Emergency was an important marker. Unfortunately, it was quickly followed by a moment of great disillusionment. The failure of the Janata Party experiment led to the development of non-party politics in which social movements began to play an important role. The formation of Lokayan (which was linked to CSDS) was central to this and all major civil society activists, from Vandana Shiva to Medha Patkar, were nurtured in Lokayan to some extent.

Was there a divide then between social activism and politics?

Unfortunately, yes. And the political structure has now developed in such a way so as to increase the division between politicians on one side and intellectuals and social activists on the other. Two things have happened over the years. One is that the nature of politics has changed. It's become increasingly difficult for politicians to spend time with intellectuals. It's not that politicians are not intelligent but I think they believe they don't have much to learn from academics and thinkers.
One the other side, people in civil society - and CSDS is very much a part of civil society developed a distaste for politicians and began to favour non-party politics. They felt that electoral politics is a bit of a sham and real politics is in civil society and social movements. In other words, real democracy is in people's movements and not with political parties who are connected with structures of state power. In a way, this was a precursor to what we saw in Anna movement.

What is responsible for this distancing between intellectuals and politicians?

There's a complex set of factors in play. Politics was pretty much an elite activity earlier, even in the early 1990s. We had political leaders like George Fernandes and Madhu Limaye who were thinkers as well. People like Jagmohan would spend most of their time sitting in the India International Centre. There was the Saturday Club where politicians, policy analysts and retired bureaucrats would sit together and discuss burning issues of the day. With Mandalisation and the formation of caste-based parties like the BSP, SP and RJD, and the pressure that this has put on the other parties, the political space is now occupied by a whole new set of people. I'm perfectly okay with that. But then you hear that a political leader like Lalu Yadav has contempt for those who read newspapers. So you can imagine the kind of attitude today's politicians would have towards those who read English books. So the distance has grown.

Aren't academics also responsible for this distancing?

Oh yes. There has been an "academisation" of our intellectual life. It has become very important for intellectuals to produce a body of published work so they are now concentrating more on academics. This has its benefits, of course, because if done well, it gives a deeper historical perspective and has a longer shelf life. But one of the casualties has been a de-linking of politicians and academics.

A consequence of this is that Indian politics today seems quite devoid of ideas, ideologies and vision. Civil society activists have captured this space. How can you bring ideas back into politics?

We are struggling to find a way to move forward in this direction. We haven't worked it out yet. But it's clear that you need new thinking. Politics today is the art of making a deal between two sets of interests. But in a plural society like ours, this will eventually turn into a zero sum game. We have lots of different issues, lots of different interests. What we need in our democracy is to find a way to balance all of them. We have to find the right kind of compromise between different interests and different values. That kind of thinking is completely missing today. Today's politics polarises, it divides. Indian democracy will not survive like that. And it's only the intellectuals who can help to create the new thinking that is required in our pluralistic society.

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