Indian Liberals Interviews Hindol Sengupta

An award-winning author of nine best selling books, Hindol is an author and journalist. His book, “Recasting India” was shortlisted for the Hayek Prize while his other book, “Being Hindu” won the Wilbur Award in 2018. He has worked for Bloomberg TV, CNN and CNBC. In 2011, he was voted by the global ideas platform IdeaMensch on its list of 33 Entrepreneurs Who Make The World A Better Place. In this interview with Hinan Ali, he talks about his books, politics, growth, elections, and entreprenuership in India.

From journalism to film making to to a historian and author. Hindol, tell us more about this exciting journey.

When I think about my career, I think that one of the most pertinent ways to perhaps explain it is through the divide between post-independence Indian history before and after 1991. Economic liberalisation was a clear break in the narrative. It gave rise to a generation, my generation, which has completely changed the country. My work represents a break from many of the traditions that had been set before 1991. I am one of the few writers who emerged through the process of liberalisation to tell a very different story of India from the one that had been set and told and retold since independence from colonial rule in 1947. How is it different? Well, in the following ways. First, our generation that rose to adulthood and prominence alongside economic liberalisation has, unlike any other since independence, has only known a growing (economically) country. This rising prosperity, as unequal as it has been in many ways, has still been broad-based enough (pulling out more than 130 million from abject poverty) for this to have become a cultural expectation for a whole generation. Along with that has come the expectation of shedding diffidence. My work has been about telling the story of how India shed its economic, social, historical and cultural diffidence. There are traces of this argument in some of my earliest work which argued for an Indian idea of global design - why should India only be a consumer of design, content, armament, goods and services? India should be a producer, an ideator, a conceptualiser and not merely a consumer. My work has also tried to go beyond the usual tropes of Indian history-writing, with its elitist definitions of heroes and villains, and explored other perspectives to nation-building and nationhood. Whether its Being Hindu, which won the first Wilbur Award for a book on Hinduism in 70 years in America or retelling the modernist tale in the life of Vivekananda or rediscovering Vallabhbhai Patel, my attempt has been to delve into the stories neglected by elitist India and explore all the nuances and richness that a shallow, indeed callow, idea of cosmopolitanism brings. As a believer in the depth and richness of the philosophy of plurality in India, writers like me go far beyond the 'tolerance' matrix - which I frankly find pedestrian - to dig deep into an epistemology of understanding and respect which mere tolerance can never bring. My generation will have to rewrite the history of India, this much is clear. We have to shed this rather superficial 'idea of India' and explore the ideas of India - and there are many of those. A lifetime of exciting work awaits.I am, for instance, writing a new book with a Pakistani co-author which aims to interrogate the absurdities of the 'Aman ki Asha' level of analysis and study the India-Pakistan relationship in all its depth and magnitude, and with critical realism to put forth ideas that could help citizens of both countries zero in on an achievable idea of peace and prosperity for the region.      

India is poised to become the youngest workforce by 2020. Your book Recasting India talks about the rise of entrepreneurship in India. Has the government realized the importance of skill development and entrepreneurship?

It is not well-understood that all talk of entrepreneur-led economy means nothing unless a far greater level of formalisation does not take place. As important as the informal sector has been, there is no doubt that it has also led to a forced downsizing of Indian firms. This enforced malnutrition of Indian enterprise is a tragedy. The task of formalisation has now begun in earnest and our tax collection depth is increasing significantly. It cannot be disputed that demonetisation did not achieve some of its key goals. It did not for instance reduce the use of cash or did not keep enough cash from being returned. What it did achieve was a sort of massification of the use of digital payments systems and it widened and added depth to the tax collection pool. The combination of deeper banking, mass use of digital technology and easy identification is the base upon which a wide formalisation of the economy will take place, and is taking place. It is only when this happens that we can have a realistic conversation about an economy fuelled by entrepreneurship.

Are you an advocate of market capitalism (and against an idea of a social welfare state)?

I am an advocate of market capitalism with the very important caveat that evidence from around the world shows us that the market can only work efficiently if extremely strong rules and regulations are already in place and the penalty for breaking the rules is very high. Without an appropriately powerful punishment system for breaking rules, no market system can work. But the moment you talk about punishment, a gaggle of irresponsible and, frankly, dim-witted, emoticon-driven screaming and shouting begins. This sort of thing is bogus and irresponsible. If we are committed to prosperity, then we must be committed to a market economy - with the complete understanding that there are a few things that a government needs to deliver. Everything cannot be delivered efficiently through the market alone. For instance, healthcare and heavy infrastructure are things where a government role can never be ignored. Also, law and order - this you cannot privatize. You need a state-run police system. I am for a small but very strong government. The government needs to do a few things but do those things very well. The rest it should leave to the markets.

“Capitalism, like America for Amerigo Bonasera in The Godfather, has been good to me.” Has it been good to all? If not, why?

It hasn't all been good because the deep-rooted corruption and the rotten core of elitism, faux socialism in India. In the name of socialism, what the Indian elite has always wanted is to keep the proletariat away from the fruits of the country, to keep them starved for crumbs from their high table. Capitalism is about the opening of doors of opportunity whereas the Indian elite ensured that even with capitalism they only opened the doors just enough to let in their cronies and shut the doors for everyone else. I believe that the doors that the elite shut should be kicked open so hard that they collapse behind them. We the people of India need to rise and kick open these doors and let the winds of opportunity gladden every heart. The time is now. I see my career as a journey of facing one closed door after another and facing one bitter elite after another - and kicking each of the doors open (and kicking the elites hard) one by one. There is no class that has done more disservice to its own civilisation, and the potential of its own country women, as the Indian elite.

You say that the book (Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You) is an act of dissent against what you call “popularly known truths”. Can you explain as to what truths you are talking about?

That book, Being Hindu, in particular is an act of dissent against what I felt was stifling opinion-making among the Indian elite where many say the assertion of ideas of spirituality in the public sphere as antithetical to the propagation of the ideals of liberalism. I, on the contrary, believe that some of the most profound and complex liberal ideas and ideals are in fact contained in some of the most ancient treatise of India. As I have pointed out, the Nasadiya Sukta or the origin hymn in the Rig Veda even questions the existence of god. But all this wisdom has been lost. Students are barely taught this. A student in India goes through all the years of schooling with almost zero understanding of what in other parts of the world would be called the classics. That because of a fake debate, students are not taught Sanskrit as a compulsory subject is truly tragic. Not one ever suggested that reading the ancient Greek and Latin texts would 'convert' you to the pagan religions of the ancient world (has everyone who has ever studied The Odyssey become a believer in the goddess Athena? What utter nonsense!), and similarly an Indian student learning the basics of the Vedas and Upanishads as some of the most profound philosophizing in history would not be 'converted' to Hinduism. That is stupid, silly idea that has kept generations away from the classics. And this is my dissent - against the stupidity of the Indian education system. How can the study of classics be denied?

Your book, The Man Who Saved India discusses Sardar Patel’s idea of India. What was his idea of India and has that idea been realized?

Sardar Patel's idea of India was based on the ideas of enterprise and national security, i.e., a small but strong state. We are far away from his vision - though since 1991 and economic liberalisation we have come closer to it - because in the public sphere there is little or no understanding of India's core security concerns or the importance of economic reforms as the single-biggest anti-poverty measure in Indian history. The Patelian idea of India, though, is not about mindless privatization. It is about sensible and widespread privatisation but also making state-owned resources more and more efficient by measures like pay linked to performance and better accountability of public sector workers, especially bureaucrats. The Patelian idea of India would have a far stronger intelligence gathering system. We cannot forget that one prime minister in India, though this man was prime minister very briefly, managed to destroy years of assiduously created intelligence gathering system including a strong Pakistan desk in the Research and Analysis Wing. This is the sort of tragedy that a Patelian idea of India would prevent.

India adopted a secular constitution. But we are far from realizing this ideal. Recent controversies over religious conversions, bans on books and movies, hate speeches and mob violence is deplorable. What should be done to fix this?

The founding fathers of the Indian constitution, in their wisdom, and after much debate, decided to keep away the explicit assertion of secularism through the addition of that word in the constitution. This is not because they did not want the constitution to be secular but because it already was. In fact, it was more than secular - which is really a word that denotes the division between church and state and is not exactly applicable to the Indian context - it was plural and promoted plural in its assertion of the freedom to practice and propagate any religious belief etc. They understood that this was superfluous as pluralism in spirit and letter was already part of the Indian constitution and the word, a borrowed term from a different culture whose meaning was not very relevant to the Indian lived experience, might not be helpful in the Indian context. However, this word, along with socialism, were brought into the constitution illegally when parliament was not in session during the Emergency. As B. R. Ambedkar suggested, there was no need for these. There were other clauses in the constitution that anyway carried the spirit of greater material equality and pluralism. I am a believer in the pluralism of India. Pluralism is the lived experience of India. No one can take that away. The state needs to equally - in equal measure - exit from interfering on religious matters except when it is a case of impinging on fundamental rights. We have a curious case in India today that the state controls religious institutions of only one religion - Hinduism. These kinds of things are problems areas that we need to resolve. There are people who say that there was no 'Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb'. That's not true. We did have, and we do have, many examples of a truly heartwarming composite culture. But we also have a long history of terrible violence, plunder, invasion, destruction and suffering. Our history has conflict and it has bonhomie. We should recognise, contemplate, understand both. As I wrote in Being Hindu, one does not diminish or negate the other.  

You gave us a list 100 things to know and debate before we voted to elect a new Parliament in 2014. What would be your first five things to know and debate before voting in the upcoming general elections?

a. A deeper, and more evolved, understanding of the India's national security challenges and where those challenges comes from. This is absent in our public sphere.

b. A reflection on the question: do we as a people want our country to exist in the form that it does, in the very map that we use today? If yes, what would it take to preserve it?

c. An appreciation of how far we have come since 1991 and all the progress that has only been possible because the country opened its economy. We are being brainwashed to hate all our achievements since 1991, to hate economic liberalisation. This is wrong. We have to appreciate that this was a seminal turning point that changed all our lives in myriad ways - mostly for the better.

d.  A massive questioning of the environmental disaster that we face. Every major Indian city is unlivable and just the act of living in them is killing people.

e. Why is that we still one of the most abysmal standard of primary education and healthcare in the world? How can we continue to grow and prosper if this remains true?