Crawling when not asked to bendThe government of the day will benefit most from a culture of political participation.
As one goes deep into the functioning of statecraft and the intimate relations between politics and business in the world’s largest democracy, the derived sense about them is usually puzzling with a lack of transparency. It can be a matter of debate whether politics and economics are closer to the zero-sum game of game theory or not, however, it is true that private capital is increasingly drifting from any moral compass and selectively using ‘vulnerability’ as a card to maximise its safety from an imagined threat. Often, the threat is seen as the liberal opinion that questions the establishment from a moral, philosophical and existential angle. While the establishment has its own way to be on it, democratic processes become more troubled when enterprising communities crawl when they are not asked to bend.
The phenomenon is not limited to India; we know how threats to press freedom and journalists and scholars have grown alarmingly in Nepal and other countries. Among the shocking incidents where promoters have failed to uphold intellectual honesty and allowed an avoidable circumstance to arise, the recent episode at Ashoka University is such an example. India’s leading public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta was forced by the university’s promoters to finally take an ethical stand to save his right of expression and resign from the university as a professor. His column in The Indian Express and public speeches were cited as a ‘danger’ to this ‘liberal university’ that was founded to become an exception in India as a fully endowment-supported institution with the aim of achieving excellence like the Ivy League.
For serving the national and mass interest at large, Mehta has been writing about policies, and the record suggests he has upheld political neutrality and seen the government’s act objectively rather than through any bias. Like any other scholar who intervenes to create an informed public opinion, it was also within his right to be a vociferous critic of the government’s policies in a bid to offer a solution for the greater common good. He has been a consistent thinking commentator, and his intellectual interventions have helped the government to maximise welfare and form optics with enlightened questioning. He was, and is, a better helping hand to the government of the day than the big chimes who never do well to the causes they pretend to serve.
With medium or no fineness, Gurcharan Das has been occupying the elusive space of the print and electronic media in India. His article in The Times of India of March 25 was a ‘script of tragedy’ where he has equated Pratap Bhanu Mehta and the university’s key resource person Ashish Dhawan as ‘two gentlemen’. His article reads like an advertorial where he informs readers about his investment in the university, and further favouring it, he carefully shares the information as a deft PR handler. Mehta’s own account of the resignation and another by Arvind Subramanian (India’s former chief economic adviser) are public, and suffice to falsify any notion that the whole episode was just about their ethical decision to not be a ‘political liability’ to the university—and thus saving it from any trouble. Precisely, it was expected from the founders and promoters of Ashoka University to ensure academic freedom and not let anyone down for no obvious reason other than a penchant for passing the buck to the government for all bad outcomes.
In 2019, Mehta had resigned from the vice-chancellor’s position. Since he decided to stay on as a professor, it didn’t make headlines when it, too, deserved scrutiny. Certainly, his final severance from the institution has not happened suddenly. He was treated differently for voicing views reasonably that were not in tune with the owners of private capital who had invested in the university and disguised themselves as protectors of liberalism for a fairly long time. It was hardly surprising, Mehta didn’t stop his course midway; he is completing it to not let his students suffer academically.
Despite the administrative protocols, over 90 faculty members had expressed solidarity with Mehta. More than 150 academics from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, London School of Economics and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have questioned Ashoka’s commitment to freedom. Former Reserve Bank of India governor and economist Raghuram Rajan did so with a telling write-up. Ashoka University’s students announced a two-day boycott of classes, however, they had to limit their protests with the administration’s illiberal treatments. Not all know the story, but what is public is sufficient to make one lament at the changing contours of private capital that creates the ground for disruption if its self-oriented goals face even the slighted risk of fluctuation. They create the condition of failing in upholding liberal values and set its real protectors’ free, rather than taking a brave position of conceding their moral defeat.
Lack of altruism
Ashoka University’s fiasco should not be judged merely by the unceremonious exit of two stalwarts, this is all about the lack of altruism that big capital has shown. Indian industry is too robust and diverse, its role in nation-making has been exemplary. It would be wishful thinking to not see the recent unwelcome development getting any traction to be a trend, democracy must keep the required space of dissent. Since industry and academia are two important stakeholders of socio-economic transformation, the responses from both sides should justify their position. The government is a supreme power with a well-defined constitution, between its periphery and the centre, industry and academia should limit their choices. Separation of interest is as important as power.
Be it in India or Nepal, fair and free expression should be encouraged. It’s the government of the day that will benefit most from a competent culture of political participation. What could be more beneficial than a participatory system? One lesson from the Ashoka University episode is to give democracy its well-deserved due. Democracy and its processes should never be forgotten.