LILA: You have been travelling a lot across the country since you resigned from the Indian Administrative Services. This would have given you an interesting insight into the nature of public participation in our democracy. Please tell us where all you have been—the kinds of spaces you have encountered and people you have spoken to. What is your understanding now of the people of India today?
Kannan Gopinathan: During this period I have been to most of the States, except for the North-East and the Islands. Initially, I started travelling to talk about why I resigned from the Indian Administrative Services, and why I felt whatever was happening in the 370 Bill was wrong. There were many public spaces where these talks took place, such as Marine Drive in Mumbai, and educational institutions such as the IITs. There were also many NGOs that organised these talks in villages and bastis to discuss these issues. Generally, I start these talks with a discussion on how democracy is a very difficult project because it puts a lot of demands on the individual citizen of constantly raising questions, understanding issues, coming out on the street to protest, etc. On the other hand, authoritarianism is an easy project. It expects loyalty from the citizens – not even citizens really, more like subjects. If you have that kind of trust in a person then life is easy for you. You don’t have to take an interest in understanding issues. You are okay with whatever comes. We are often burdened by the freedom of choice. We don’t want that, and that is natural. It is also quite antithetical to democracy. So that is why democracy is not a very natural thing, and we find ourselves moving towards authoritarianism. It’s not because some dictator comes, but because people become lazy.
I start with questioning these things. I ask: “Should black money be eliminated?” And everybody says “Yes!” Then I ask: “Should India be united or not?” They say “Yes!” “Should infiltrators be removed or not?” They say “Yes!” “Should the traitors be shot or not?” They say “Yes!” Because it is difficult to say no to any of these. Traitors should be shot. Infiltrators should be removed. Black Money should be eliminated. India should be united. So, these are the kinds of political communications that happen. The thing is, these are very limiting conversations. You are only expected to give your answer in either yes or no, and the authoritarian structure will take care of the rest.
Let us rewind to all these questions. When someone says traitors should be shot, what should be your first response: “Who is a traitor?” If someone raises a question against the government, is he a traitor? If someone questions the army or says that it has done something wrong, does he become a traitor? If someone speaks against the supreme court, does he become a traitor? Once you define the “traitor”, then we can come to what has to be done with them. When the villagers I spoke to understood that someone speaking against the government could be termed a traitor, they immediately recalled that they too have in the past launched protests outside the Tehsildar’s office when they weren’t getting proper ration. They too have sat on strikes outside the District Magistrate’s office. They too have been beaten up with sticks. Till then, they weren’t thinking that they could also be classified as traitors if this definition is considered. So, people respond to such calls without understanding this definition. That’s where the problem lies.
Slowly through these conversations one realises, “oh, when they’re talking about eliminating black money, they’re talking about us as well, because all informally earned money that is accumulated at home is technically black money, since it has not been documented.” Similarly, if you talk about infiltrators, they realise that they themselves don’t have the papers and might get branded as infiltrators. And then the realisation of nodding at having yourself thrown out hits them – the realisation that I am being asked a question that threatens my own self.
So I engage in such conversations, and through these conversations people not only understand the issues, but also connect with each other, wherever they are – even in big cities and towns. I don’t enforce my views and opinions. I ask about everything I can.
LILA: One of the things that is emerging today is the cancellation culture, that is, as soon as someone hears that people like Kannan Gopinathan, or Umar Khalid or Swara Bhaskar are coming to speak, one section of people will come to hear them as followers, while another will already disregard their thoughts before they have even spoken. A critical dialogue from both these sides is observed to be rare. Have you noticed anything like this on your travels? How do you view these polemical drifts?
KG: I don’t think that is the case. There is a section of people that won’t listen to anything, but in my case I have realised that there is a large section that would still like to listen and understand why I am saying all this. The difference is whether you have something at stake. I have realised this – sacrifice has a value and that gives you an audience. That’s why I am invited to many places. They don’t call me because of the name, but because somebody has left the IAS and they want to know why. That has given me a window through which I am able to discuss things.
Otherwise, you are correct, it is completely shut. And I think that is why it is even more important for us to have dissent and find a strategic window to begin our conversation.
Many of these issues are also with us because we want to talk to only those people who are already convinced. There is certainly a need to preach to the choir, because at times the choir also forgets singing. But that has its own limitations. You have to go beyond that to engage with people who are cursing you, or overtly disagreeing with you. You have to engage all.
LILA: How do you do that? What are the ways in which you engage all?
KG: If you go to my Twitter profile, you will find that almost all my replies are to the comments in disagreement. They are not to the people who agree with me, but to those who troll me, or disagree with me vehemently. I try to talk to them. Maybe they are correct and I am wrong. How can I force my opinion? Unless we discuss, how do I know whether I am correct or they are, you know.
I think the success of an authoritarian regime is not in the creation of a strong right wing, but in the communication breakdown between that strong right wing and everybody else. This way, for them, everybody else becomes a traitor. And, honestly, the followers think that everybody else is trying to somehow not do anything good for the country; that they are all trying to bring the country down. It’s an honest belief. They believe that the government — their government — needs to be protected because it is under a vicious attack from everywhere, however powerful it may be. It’s like protecting your baby, and with that kind of attitude, one can become quite ferocious.
The people who are instigating this know they are doing it for an external benefit. But the people who are imbibing these values, for them, there is no gain. In fact, there is only pain, because the government is unable to generate employment and the economy is bad. Everything is bad. But even then, they think it is their moral duty to protect the nation. So there is a need to engage with them to understand their point of view.
For a long time now, liberalism has been a luxury of the privileged. Anybody who tries to ask questions or counter them is immediately shut down. You see it on Twitter every day. And it happens on both sides. For instance, let’s say an established writer or historian tries to say something on Twitter, and somebody responds saying, “but this is incorrect”, while calling the writer names or throwing accusations at them about their affiliations. Now, how would that person react? He gets riled up or emotionally affected by all the terms used and will respond with something like – “You haven’t even passed 5th standard and you are questioning me?” That kind of thing does not help. That means you too have effectively shut down that person forever from engaging with you. Instead, I would see that as an opportunity to engage. It is for us to ignore the whataboutery, the name-calling, the character assassination, and arrive at the core argument, then react to that. Of course, you may not win the argument, you may lose the argument, or you may be wrong in your own argument, which is all fine but it is important to engage. Just for the fact that you had this conversation, the person will always feel, “I know him. We might have differing views, but I know him. He is a friend.” And we need to have these friendships across the spectrum.
As an individual you may ask, why should I do all that when that fellow is abusing me. It is after all emotionally very taxing. But I think we don’t have an option. We are getting divided in a very-very strong way. It is not just about the political system anymore, but about a large section of people believing that the rest of the people are actually traitors and that it would be good if they are killed and eliminated from this country. Every single day there is a huge network through which information goes out, and that information is not checked. It just goes on like that and everybody believes whatever comes…
LILA: You speak about the participation of all as the key to a strong democracy, and at the same time about this propaganda machine that is influencing people with fake news and divisive narratives. In such a situation, how do you visualise the functioning of a democracy itself, beyond individual conversations and engagement? How can critical thinking be developed to do this?
KG: We underestimate our people quite a lot. I was discussing the NRC-NPR [National Register of Citizens and National Population Register] issue at one of my talks — about why they are doing an NPR if they don’t want to do an NRC. As an ex-bureaucrat, it is very clear to me that the NPR is a procedural part of the NRC. At Sitapur, one Dalit woman got up and asked this question: “Yes, sir, if they don’t want to make the Kachori, why are they even kneading the dough?” There is no better way to explain this! But the thing is, you have to go there and talk to them.
Forget going there and talking to them, we don’t even do it in our own circles. Let’s say in a WhatsApp group you receive some news and you come to know through other means that it was fake. How many times do you actually take the effort to correct it? You don’t. And if you do, then immediately they’ll say, “Oh, the source from where you checked was itself wrong.” So then nothing gets fact-checked. But you have to understand that there is a constant effort to polarise and communalise narratives. This effort is on the ground, on the digital, everywhere. So, the counter also must be equally committed. It cannot be a part-time or a cribbing job. It has to happen continuously. There is no other way. All of us have to individually and collectively put that effort to save our country from the hatred, the polarisation, and the communalisation.
So bringing it back – though politically if it goes this way or that way, it is fine. Whichever political party wins – it is okay. But if the end result or the means to that win is communal hatred, then it becomes dangerous.
LILA: One way devised in our governance structure to ensure all voices are heard was the local governance model, which depends completely on different levels of representation. What is your assessment of the model of local governance today? Do you feel there is equitable representation?
KG: Actually, I am a lot more optimistic, happy and satisfied right now than I was when I resigned, because right now, people are asking questions. People everywhere have been afraid of the government in recent times – the rich are afraid, the middle class is afraid, the poor are afraid, everybody is afraid. So they just wanted to keep quiet. Now, a lot of that is going away. People have started expressing their views one way or the other, because there is a threshold to what people will take.
During this time, the elections have also gone a lot differently than the way it was predicted. So that has also changed. But at the same time, we are developing a highly centralising tendency, and just in the central government. Many state governments have also gone this highly centralising way wherein they decided that the only way to deliver is by personally monitoring everything; nobody else can be trusted. People themselves cannot be trusted. Imagine, we were talking about taxation powers to local self-governing bodies and now even the states don’t have taxation powers. The principle of subsidiarity that we are talking about, wherein the funds, functions, and functionaries have to be given to the state, now that has also gone completely the other way. What is effectively Swacch Bharat — what should have been a local self-government project — is now a centralised project.
For national-level comparisons, these may be good. But in many places, the reports they produce don’t show the true picture. I was recently traveling across Maharashtra — Latur, Marathwada and the surrounding areas. There, toilets are made. But you go in the morning to any village, you will find everybody going outside- children, male, female. Why? Because there is no water. If you discuss this with the self and local government there, they would tell you exactly what the problem is. But it is not in their hands to fix it. People have instead started using drones and beating people up so that they don’t use the outdoors as their toilet. Forcing people to go sit in toilets where there is no water is not sustainable.
It is also about the management style. You might see news stories saying so many toilets were made and so many changes have happened, but you will also see it slowly changing back because we use numbers as our assessment tool. The intention is not bad here. These are like management objectives and measurements, where what gets measured gets done. So construction of toilet gets measured and that gets done. But these are all physically trackable measures. The behavioural aspects would only come afterwards.
In the long term, the principle of subsidiarity, giving this to the local governance, creating this questioning framework in the locality so that they know what questions to ask, they know that the issues are – that is the only way forward. Otherwise it will always remain the charity of some people to some others.
LILA: Where and how do you see decentralisation coming back in this context? Is it simply on the basis of making people question, or do you see a need for channels also being created or some kind of structure to be worked on, so that decentralisation is given a stronger incentive?
KG: See, right now, a large section of the population believes that a strong leader and centralisation of everything is what India requires. So, as long as that belief is there, it is hard for things to change. They don’t understand the contradictions between a local self government and being empowered themselves vs giving all the power to a strong dictator or centralised leader who takes control of everything.
In India, this tendency would always be there because of the patriarchal structure. You look at this with the same attitude as when you say that the father should not be questioned — and we tend to put that everywhere. So the channel we took was completely contrary to all our beliefs. The movement towards grassroots democracy was actually completely against the general current of Indian culture. Maybe earlier our culture was different, when you talk about democracy in the Buddha’s time, but after that we have gone completely into this hierarchical and patriarchal structure. So now it will take, I think, double the effort. The failures are for all of us to see in such a model.
I was in Mizoram, in Hnahthial, when the Digital India initiative was announced. We did not even have Internet in the entire sub-division in 2015. That was just 5 years back. There was no ATM there either. And India was talking about moving everything to digital transaction.
People’s issues are completely different from what the government’s priorities are, because you are so distant from many places. You give us cylinders, where you have cheap availability of forest wood. Why would everybody back cylinders despite the fact that you still have to pay around 500-600 rupees to get them? We did a study and understood that wherever wood is easily and freely available, and there is no rain, they will not go for gas cylinders. So, these are local issues.
To a large extent, I think the failure of this model has always been there, even during Indira Gandhi’s time. I’m still hopeful but this time the authoritarian structure is also coupled with religious polarisation. So the validation for the structure is not just coming from the charisma of one individual, but from a polarised political or communal goal. The coming together of both these becomes a little difficult.
LILA: What about the bureaucratic setup in India? Do you think it allows for, or inspires people to take ownership of their issues?
KG: You remember the Prime Minister’s interview after the Balakot strike, where he said, “I said there is so much cloud and rain. There is a benefit… We can escape the radar. Everyone was confused. Ultimately I said there are clouds… let’s proceed.” Now, a Prime Minister is not expected to know about clouds and weather, so it is still alright for him to say this. My worry is that in the room where he took the decision, there must have been the Airforce Chief, the National Security Agency, the Defence Secretary, Army Chief, but from that moment till the interview was over, nobody corrected him. Such a crucial decision to attack a country, and you took it on a completely wrong assumption. Had they corrected him, he wouldn’t have said it as a matter of pride in an interview a month later. But when don’t take it upon yourself to say that something is incorrect, that is where the bigger danger is.
I think India’s bureaucratic system is highly supply-driven. I have been repeatedly saying this. It is effectively the charity of a good bureaucrat. Charity may be a bad word but it is effectively that. He can choose not to do anything, and still be there. Nothing much happens. He can do bad things, people might be completely dissatisfied with him, but if his boss is happy with him, he’ll still continue to be there. So, it doesn’t matter that way. The local accountability cycle doesn’t get fixed.
I had a decent period in the IAS, where people appreciated the work I was doing. So when I decided to quit, people asked how will things work if I leave. I said that is the whole point — it shouldn’t matter who is doing the work; the services must be provided because the people are demanding a certain level of delivery. And if someone is not able to do the delivery, then that person should be replaced., But that doesn’t happen.
Take any example — a good collector comes and everyone goes gaga over him and says ‘oh wow, what a dynamic man.’ Then another person comes in, who is least interested in any work. He complies with the bare minimum requirement of the government and continues in that position. People say ‘the previous one wasn’t like this one, he was better’. A third person comes and not only does not do anything, he also takes bribes. Then the people will say that at least the previous one didn’t take money. People have no expectations. They are okay with all three. They don’t realise that it is their service delivery that is getting affected. And how can a bureaucrat, who is just a person, have so much undue influence on the government delivery system? Because there is no demand. If it was demand-based, it wouldn’t have mattered who would have come.
On the other hand, our social structures are highly unequal. With issues such caste plaguing our systems, it becomes an elite capture at the local governance level. Eventually, the strength is that a bureaucrat can do a lot of good things, but the weakness is that it is up to him to do those good things. He should be able to do good things and he has to be forced to do so continuously. This is where I think the accountability part should come in.
Of course, there will be a lot of disruption and corruption in such a structure. But slowly it has to evolve and come out. If you shy away from this and imagine some messiah would come, that does not help. It’s like there is a constant need for a hero. The thing is that our entire system is to create heroes – an exceptional officer in an inefficient system. It is like an oasis in a desert. Everything is bad and then there is one good officer. It should be the other way round. So the goal of the government is not to either enable heroes or eliminate villains. The goal of the government is to eliminate the need for heroes. There shouldn’t be any need for exceptional bureaucrats, only efficient ones. If that happens, then the delivery would happen to a larger extent. Accountability and transparency at every level is the only way now unfortunately we are moving away from the Right to Information, the Panchayati Raj System and even the state autonomy system because you want everything to be centralised. So our movement has been in the opposite direction. But I’m hopeful, and unless we all try, the backflow of this will happen soon.
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