Hope and fears about the future of technocratic imagination
Indian elections as theatre connects a whole range of struggles which range from the epic and the operatic to the slapstick. While Narendra Modi’s battle to be Prime Minister dominates the horizon, other battles demand a different attention. One of the most intriguing of these is Nandan Nilekani’s decision to stand as a Congress candidate from Bangalore. Nilekani’s battle with Ananth Kumar is seen by many as a paradigm and a parable for the future of the technocratic imagination. To argue that Nilekani is a singular phenomenon is misleading. He has to be placed in a history of similar debates.
The colonial imagination produced technocrats like Cyril Stanley Fox, Thomas Holland and Francis Spring. But the nationalist idea of a technocracy began when a young physicist named Meghnad Saha became irritated with the slovenliness of Congress politics. Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in which scientists and politicians worked together, Saha went out in search of his Lenin in 1934.
Saha found his Indian Lenin in Subhash Chandra Bose. As president of the Congress, Bose established the National Planning Committee. As a nationalist tactic, this was the beginning of the technocratic imagination in India with the Committee as its imaginative hub. This technocratic vision had a stormy start with an open quarrel between Saha and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Saha dreamt of a society based on the scientific method where everything from rivers to calendars would conform to his new dream of science. Against the advice of West Bengal’s then Chief Minister, BC Roy, he stood for Parliament and became India’s only scientist who has directly fought and won an election.
The decades that followed were more genteel years where the scientist, in PC Mahalanobis’ words, felt he should ‘be on top rather than on tap’. The scientist as technocrat was more of a consultant, a middleman. Despite an active Left, politics and science were better combined by the social movements in science that dreamt of taking science and the scientific temper to the country’s villages.
The Indian story erupted in a new way with the rise of Sam Pitroda, a carpenter’s son who became the first engineer technocrat in independent India whose achievements became folklore. His ideas sought to transform everything from the baroque money-order form to telecommunications. He was especially keen on creating a Knowledge Commission. Pitroda and his Jeeves, Jairam Ramesh, imbued the new possibilities of technology with a passion that added a mystique to the Rajiv Gandhi Government.
The rise of Nandan Nilekani as a technocrat-politician has to be seen in this context. Nilekani was boss of Infosys, one of India’s most successful firms. His book Imagining India was a bestseller, proving he could be reflexive in communicating the social imagination of a technocracy, which saw innovation as the new sacrament. It was clear that Nilekani saw technocracy as a part of the public sphere and technology as a public good to be facilitated politically. As an infotech expert, Nilekani felt governance could be technology-aided and inspired. His Aadhaar card was an attempt to rationalise and simplify access to the entitlements of citizenship, an infotech supplement to Amartya Sen’s work on entitlements. Good philosophy and good governance, he suggested, could create a different regime of citizenship.
Nilekani has always been surrounded by power and subject to scrutiny. The database required for his card brought him into a clash with the Ministry of Home Affairs, which feared security violations. Human rights activists got apoplectic at the mention of Aadhaar, arguing that it disadvantages the poor against the State. The jury is still out on that, but the dream of new social technologies has caught the public imagination. Governance is the new magic word, creating a sense that politics as problem-solving cannot do without technology or the technological imagination.
Yet, Nilekani has created deep shadows of doubt about the technocratic regime in politics. Technocrats were seen as a club, and the overemphasis on technology, critics felt, diminished the political, substituting efficiency for justice. Technocracies were seen as creating a hierarchical top-down politics. In reply, technocrats felt that the new social revolutions in media turned such doubts into mere anachronisms. The consumer’s role in new technologies was almost legendary. The domestication of the mobile phone was an oft-repeated argument for this new world.
At another level, the new technology-leavened policy was supposed to quicken politics. Policy became a way of speeding up the world. For some, the Aadhaar card was seen as the beginning of a new technocratic millennialism. But, this much was clear, Nilekani was becoming a folklore figure second only to M Vivesveraya, the doyen of Indian planning.
When Nandan Nilekani announced his candidacy from the Bangalore South constituency, there was a sense of inevi- tability. His opponent was the BJP leader Ananth Kumar. One anticipated a battle of giants between a seasoned politician and a seasoned technocrat. The election seemed a harbinger of things to come, a signal of the increasing participation of technocrats in the drama of Indian politics.
Nandan Nilekani was an open persona, who was at home with the bureaucracy and easy with the press, which treated him as perpetual news, a magical creature of a fading regime. Nilekani, like Pitroda, propped up the Congress reputation for efficiency at a time it was facing charges of sloth and corruption. The public, as one observer put it, was waiting for an epidemic of Nilekanis, and many from IITs took to politics and policy with a new enthusiasm. Some almost astrologically predicted he would be the next PM.
Nilekani’s electoral battle appeared distant from the general lassitude of Congress politics. He attracted interesting opposites like Girish Karnad, the playwright, and UR Ananthamurthy, a major novelist and one of India’s leading public intellectuals. Ananthamurthy’s decision to support Nilekani caught his supporters flat-footed. One asked him his reasons for support. The answers were well-thought out, if not fully convincing. It captured the new optimism over the Nilekani effect, though it was never clear whether he is backing the man or the phenomenon. At another level, such support for Nilekani seems short-lived. He appears relevant now, but Arvind Kejriwal seems to be the wave of the future.
Ananthamurthy noted that Nandan was an interesting man. He claimed that it demands humility to confront other forms of intelligence in politics. Nilekani, Ananthamurthy claims, has the alertness and stamina to do so. He was learning another way of life and losing his contempt for politics, even realising that politicians can be a harassed class too. There was also a suggestion that Nilekani could overcome the Bangalore-versus-Karnataka divide wrought by information technology. Nilekani, he felt, could break the snobbery of the infotech elite, and, as a Kannada-speaking individual, break through to other cultures.
Elections, Ananthamurthy feels, can cure technocratic arrogance. Yet, beyond this, there is a feeling that the Modi juggernaut must be stopped and Bangalore can do it. One forgives the Congress because of a Nilekani. At that level, Nilekani hints at a new possibility for technology and politics. There is a feeling that the Nilekanis, Shaws and Narayana Murthys might cleanse the system.
This dream of technocrats cleansing the system signals a range of messages. There is first a feeling that the new technologies don’t carry the baggage of the past. They are science-driven and many believe that such perspectives are transferable magically to politics. Many consider such expert politics ‘clean politics’.
But there is a current of disquiet over supporting such moves. It stems from a deeper politics of culture. Many Bangaloreans feel that the infotech-biotech class as a technocracy displays little or no accountability to people at large. They are a self-styled elite with no sense of the everydayness of the lives of the rest of the population. Some add that technology as plumbing is hardly a model for politics, while others feel it is a shotgun solution, arguing that without the baggage of Aadhaar, Nilekani could easily be a BJP recruit. The fissures here are deep, going beyond the current polls.
The disquiet begins with Nilekani being treated as an icon. Many activists feel marginalised and ask whether such instant technocracies of wealth and power are genuinely democratic. Is Nilekani and therefore the technocratic imagination genuinely open to democratic debate? Others feel that Nilekani and Modi are parts of the same vision, that Modi’s dream is just a technocracy with a BJP gloss. In a deep sense, Nilekani’s entry into politics creates deep fears, a politics of hope and a politics of anxiety, and becomes symbolic of the contestations of the future.
Whether Nilekani wins or not is now irrelevant. He has created the seeds of a new debate where India’s middle-class will have to work out its visions of new politics. In that one move, Nandan Nilekani becomes a metaphor for a troubled, confusing and even exciting future.
Shiv Visvanathan considers himself a social science nomad