Interview with Dr. Sushmita Pati

Dr. Sushmita Pati is a political scientist who is currently an Assistant Professor, Political Science at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, and has taught previously at Delhi University and Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Her research areas include Urban politics, Political Economy, State and Democracy, and Gender.


Q1. In the latest Freedom in the World 2021 report, India’s status as a democracy and free society has been downgraded from “free” to “partly free”. While this is very concerning, how do you perceive this? What should the state particularly do to improve the situation and condition of our slowly degrading democracy?


Dr. Sushmita Pati: Well, there have been concerns regarding the status of democracy in India and the international community has been taking notice of what has been going on in the last couple of years in the form of a report here and a statement there. But a lot has been underway in the last several years. There has been a steady decline of independent institutions like the Courts, Election Commission, and the CAG. The UAPA was amended to be able to target individuals. The Right to Information Act was amended to weaken it significantly. The CAA-NRC which led to a major uproar was also geared towards disenfranchising the Muslims. But I guess, it is the colossal failure of the Indian state in being able to address the pandemic that has really brought attention to the state of democracy in the country. We would be mistaken to understand the state failure as only an infrastructural problem or some sort of a goof-up by the state. It is clearly reflective of a larger democratic crisis in the country. Not only were the priorities of the government entirely misplaced (The first wave of the pandemic in 2020 was used by the state to spread communal discord by blaming Muslims for spreading the virus and to slap anti-CAA activists with UAPA charges), but the breakdown of the federal structure in favor of centralized, top-down structure also clearly fell flat in the face of a pandemic.


So like I was saying, the pandemic has revealed the crisis in our democratic structure as much as it did in our public health system. In fact, it would be a little mistaken to think that the onus of reviving the democratic culture is on the state. What the Indian state has in fact successfully managed to do was create a rather paternalistic order of state order where the legitimacy of the state was supreme. It could not be shaken with absolutely disastrous policy measures like demonetization, a slumping economy, and the hasty lockdown in 2020. This is interesting if seen in the light of authoritarian regimes historically. Authoritarian regimes usually shape up in the light of public unrest and dissatisfaction. In India, it was just the opposite. Our authoritarian regime struck roots amidst massive popular legitimacy. Neelanjan Sircar has called it the “politics of vishvaas”, where the faith in the state and the leader rides over rational concerns. And this is probably the biggest success of the current political regime. The onus is really on the people now, in the face of acute crisis, to rethink this “faith” that they have reposed in the current political regime. A democratic culture can never be built on faith but rather a strong culture of critique.


Q2. You have authored a piece titled “The Right Time to Speak of Housing Rights in India is Right Now”, with this, recently the news came in from Rajasthan on similar lines where the government is trying to rehabilitate beggars under the BHOR (Bhikshuk Orientation and Rehabilitation) programme. What do you think of such an initiative and its long-term implications for India? Should the other state governments try to adopt this programme as well to some extent?


Dr. Sushmita Pati: I do not know much about this programme apart from what I read in the papers. As far as I understand it is a programme for the rehabilitation of beggars and assimilating them into the ‘society' as productive members of the society. The problem with such programmes which involve some form of ‘correction facility’ often is that they become extremely patronizing. The inmates are treated as ‘filthy, good for nothings’ who need to be corrected by the state. Right from the policy draft to the management in these facilities stink of this attitude. I believe any such correction facility should be approached with the care that does not dehumanize the ones they are trying to ‘rehabilitate’.


I was trying to make a different argument in that article. I was speaking more about housing rights for the poor and arguing that housing rights have been understood as ownership rights in India. But given the nature of migration in our country, which is circular and seasonal, migrant workers often do not come to the city with aspirations of settling down in the destination cities and own property there. Many live in rented accommodation, in ill-kept housing, to save enough money to go back to their source. We need to think of housing rights that go beyond just thinking about ownership but also of rights that would help secure the rights of migrant workers who live in such dilapidated structures. There is absolutely no data that has been collected on the housing of this kind that is the only place where migrant workers find a place to live. They are subject to arbitrary rents, and unlawful evictions, and all this is possible because these housings are not governed by any law. There needs to be some thinking on housing rights that would be sensitive to the needs of both the migrant workers and the landlords. I was particularly shaken by their vulnerability that forced the workers on the roads the moment the lockdown was announced in 2020. It is not just because they had no earnings for the coming weeks. But also that they felt no security in the houses they lived in without earnings. And one year later, we only see the repeat of the same.


Q3. With the colossal increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country, we see a similar pattern of migrant workers traveling back to their villages as we did in 2020. What do you think the government can do differently for these workers the second time around since they have borne the brunt of the pandemic and have been hit very hard financially.


Dr. Sushmita Pati: We are already witnessing a repeat of 2020 when workers were forced to go back to their homes on foot. Thankfully, since inter-state transport has not been completely stopped, workers are walking back home on foot. But the burden of sudden lockdowns is still borne by the migrant workers who find themselves with no means of sustaining themselves in places away from their homes. Lockdowns in India are vastly different from lockdowns in the West. India has no system of unemployment benefits which immediately makes the working class in India far more vulnerable. In fact, India should have considered a strong policy of unemployment benefits, community kitchens, not just as a welfare measure but also as a way of controlling the pandemic from spreading into rural parts of India. But I guess, things are too late for that already. But irrespective of the pandemic, India needs to consider major policies for creating social security for its working classes. We need to think about Urban Employment Guarantee Programmes across the country. We need to think of instituting a form of Universal Basic Income.


Q4. We usually see the older half of the population taking up important positions in the government. What is your take on the younger half leading the way and advocating for progressive and inclusive decision-making?


Dr. Sushmita Pati: It is absolutely crucial that young people get involved in politics and policymaking because they have a way of coming up with innovative ideas and skills that the older generation may lack. But I would also not be too quick in dismissing older people in politics. You would see, that the schism between progressive and conservative politics is not quite divided along the lines of age. There are enough young people who believe in conservative politics and there are enough older people who have been part of progressive movements in the past and uphold the progressive values in our constitution. What we need is both innovation and experience.


Q5. Countries led by women are tackling the COVID-19 crisis better than the others. How do you think their style of leadership is different from that of men?


Dr. Sushmita Pati: This is not such a straightforward question to answer. While the increased representation of women is something that one would always support, it may be a little misplaced to believe that women leaders have essentially different qualities from that of men leaders which make them better administrators. Feminist theory has dealt with this question over decades and has cautioned that if we continue to associate ‘feminine’ qualities to women and ‘masculine' qualities to men, we would never be able to make sense of why women can be violent and lead authoritarian governments as they have. And obversely, we would always absolve men from caregiving responsibilities because they are not supposed to be caregivers. The entire question is really about cultures forming them. Women part of masculine cultures have no way of succeeding other than playing ‘men’ themselves. Across South Asia, we have seen populist, authoritarian regimes rise under women leaders like Jayalalitha, Indira Gandhi, Sirimavo Bandarnaike, and several others. The question that we should be posing is to a masculine culture. Increasingly, elections are fought on the promise of a “strong nation.” And strength, in this case, translates into a security state which keeps propping up imaginary enemies. In fact, if we closely look at the campaigns of Narendra Modi, we see how this image of a ‘strong' leader with 56 inches chest was sold to us. An entire political culture was created around an individual who would solve all our problems. This paternalism is what paved the way for authoritarianism in the country. Now had it been say a Uma Bharti or a Smriti Irani and not a Narendra Modi, not much would have changed. What we really need to focus on is transforming the political discourse towards social justice, equality, and human rights. Now I would not think social justice could qualify as necessarily a ‘feminine’ virtue, but it is definitely not a hyper-masculine one. So the criminal mismanagement that we see around us with respect to the pandemic is clearly a result of a government that seems to have been caught completely off-guard. In fact, at this moment, what we see is actually nothing more than a failing patriarch who is more concerned about preserving its image in the international community rather than putting out the fire that is raging in his home. Because that’s what patriarchs do- preserve their honor.


Interviewer- Visaaya Bamba

Image Source- NLSIU