“INDIAN DEMOCRACY IS not just in crisis,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta announced from a lectern at the India Today Conclave in early March, “but there is a deep, deep diminishing of hope at this juncture compared to five years ago or perhaps ten years ago.” Mehta was impassioned, delivering his verdict on a half-decade of the rule of Narendra Modi. “The last five years have been a mutilation of the Indian soul,” he said. “They stand for everything that is un-Indian,” and “against every promise that this democracy gave to each one of its citizens.”
“All the big repositories of hope we had accumulated over the last ten [or] fifteen years—India is at the cusp of structural transformation, India will, in a sense, reach a new stratosphere of growth and inclusion and job creation—I think all of those expectations have been deeply disappointed,” Mehta elaborated. “Religion, that very thing that behooves us to transcend our identity, is being reduced to the identity that marks you, for which you will be targeted,” and “nationalism is being used to divide people.” The expected purpose of the production of knowledge, he suggested, was no longer the pursuit of truth, but “to relieve you of the burden of thinking altogether.” Even “the act of speaking has become a dangerous act.” What will be left of civility, he asked, when those in the highest positions of authority empower those who threaten and intimidate. If the looming general election did not deliver a reconfiguration of power, he predicted, Indian democracy faced great peril.
Here was Mehta claiming the moral high ground—one of the country’s most-read public thinkers, a man considered a star of Indian liberalism, fulfilling the intellectual’s responsibility to deliver uncomfortable truths. And yet, Mehta failed in another intellectual duty—that of self-reflection. Nowhere in his speech did he offer a candid mea culpa.