In Conversation With M Rajshekhar

With an MA from the University of Sussex, UK, Rajshekhar is a senior journalist who has, over the last 25 years, worked with Business Standard, BW Businessworld, The Economic Times and Scroll. He’s also been a consultant for The World Bank and a researcher for ITC Ltd. Rajshekhar is currently based in Bangalore, where he reports for CarbonCopy, tracking India’s energy transition away from coal. His interests lie in energy, environment, political corruption and oligarchy.

Rajshekhar is also a published author and his book, Despite the State, was released to wide acclaim in January 2021. Among other things, the book talks about the widespread democratic decay in India, the strong centralisation of political power and intensification of caste, ethnic and religious identities. We find out more from him about why he wrote this book, some major problems that India faces today, his take on the changing face of journalism and, of course, some of his favourite books and authors.

Let’s start with talking about your book, Despite the State. What was it that inspired and motivated you to write this book? It’s an important piece of work, deeply felt and extensively researched. Was writing the book an emotional catharsis of sorts?

To start with, I am very glad you say that about the book. And now, with that bit about emotional catharsis, I am struck dumb, wondering how to respond.

Writing the book wasn’t catharsis, it was more of a closing of a loop. Between 2010 and 2015, I reported on rural India and environment for The Economic Times. I was one of those taken aback by the sweeping mandate for Modi. Societies are ever-changing. Large ones like India perhaps even more so. And so, what the mandate showed is that my understanding of India was outdated.

In 2008, to understand rural India better, I had lived in two villages in Madhya Pradesh for eight months. That experience had served me well the next six years. Now, after 2014, I needed a second round of refamiliarisation. This time around, I proposed a six state reporting project with each state standing as proxy for clusters of states (say, Odisha as a stand-in for Goa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh) to Scroll and moved to Mizoram in February, 2015.

I went from there to Manipur, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Gujarat – with the final article getting written only in December, 2017. I was filing relatively detailed reports right through this journey. And so, maybe the book would have been emotional catharsis if all this information had remained locked up inside me, not getting a chance to emerge. Which is not what happened here. The basic raw data had been communicated to the world as the reporting project progressed. The book served a different purpose.

Reporters are moored to the here-and-now. While out reporting, our attention locks into understanding the specific event/process unfolding in front of us. We get into as much detail as we can but deeper layers elude us. In my case, as I moved from state to state, I found similar process of democratic decay in each state – each failing to deliver health, education and justice; in each, a small set of politically connected elite gaining much more than others; in each, a strong centralisation of political power; in each, an intensification of caste, ethnic and religious identities.

It took me a year to spot this trend. Which is a sort of a foundational observation about journalism: it takes time to find the key questions. From Tamil Nadu onwards, I tried to parse this process of democratic decay, trying to look at the functioning of political parties, etc. And yet, working on the book is when I read more, thought through things better, and eventually emerged with a yet larger conclusion about state failure – the eroding social contract between people and political parties, how parties seek to retain legitimacy nonetheless, and how people respond to state failure.

Long answer. And so, no emotional catharsis. Only the feeling that I had finally answered – to my satisfaction – the inchoate question I had set out with.

How have readers responded to Despite the State? Casual readers, yes, but also from the powers that be – people who might be part of State machinery, people whom you might have mentioned in the book?

It has been a while. The book hit shop-shelves in January, 2021. The response has been good. Lots of kind words.

People working in the government have liked the book as well – that is both retired bureaucrats (like Keshav Desiraju) and younger folks (like Kannan Gopinathan) and others. What struck me about the response is this: the first set of folks to review the book was regional media. The book got reviewed by The Tribune, Manorama, readers in Tamil Nadu and the Urdu press much before national media picked it up. The same trend played out again in terms of chats regarding the book. Regional bookshops and clubs were very quick to grasp the point of the book. That is something I feel very validated by.

Of all the six States you visited for writing the book, are there any particular incidents – anything you saw, heard or experienced – that stand out most? Any particularly memorable moments / conversations that you recall, from the months you spent doing your research for the book?

Loads of such memories. I can close my eyes and have a showreel play out in my mind. I think of Mizoram, say, and the memories come rushing in. A cab ride to the autonomous district council of Saiha; what Saiha looked like; a glimpse of Lawngtlai from Saiha; the Kaladan highway from Lawngtlai to Burma… one neuron sparks, leads to the next, and before long, I am sitting around smiling. When the reporting project ended, that is one fear I was gripped by. That I would forget. And so, the last night out reporting for the project – I was in Surat, slated to return to Bangalore the next morning – I had spent the hours after dinner scribbling in my diary, trying to recollect moments. I should pull that diary out and take a look. I wonder how many I have forgotten by now. I must have forgotten some.

You asked for an incident. And here is one – which, I think, did set the tone for the months and years that followed. I had written it down and so, with your permission, I am going to read that out to you.

Six years on, I cannot forget Lalhlimpuii.

It was March, 2015. I had reached Lunglei, the second biggest town in the north-eastern state of Mizoram, the previous evening. The plan was to stay here for a couple of days, visit villages to gauge how the state government’s flagship rural development project, something called the New Land Use Policy, is working.

An inverse correlation holds in India. The farther one goes from administrative centres, the more weakly the state functions. And so, I wanted to travel out for twenty or so kilometres before starting at stop at villages. Which meant I needed an auto-rickshaw. In these interior reaches, I need to do my interviews in Mizo. And so, what I really needed was an auto-rickshaw with a driver who speaks English and can double up as a translator.

The first auto I meet the next morning, while walking to the auto stand, is driven by a tall, fair young man nearing thirty. We are still struggling to understand each other when he abruptly waves me into his rickshaw. I do. He putters off, drives for a couple of minutes and then stops in front of a wooden house and gestures: I should follow him in.

Like most houses in Mizoram, this house stands off the road on stilts driven into the hillside. As I will find, his in-laws live on the first floor – which, given the steepness of the slope, is almost level with the road. For now, I walk down the steps to the left and enter the house of Pu Lalchhanhima, the young man, and Pi Lalhlimpuii, his wife. These are early days for me in Mizoram. And so, while the two talk, I look around.

A large central room that contains a dining table, sofas and a cooking area running along the wall to my left. And beyond it, a bedroom. The house is messy in a way houses with a young kid are.

The two finish talking. Lalhlimpuii turns to me and asks me to explain again what I want – she studied in a convent and her English is immaculate. I do my spiel. I am a reporter. From Delhi. I am here to understand how land use policy is working. I need to go to a village twenty kilometres and I need help with translation.

She helps me and Pu Chhana, as his nickname goes, identify a village. And then turns to me again. We have never done anything like this before and so, she says, her husband will go ask a neighbour what to charge and, in the meantime, have I had breakfast?

She is pregnant and so, she settles down at the dining table a tad gingerly. We eat while I ask her about life in Lunglei. And then, Pu Chhana comes back. He and Lalhlimpuii chat a bit. And then she turns to me and says: “Our neighbour says we should charge Rs 400 one way. But that will be Rs 800 and that is too much. Can you give us Rs 600?”

She also wakes up her brother, a freshly-minted postgraduate in economics from Mizoram University, who agrees to come along and translate. The three of us head to Vanhne village, located on the ridge running parallel to Lunglei, with Lalmuanpuia and me chatting about his plan to set up a food processing company because he wants to do something for his people.

That was the first month of what would become a 33 month long journey across India, living in and reporting from six starkly different states of India in a bid to refamiliarise myself with the country — and eventually culminate in
Despite the State.

“That will be Rs 800 and that is too much. Can you give us Rs 600?” I am unable to forget that interaction, not because it was an outlier. It wasn’t. Through my travels, I received nothing but trust and generosity from those I met.

Journalism is a social enterprise. It exists because of public goodwill. We reporters travel into unfamiliar places at the mercy of locals – will they have time for us? Will they talk to us? And they always do. This meeting with Lalhlimpuii, right at the start of the reporting project, was one such moment. It was also a moment of responsibility. Us reporters, we have to monitor the centres of power on behalf of people like her.

Is Despite the State grounded in despair or is there also some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel? What can the people of India – in the six States but also elsewhere in the country – look forward to in the next few years and beyond? What are the biggest challenges the country faces because of State ineptitude and is there any hope, in the foreseeable future, of these challenges being overcome?

I don’t do despair. All of us are born with some innate attitudes. As children, we are curious, optimistic, cheerful, whatever set of qualities. And then, as we get older and see more, the world slowly beats some of these qualities out of us. As that Springsteen song goes, we lose ourselves in work to do, work to do and bills to pay. Around this time, we have to ask whether we are okay losing those qualities. If we want to retain them, how do we moor them to a durable foundation so that these are not lost again.

In my case, the crisis was one of hope. Any idiot can be hopeful when things are going fine. What do we do in tough times? We cannot have blind hope, unmoored to anything. That will be a fickle and vacillating sort of hope. We cannot count on heroic figures to save the day – they often reveal feet of clay. To me, the answer on whether there is hope lies in my actions. If I am doing what I can, it stands to reason that others are also doing what they can. And that, I think, is a solid foundation.

And so, where are we headed? What does the future hold? I don’t know. I am not a political pundit. At the same time, I have read enough of history to be wary of the certitudes others toss out. And so, let us link it back to what I said above. One part of the answer lies in how people respond to the ongoing majoritarian-kleptocratic capture of India. It’s an unequal battle in many ways. The media is not helping them understand this ongoing moment and so, the people’s cognitive reality is struggling to catch up with physical reality, so to say. There are people who say that tolerance is hard-coded into this country – so many centuries of so many different groups living together. That is true. But it is also true that even age-old attitudes change. The instance of Japanese wolves, once venerated and then regarded as vermin thanks to modernisation and hunted to extinction, come to mind.

And so, where do we go? India faces multiple threats. The authoritarian-majoritarian project is one. Kleptocracy is another. This weakening of political parties is a problem as well. In any democratic system, political parties are the primary problem-solving agent. In India, as we see, they barely ever perform that role. They have figured other ways to retain legitimacy, and the people too have stopped punishing them for failure. Instead, our response to state failure is to align ourselves with groupings (ethnic, caste, religion) with greater bargaining power plus offer us social security in lieu of the state. This response, however, strengthens political parties further. They are masters at playing identity games.

In that sense, we have replaced the democratic feedback loop with a downward spiral.

This is a problem because India faces real crises. The heatwaves last summer are one instance. As is galloping inequality. The country also faces a spectrum of health crises. Its ecological foundations are weakening. So much of our youth belongs to the precariat – with all the lost opportunities and social tensions that come along. There is a real chance that we will end up in the sort of world that Shovon Chowdhury described in The Competent Authority. What is our capacity, as a society, to respond to these? That said, for reporters, maybe the question is not about hope. Maybe it is about saying that such are the times – and then to carry on doing the job the best we can. The world answers to the principle of inertia. And yet, mount enough pressure, and it will change.

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