Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti and Himanshu Jha talk about his book, Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act in India. They discuss the role of opposition parties and the judiciary in the push for freedom of information, the influence of global and local norms, right-to-information activists and much more. Jha is a lecturer and research fellow in the Department of Political Science at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany. He teaches courses on comparative politics, institutions and institutional change, governance and the politics of welfare, Indian and South Asian politics, public policy and quantitative methods.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Himanshu Jha, who is a lecturer and research fellow in the Department of Political Science at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany. We discussed Himanshu’s recent book, Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act in India, which explores the institutional change from a norm of secrecy to a norm of transparency in the Indian state. We talked about the Right to Information Act in India; the various individuals, networks and ideas that led to its enactment; the colonial history of secrecy in India and the new approach to transparency in government; Himanshu’s intellectual influences; and much more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Himanshu, thank you so much for doing this. Welcome to the show.
HIMANSHU JHA: Thank you, Shruti. Good to be here.
From Openness to Secrecy
RAJAGOPALAN: The book is about RTI, as we call it, which is the Right to Information Act in India, but it’s much more than just passing a law. To me, it’s about two fundamental things—one, how the state moved from a situation where the norm was secrecy to where the norm was transparency.
The second is that, even though you don’t get into the implementation of the RTI, this particular norm, which is now embedded in the Indian political and social culture, has fundamentally shifted the state-citizen relationship in India. Earlier, citizens were treated as subjects, as the Indian government took over from the colonial government. Now they are treated like constituents and voters and citizens to whom the state must be accountable.
JHA: Yes, Shruti, absolutely. When we talk about this book, it’s actually tracing this whole norm shift back to 1947 when India became independent—even before that—and it is in this context that this book treats right to information as a case of institutional change. Right to information, in this case, is just a case that I have used to illustrate how institutions actually change.
In that sense, one has to go back in history to try to understand, how did the norm of secrecy get embedded within the state thinking within the systems after all? What was the reason behind it? I think it has to be traced back to the colonial history, where the Official Secrets Act, 1923 was promulgated.
Of course, colonial rulers had their own reason. The First World War and the Second World War was the context, and so it was the logic that the state information is key to protect state interests, and official information is key to national security.
When India became independent, we just adopted this law without any amendments except for removing the references to Great Britain. The logic that official information is key to state interest and national security was actually carried forward to the extent that, in 1967, this whole Official Secrets Act was actually amended to an even stronger version. All official information was treated confidential. Sharing and receiving information was made a non-cognizable, non-bailable offense.
It was accompanied by other laws as well, like Civil Services Conduct Rules of 1964; Sections 1, 2, 3 of the Indian Evidence Act; Manual of Office Procedures of the Government of India; and so on and so forth. The whole secrecy, the norm of secrecy was embedded, what Paul Pierson calls getting locked in within the system. There was an institutional logjam, so to speak.
Right to information compared to this—and this norm of secrecy or culture of secrecy prevailed for the almost first 60 years of India’s independence, India’s existence as an independent country, a democratic country. And so right to information actually just changed all that. It presents a very contrasting before-and-after picture.
Incentives in Government Versus Opposition
RAJAGOPALAN: What I love about the project is, you explained this through multiple layers. If you will bear with me, I wanted to ask you about each of those layers. How do we think about the role of the opposition? How did the interests of the government, which are very embedded in maintaining secrecy, play out against the interest of the opposition, whose entire goal is to check the government and try to get greater accountability, for which they necessarily need a little bit more transparency and access?
JHA: That’s a really searching question, Shruti. The whole point of looking at this “opposition versus ruling party” churning is this idea: the root cause of this idea and the demand for greater openness was the exclusive privilege of the ruling party to official information, which was actually not extended to the opposition members.
In 1965, two years before the Official Secrets Act was amended, there was a speaker’s ruling in the lower house, which is called Lok Sabha, in the Indian Parliament, where a member from the opposition party—his name was PK Deo, a Swatantra Party member—he wanted to cite from a CBI report and the union subcommittee report, which was damaging to two former chief ministers of Odisha.
He was actually prohibited to cite from these reports. So there was a great furor in the Parliament, and the ’65 ruling of the speaker said that the case of this privilege should be extended to the opposition members as well.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is Hukam Singh?
JHA: This is Hukam Singh, who was the speaker of Lok Sabha at that point of time, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: Also, previously a constituent assembly member.
JHA: Absolutely. What happens is, right after this ruling in somewhere around 1966, there was a note circulated to all the departments, all the ministries that whether the Official Secrets Act should be amended to an even stronger version, and there you were in ’67. Of course, the Indo-Pak War and the Indo-China War were the backdrop of these amendments. So this was the churning between the opposition and the ruling party, which actually led to a greater intensity of this idea of openness getting embedded within the state thinking.
Of course, during the first phase, these ideas were still nascent and on the policy periphery. In fact, the 1967 amendment to the Official Secrets Act was actually introduced in the Parliament. There was a lot of opposition in the Parliament by the same party, Swatantra Party. There was another member, called M Ruthnaswamy, who actually framed it as “right to know,” and of course, the famous Raj Narain, who later on challenged Indira Gandhi in the judicial courts—he called it “black bill” or kala vidhayak.
This was a kind of churning between opposition and the ruling party, which was taking shape from the early ’60s onwards. But it was not only limited to the opposition party, Shruti. It was actually also expressed by some of the reports of the government committees which were constituted right since independence. These were initial sentiments, or I’ll call it ideas, peripheral ideas or nascent ideas which emerged on the policy peripherally. You see with the Janata Party, it gained more ground. It became more prominent, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: This context is incredibly useful because in modern day, when we think of right to information, we think of it entirely as a grassroots and citizens movement, but nothing happens in the grass roots of citizens movement for the first 50 years, and the background that you provide us—where these ideas originally came from—is incredibly useful in that sense.
One, of course, you talked about the opposition and the role of the opposition, but at some point, the opposition also becomes the government, right? What happens then with the interests of the Janata government that comes in after the Emergency, which wants greater transparency because that’s what they lobbied for as the opposition, but now they’re the government, so, in a sense, it’s also in their interest to maintain secrecy. How does that play out exactly?
JHA: There are two points. First, let me talk about the social movement. First 50 years—there was no talk of these initiatives, and suddenly, the social-movement narrative is the dominant narrative. The second dominant narrative is that the UPA government was actually instrumental in promulgating right to information. This is what this book does. This book problematizes these dominant narratives, so there’s a methodological point as well.
When you’re talking about institutional change and transparency laws, one also has to talk about not only right to information. It also needs to talk about the norm of secrecy. One has to trace it back to the time when this norm of secrecy was in the process of getting entrenched within the Indian state. Once you do that, once you redefine the point of departure, you are able to bring in more historical evidence, which this book does in many ways at multiple levels, so there’s a methodological point.
The second point is about the opposition when it assumes power. This is an interesting dynamic—that when Janata Party came to power, then Home Minister Charan Singh actually constituted a committee to amend Official Secrets Act and also examine the possibility of giving some kind of access to citizens to official information, but so entrenched was the norm of secrecy within the state that it was actually thwarted by the bureaucracy. Of course, the members of the committee were all bureaucrats, so they thwarted the whole concept.
Janata Party by no means is a turning point, but Janata Party can be seen as a link phase between the time when the ideas were still nascent to the time when ideas are slowly, gradually moving to the policy center stage. You see that, right after Janata Party, you had reports which were framing it directly as right to know. Right to know as necessary for democratic quality.
In fact, in 1983, there was a private member’s bill which was tabled by a member of Parliament called G. C. Bhattacharya, who was part of Lok Dal. Lok Dal, incidentally, was also part of Janata Party coalition. The private member’s bill was on freedom of information.
These are the ideational linkages that this book actually traces. Ideas actually were definitely moving in the direction towards greater openness, but so embedded was the norm of secrecy that these ideas were still on the periphery, even though they were challenging the nested norm. Once the political power of ideas gains salience within the state thinking, they shape the state interest as well. This is what this book actually shows and demonstrates. I hope people buy this argument.
Role of the Judiciary in Increasing Transparency
RAJAGOPALAN: The other interesting thing about the argument is, you’re not just talking about one linear kind of story, which is these are the politicians, these are the opposition, and with due time you’re tracking a report or tracking something that was said in Parliament. Because there are many other stories playing out simultaneously at other levels or layers, and one of them is the role of the judiciary.
How does the judiciary play into this? You mentioned how the Member of Parliament from the Swatantra Party actually phrased it as the right to know. This discussion of how information is a right also starts seeping into the judicial language and eventually finds itself in cases.
JHA: Yes, Shruti. When I was writing this book—and this is my doctoral work; I refined it further and made it into a book—I couldn’t help but go back to the famous Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, where there are different stories which are happening, and they’re all related to each other and, in the end, everything makes sense. Everything comes together. I’m not saying my book is Pulp Fiction, but what I’m saying is, it made me think about this movie, which I like quite a bit.
Coming back to the role of judiciary, yes, judiciary was very significant during all the phases, actually. What was surprising for me is that, when you trace the judicial verdicts, they have to be seen in conjunction with what was happening in other segments of the state. If in my first phase, which is from 1947 to 1989, the ideas of openness were on the periphery, the judiciary was also not directly interpreting the Constitution as inherently having right to know. Judiciary, in this way, was approaching this whole notion of dissemination of information is a must for a democracy from the freedom-of-press point of view.
RAJAGOPALAN: To make 19(1)(a) functional, there must also be access to information side-by-side. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of 19(1)(a). That is how the judicial approach is to the matter.
JHA: Yes, so Article 19(1)(a) from the beginning—as we all know, it gives fundamental rights to the Indian citizens to freedom of expression and speech, and judiciary interpreted it in a number of ways. First thing the judiciary did—and this emerged in the famous Brij Bhushan case, Romesh Thappar case in the early 1950s, which was actually the trigger point to introduce First Amendment to the Indian Constitution by Jawaharlal Nehru, that Article 19(1)(a) is an article which should be protected, and the dissemination of information within this article should be protected as well, which later on attained a different character.
I would cite this famous case of Raj Narain, which has to be understood in the backdrop of the Emergency, where Raj Narain challenged the election of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This is a very well-known case, but what was important for me in this case was that there was this blue book which was sought as evidence in the court. This blue book would give details of the movements of the prime minister, and so the state sought privilege to this document.
The court, the judiciary at that point of time, said that the blue book is necessary for this case, and that’s why for the case it is important, but also for citizens’ right to know, the privilege of certain documents to the ruling party should also be considered or reconsidered. As the ideas have moved in a favorable direction towards openness in other segments of the state, judiciary is also slowly interpreting Article 19(1)(a) as inherently containing right to know.
This is very evident in the Raj Narain case and, later on, the famous S.P. Gupta case in 1982, the Dinesh Trivedi case, and so on and so forth. The role of judiciary should be seen in this context of how ideas move in a certain direction.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s interesting that you mentioned the Raj Narain case. I have read it in the context of election violation and the case that was the tipping point that brought Indira Gandhi to a point of imposing Emergency. Even though I have read that opinion, it never occurred to me until I read your book that this is really the first time the courts are drawing a very clear line on privileged information, secret information and access to information.
Like everyone else, I also thought that it’s only in the much later activist version of the court when the court starts talking about right to information and access to information and so on. When I read your book, I saw Raj Narain in a whole new light.
It was very interesting for me to read that even simple things like, are the prime minister’s movements or her schedule book—are they privileged information or not? Minutes to meetings—is it privileged or not? These are just basic things about governance that one ought to know in order to enforce or demand so many other rights and entitlements that they get completely missed because no one explicitly lobbies for these kinds of actions or changes.
JHA: Yes, but Shruti, this is not to claim that the judicial verdicts have been linear.
RAJAGOPALAN: The judiciary, even now, goes back and forth, depending on how it suits the purposes of individual judges and the institution as a whole. For instance, the discussions of the Collegium cannot be sought through the Right to Information Act. How the Supreme Court Collegium actually decides on who they appoint as the next set of judges is a complete black box. Even though the judiciary has, at times, been a huge advocate for access to information, it has also thwarted all attempts to access information when it comes to its own interests as an institution.
As you say, there is no linear story to be told when there is so much complexity and when you don’t think of the state as a single monolith, but you think of it as different branches—some elected, some appointed, some permanent—and then each of those groups have their own vested interests, and they are operating within a nested set of norms that are embedded in the culture of that particular institution.
JHA: Yes. Absolutely, Shruti. That’s a good way to look at it. In fact, the state as a monolith is something which actually does not speak to this whole RTI [right to information] saga, where you see these different groups working from within the state right since independence, and this is what makes this story an interesting story, where there’s a multiple-level churning of ideas which is happening. It was important to capture these processes.
From Politics to Policy
RAJAGOPALAN: The other aspects—we spoke about the opposition, we spoke about the judiciary, and now I want to talk about when this actually makes it to the manifestos of different leading political parties. It actually starts getting debated as a policy agenda. It may not have passed until the UPA government in 2005, but for a good 20 years before that, this is now on the table in a way that earlier it was in the periphery. This is happening with coalition governments at the union level, and also, there is a little bit of movement with regional parties and subnational governments.
Do you think this is particularly taken in coalition governments because those parties are expecting to be in the opposition any moment or have been in the opposition a moment before that? Do you think that is why coalition governments were just much stronger proponents of this kind of transparency? Or do you think it’s because coalition governments necessarily require stitching together various interests, and in that process, it’s much easier for the experts and the activists to put things on the table?
JHA: Shruti, I will dwell upon two points on this. Coalition government—you see, the 1989 National Front Government actually formed the government, came to power at the center with a similar backdrop that was prevailing during the time of the Emergency. There were allegations of corruption, centralization of power, and so on and so forth.
When V. P. Singh came to power, it was a similar kind of a climate. Because it was part of the political commitment, it was . . . I don’t call it mainstreaming because of that. It was also part of the policy processes, so there were cabinet committees which were formed, and so on and so forth, and that’s what makes it different from the Janata Party government. Yes, the coalition government—when it came to power, they were a coalition which was similar to the Janata Party coalition, where it was a coalition which came together to challenge the ruling party, and that was the context.
The second thing which is important is that, for a long time, even during the Narasimha Rao minority government, 1991–96, there were no policy processes which were kick-started by the Congress Party. In fact, these processes which were started by the preceding government, the National Front government, were actually just put on hold by the Congress Party at that time.
You would believe that 1991 economic reforms and so on, so forth, the government would be more open to this whole idea of transparency and accountability with IMF and World Bank lurking in the background, but that did not happen. In fact, the norm of secrecy was further intensified. There was this amendment to the Manual of Department Security Instructions, which are used to categorize government documents as secret, top secret, confidential, and so on and so forth. It was amended to an even stronger version in 1996.
Whenever you see coalition come to power, both political and policy processes attain greater purpose within the state. But by the time United Front government came to power, this whole idea that there should be an access to information had become inexorable within the state. So United Front government actually formed the famous Shourie Committee, and then my argument is that it was because of opposition, yes, but the things did not happen also because they were short-lived.
The moment NDA government comes to power, they promulgated Freedom of Information Act 2002, and then a more refined version of it, or an amended version of it, was introduced by the United Progressive Alliance [UPA]. If it was not the United Progressive Alliance, somebody else would have done it as well. It was actually the political power of ideas which had reached a threshold, rather than just a political regime which was changing. That’s the argument.
Role of Epistemic Network
RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s such an important part of the book—one, that ideas matter, and second, the importance of an epistemic community or epistemic network that will create a circumstance where ideas will reach a point where their moment will arrive. When it happens with the UPA government, we think that the RTI was a foregone conclusion, and of course, its time had come, and India had finally joined the league of transparent governments, and so on. But what does it take, as an epistemic community, to get any policy to the point when its moment arrives?
JHA: Epistemic network is this network of individuals who actually are bound together with common ideas or beliefs around a common issue area. In this case, it was actually access to information. Why it is epistemic is because each node of this network comes in with their own epistemic characteristics. There are people from the legal fraternity who know legal nitty-gritties very, very minutely. There are people from the grass roots who are activists who know the ground realities. There are journalists who actually know the political context. There are academics who are part of the system.
What actually binds them together is this common idea that there should be access to information, and this is what makes epistemic network so important. The advantage for the state is that this epistemic network actually removes inherent uncertainties, policy uncertainties within the state. If the state is, for instance, unsure about how much they should disclose and how much they should open, this epistemic network can actually contribute according to their own epistemic strength that these are the norms which are existing elsewhere, and this is how we should do it.
That’s why the epistemic network was so important. In fact, in my book, I go to the extent of saying that we have to nuance the way we look at this whole social-movement perspective. I’m calling it an epistemic network just precisely because of this.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re so right because when we just leave it to ideas, the idea of transparency is quite old. This can even go back to the Greek Republic and the Roman Empire and so on. It’s not that there’s this idea, and everyone knows about it. Of course, no one’s really going to challenge that transparency’s a bad thing. It’s not about the idea.
The other word that you use in your book is ideation. It is how you take an idea that most people may or may not be familiar with, and then get together and create circumstances where consensus may be built upon that idea. Consensus building is of two forms. One is, of course, a binary form. Do you agree or disagree with the Official Secrets Act? There’s that kind of consensus or interest group building.
The other kind of interest group or consensus building is, how much? What should be the exception? Should there be any exceptions at all? Is national security an exception? Do people have privileges? Do judges and legislators have privileges built in within those exceptions, or is everybody excluded? Then so on and so forth.
I think on that, the epistemic network and all the work that they’ve done, which you take us so carefully through, committee by committee, judgment by judgment, over 70 years, is really fascinating. It really cracks open the myths that the right to information just came from this great idea that just showed up because the government decided to be transparent.
JHA: Yes, absolutely, Shruti. The epistemic network was important from the point of view of what I call ideational churning. There were supporters of the norm of openness, and there were people who were opposing it from within as well. That’s why I call it ideation, but I also call it a churning, which was taking place for a long period of time. It would have been also possible that right to information would not have seen light of day if ideas had not reached a certain threshold.
But what is also fascinating about this whole epistemic story are the ideational connections which actually do . . . Ideas in this case actually do some sort of time travel. For instance, Ajit Bhattacharjea and Prabhash Joshi, who was part of this epistemic network, which was very instrumental in the early 2000s, but also involved in the Janata Party.
Ajit Bhattacharjea was the editor of this magazine called Everyman’s Weekly, which was brought out by Janata Party, and Prabhash Joshi was the editor of Praja Neeti, which was part of Janata Party publication. Ideas during Janata Party actually traveled with Ajit Bhattacharjea and Prabhash Joshi. These were the connections which this mapping shows.
RAJAGOPALAN: To give another example from your book, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was part of the opposition during the Emergency. Of course, the Janata government that followed—he supported it. Then in the ’80s, he and Pramod Mahajan and a few colleagues actually raise questions in Parliament as an opposition, demanding which other countries have a Right to Information Act, and if the government ever intends to form or put together a committee or have legislation on this topic.
Then eventually, when he becomes prime minister, they once again revisit it as a freedom of information, and so on and so forth. One is of course the mapping of ideas. The other, you’ve done beautifully as you take us through the history, is also the mapping of individuals.
It’s the same people and the same names who keep popping up in different contexts. Sometimes they are grassroots activists. Sometimes they are members of the NAC [National Advisory Council]. Sometimes they are members of opposition or they are jailed as opposition, and sometimes they become prime minister. That is also a very fascinating element of the story because, in some sense, the context of where you stand is also extremely determinant of how you view the right to information as legislation, not just as an idea.
JHA: Sometimes, we look at the forest and forget the trees, Shruti. In this case, I’ve also made it a point to look at the trees, as well, to explain the forest. But the argument here is not actually so much about the individuals which is, they are just carriers of these ideas. It is more structural argument, where you provide a cognitive map of what was happening within the state. It’s more of a structural argument rather than an agency-centric argument, so to speak.
It was not one individual or one person who has done it. It was actually the body of ideas which has moved in a certain direction, and individuals are just treated as carriers of these norms. It is the political context within which these individuals operate. The political context was different during the Emergency, and the political context changes later on, and so on and so forth.
But what is important is this: what binds these individuals is this common idea of, there should be no secrecy. There should be more openness because India is a democratic country. Why only Atal Bihari Vajpayee—even Advani, for instance. Actually, I have praised that Advani was the part of the chairmen of the GOM, the group of ministers, which was constituted during the India government in the late ’90s. Advani was known for his stance on Official Secrets Act—that it should be amended, and so on and so forth.
Ram Jethmalani, for instance—in fact, he was the first one who actually opened up the files for scrutiny when he was the minister of urban development during the Vajpayee government. These were the connections which, actually, these individuals carry. But the whole point is that ideas have moved in a certain direction over time.
Principal-Agent Problem with the Permanent Bureaucracy
RAJAGOPALAN: Another question I had—which you don’t go into much detail in the book, though you talk a fair bit about the bureaucracy—is, do you think that the political class, which, technically, governments don’t have it in their interest to pass these right-to-information laws, but on the other hand, there is also a principal-agent problem between the elected executive and the permanent executive, which is the bureaucracy.
We can caricaturize this by watching Yes Minister or something like that, where the bureaucracy is also constantly hiding information from their own ministers. Or it can take some very dire and rather extortive and corrupt forms, as we see with the Indian state, where the bureaucrats are, in a sense, the residual claimants of the extreme rents and corruptions that rise from the Indian state. Do you think the Right to Information Act is also a way of the politicians or the elected class to keep the permanent executive in check?
JHA: Sure. In fact, that is the puzzle which actually is highlighted in the book itself, right in the beginning there. This Indian state is viewed as a state which is captured by this nexus of vested interest. You have this argument about patronage democracy, clientelism, rent seeking, and so on and so forth. Why would a state initiate something like this, which would be used variously to hide the very nexus which is set to govern these institutions?
As we all know, right to information was instrumental in exposing a lot of scams. Why only permanent executive? Even political executive was actually open to scrutiny because of right to information. The permanent executive was always hesitant because information is also power. There was always this hesitancy to give away this power. But this uncertainty was completely removed once the ideas reached a certain threshold. In this case, ideas had actually changed to state thinking and the state preferences, so that it becomes a sine qua non within the state. It becomes something that you have to.
Even though bureaucrats at a broader level were opposed to this idea, but there were sympathetic bureaucrats who were working from within the system. This is the beauty of the latter half of the epistemic network that I talk about, where the bureaucrats were also part of this epistemic network, and they were working from both within and outside the state to actually vouch for this law.
In fact, this kind of hesitancy is even seen after the Right to Information was enacted. There’s always this hesitancy to part with information whenever you file right to information, which I actually faced when I was filing right to information to write this book because I’ve used a lot of internal government documents to support my arguments. That is happening. There’s another churning, which is taking place after Right to Information Act was promulgated, between this nested norm of secrecy and the new norm of openness, which has come on the ground.
RAJAGOPALAN: When we think of the state normally, even though you have tried to layer and explain these categories as elected executive versus permanent executive and so on, it’s not that the incentives of every member of the permanent executive are always aligned towards secrecy or always aligned towards transparency, right? Once we start getting into it, we realize that very often, when these incentives don’t align, the right to information might be a good instrument even in the hands of the government, right?
For instance, Rajiv Gandhi famously talked about how, for every rupee that is spent by the government, 85 paise dissipate in corruption through middlemen, and 15 percent or less actually reaches the intended beneficiary. On this, I think, even the elected representatives have a very big incentive to put in instruments like the right to information for accountability at lower levels because whenever they create a welfare program, it never reaches the intended beneficiary.
As your opening example in the book suggests, there are people, ordinary people, who are below poverty line who are beneficiaries to a particular housing program or to a particular employment guarantee scheme or something like that, are now in a position to check the corruption at the lowest level in a way that the union executive—permanent or elected—can never check the bureaucracy or the officials at that low level. In a way, this also gives a lot more power to different actors of the state to discipline other actors within the state itself.
JHA: Sure, that’s an important aspect, Shruti. This has actually been highlighted on numerous occasions on the ground. Believe it or not, Bihar is a case in point. This is part of my work, which is not part of this book because the book would have become unwieldy if this was part of this whole story. When Nitish Kumar came to power in 2006, 2005, after the RJD regime, this whole push was towards governance, governance, governance.
The right to information was actually a way for Nitish Kumar to showcase the citizen or the public that he was actually serious about this governance business. Believe it or not, Bihar was the first state to establish something called Jaankari, an RTI call center. Jaankari translates in English as “information.” People from any part of Bihar could actually call to this call center—all they needed was a mobile phone or a BSNL connection—and actually file a right to information.
In fact, on the ground, I have talked to the village mukhiyas or the BDOs, the block development officers. They have said, “Gone are the days when we could actually just do anything we want in the files because there would always be groups who would be filing RTIs, and we are always open for the scrutiny.” The culture of secrecy has given way to this culture of scrutiny, culture of accountability, a culture of more openness. During the first 60 years, the governance processes were carried out under the veil of secrecy. This veil, at many levels, has been lifted.
Transparency and Power
RAJAGOPALAN: One, of course, the core reason is secrecy. My sense is that the RTI has also toppled other power structures, typically the people who are the pradhan or the mukhiya, or even those who are the BDOs or the officials in a particular village environment. They tend to be upper caste, right? They tend to be from a particular kind of socioeconomic class and status. And the people who are typically the beneficiaries of the program are really the most marginalized and disenfranchised. So how do they actually hold people accountable, not just in the sense of a state and citizen relationship, but also now in the sense of caste relationships or gender relationships or other power structures?
What I find very interesting is that the RTI can help members of disenfranchised groups hold other groups that have caste privilege accountable, which is not the intended goal of the RTI, but it has this incredibly powerful mechanism of transforming those relationships.
JHA: Absolutely, Shruti. I completely agree with you. When I did my fieldwork in Bihar in 2014–15, I wondered. The state, the district office, the district magistrate’s office or the BDO always had this unfavorable view of RTI users—that they are blackmailers. “They are unnecessarily troubling us.” There’s a lot of backlog—what has been called bureaucratic overloading, and so on and so forth. Who are these users which the state actually views so unfavorably?
So I dug a little deep into this whole story. I found out that there are one-off users of RTI who just use RTI once to get something from the state, but there are these habitual RTI users who are popularly known as RTI activists, who actually form the core of RTI regimes. I call them agents of accountability.
You have this argument about elite agency of local intermediaries, who actually are linkmen between the modern state and the traditional society, what Anirudh Krishna calls naya netas, or way back in the late ’70s, Rosenthal calls the expansive elites. This is a new kind of agency, which actually does not engage with the state but get their dominance from actually seeking accountability from the state. These agents of accountability are an important constituency of the whole RTI regime, which puts constant pressure on the state at the local level.
RAJAGOPALAN: The really interesting thing about this is that it is not just a small group of activists. Now, this group has really multiplied across all states and across different constituencies, across different villages and newspapers even, right? You see a lot of regional newspaper journalists routinely filing RTI applications.
In India, it’s one of the few countries where an RTI application is so powerful that it may even make you a target of the state. RTI activists have been threatened. They’ve been threatened with their life if they try to hold the state accountable past a point. That just gives you a sense of how much the state-citizen relationship has changed, in some sense, and the fact that pretty much anyone can file an RTI application for any reason. Now, the implementation aside, the mere act of filing itself gives people a certain power, status, and agency.
JHA: Absolutely. It gives them a sense of entitlement, empowerment. It also gives them a feeling of a state which is accessible to them. I will give you an interesting example of how the local RTI is actually contributing towards empowerment. This is, again, a story from Bihar because that is the state which I’ve actually studied. There was this minority group, a young, educated person from this minority group in a village in a place called Jhanjharpur in Bihar.
Note, Bihar is a very backward state, a very backward district, of course, known for its corrupt nexus on the ground, as is the case in Bihar everywhere.
This young man from the local village actually came back from his trips. He used to live in Delhi. He realized that members from his own community were not getting jobs under MGNREGS, or are not getting the benefits of the government schemes. What he started doing was, he started filing the right to information. He faced a lot of backlash from the local village head, who was called a mukhyia, the BDO, also the district magistrate.
Because this guy was educated, he filed RTI regularly. Because he was getting rights for his own community, other people in the villages also started approaching him for help. That created an alternate axis of power in the village where the mukhyia was no more the axis of power. It was another axis of power in the village located in the minority community. It was a by-product of RTI. It created multiple axes of power in the village, which was actually a unique thing to see in a place like Bihar, which is like the Wild Wild West.
RAJAGOPALAN: You have, of course, given us a very grassroots micro-level example, but even at the highest level, one of the things that occurred to me was the recent Prime Minister’s PM CARES Fund that Prime Minister Modi, of course, instituted because of the pandemic, and he requested all companies and individuals to contribute to it. This fund is outside the purview of the right to information. The very fact that it was left outside the purview of RTI itself caused such a furor.
Even leaving something outside the business of the RTI is a very strong signal that a particular government institution does not wish to be accountable like the judiciary or, in this case, the PM CARES Fund. I thought that was quite incredible that the first question raised about this fund was why it was outside the realm of the right to information, which tells us how much people rely on it as a source of holding the government accountable, or even just basic information about government spending, which we don’t easily get.
Even the prime minister has been embarrassed on various occasions on how much he spends on international visits, or how much the government is spending, for instance, on advertising its various programs on important days, and so on and so forth. It’s not just the BDO or the sarpanch. That, to me, is quite an incredible change or shift.
One cannot imagine asking Indira Gandhi such questions or Prime Minister Nehru such questions, not because the press didn’t ask them questions, but because this kind of shift had not taken place in what kinds of accountability may be demanded from the government.
JHA: Yes. It is because of this, I think, at the very outset when the Right to Information was actually promulgated, we witnessed these constant efforts by the ruling party, not only the current government, but even previous governments, to actually dilute the Right to Information law.
First, there was this amendment introduced to exclude the file notings, exclude the political parties. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his misgivings publicly in a lot of public speeches about the right to information and how it is actually an extra load on the government, and so on, so forth. And of course, the recent 2019 amendment, which has actually taken somewhat of an autonomy away from the regulators of RTI, which are the information commissioners or the information commissions.
Demand and Supply of Transparency
JHA: Despite that, you see that RTI has been used extensively across the country. In fact, under the proactive disclosure, government itself opens up certain information in the public domain. For instance, these amendments itself—the DOPT, the Department of Personnel and Training, actually came out in the open, saying that this was actually just suggested as an ordinance by the DOPT, but the PMO had shot it down. Or that the Farmers Bill[s]—the agricultural minister had not consulted the farmers’ groups as opposed—that came through an RTI.
The important question for future research, Shruti—and hopefully, fingers crossed, my future book—would be at one level, there are RTI users, which is the demand side of RTI, and another level, these are the information givers, which is the supply side of RTI. So, in what cases the government opens up and in what cases it shuts for its citizens—that is something which is interesting, which needs to be probed deeper.
As you said, the prime minister’s travel, how much money the prime minister’s office spends on the ads—there’s always a barrage of these RTI applications, right from the PMO level to the BDO office, which I think itself is a very fascinating thing and a new thing in Indian democracy.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s great that you’ve taken this direction in the conversation because I did want to talk to you about what happens in the future. I have questions of two sorts. One is, in some sense, if you think of this as the citizens as those demanding, and the state as the supplier of information or access, each RTI application is an individual case where that particular agent may or may not open their files, or may or may not provide access. Of course, there is that kind of an implementation issue.
The second is an overall norm that the state and its various agencies decide to follow. As you said, initially, there was a norm of secrecy, and now increasingly, there’s a norm of transparency. What we saw in the first decade or so of the RTI implementation was a lot of the individual case-by-case violations or support to access. Now what we are seeing with the Modi government and all this talk about greater centralization, greater opacity, and so on—do you worry that the systematic norm of transparency is going to slowly start going back in reverse?
JHA: As a social scientist, Shruti, I wouldn’t like to comment on a moving target, but I would give it a go.
Even though there were 2019 amendments to the Right to Information—not the Right to Information per se, but the emoluments and the salaries and the position of the information commissioners—even then you see the law of RTI being filed by the citizens and citizens group at all federal levels.
Unless the government countermands the norm of openness, unless they take it or withdraw it completely, the power of seeking information is now in the hands of the citizens. It depends on how much citizens actually use RTI. The strength of RTI depends on the power of seeking information. Once citizens lose interest in seeking information from the state, it’s only then that RTI would actually be countermanded or RTI would actually recede in the background.
At least now, I don’t see this happening. In fact, as we speak, just a couple of months back in, again, a case from Bihar, 206 activists actually collectively approached the Central Information Commissioner, where they claim that false cases have been filed against them because they sought information from the public authorities.
These things are happening even now. There are citizens groups like National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, which said that after the Right to Information 2019 amendments, they will file a thousand right-to-information applications per month. There are citizens groups who have taken it on their own to file right to information. I think now the ball is out in the open. Unless somebody decides to take away the ball, the game will go on. If the ball is taken out of the equation, the game will be stopped. That’s my take.
RAJAGOPALAN: The only tools that the government has right now are things like what they did with the PM CARES Fund, which is excluded from the realm of RTI. They don’t have too much space to maneuver because they can’t seriously influence the demand side, which is the applications from the citizens, unless over a decade or two, they frustrate citizens’ efforts so much that the movement dies. But unilaterally, there’s not much they can do about that.
JHA: Absolutely. That’s why the core of RTI, the agents of accountability, are so important. In fact, even individual citizens know that once you file an RTI, it generates some kind of response from the system. Even individuals know it—that RTI has power, right to information and information has power.
There was this study by this NGO group called Satark Nagrik Sangathan. They said that 70% of the right-to-information applications are seeking information which should have been in public domain anyway. That’s another issue which needs to be considered by the current government, and also future governments, where they have to look into the kind of information which is sought and should be proactively disclosed. In fact, this comes under RTI. RTI gives provisions for proactive disclosure.
That’s another thing which I think the government—if they want to come across as a government which supports openness—should actually initiate. At the micro level in some departments at the state level, this has actually happened, where they have actually looked at the right-to-information applications, kind of information sought. They have proactively put that information on their portal.
Role of Civil Society and Grassroots Movements
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to move on to the last aspect which is in the book, which is the grassroots movement and the civil society movement. The grassroots movement actually supported what was done by the opposition and the judiciary and the various committees and the epistemic networks—everything that we talked about.
How did the grassroots movement actually support that? And how did they create the tipping point for when it actually happened in 2005? Because there was a number of grassroots movements simultaneously gathering steam just before the RTI passed.
JHA: I acknowledge the role of grassroots movement or the social network or the epistemic network that I just talked about. But had the state thinking not moved in a favorable direction, they would have dealt with the same social movement or the same social network very differently. The state thinking or the transformation of ideas within the state is important. This is what this book claims.
I also go into the whole social movement and the grassroots movement. The biggest contribution of this grassroots movement was the framing of this whole issue—that information with the public authorities or the information at the local level is key to other rights, like right to fair wages or right to work or right to land or right to livelihood. This was the framing which was done by the grassroots movement.
When MKSS started its work in Rajasthan, it was around, mainly, the livelihood issues—fair wages, and so on and so forth. They knew that to put this claim to the state, they need the information from the state, and this information is the key to their claim. So, the main demand from these movements was that the right to know is the right to live because the right to live is related to right to work. I think the framing of this movement was so very important. That is one.
The second thing which was very important was, this movement actually acted as a catalyst for forming linkages from both within and outside the state. You had linkages from the different village leaders, different village activists, activists from around India, but you also have these horizontal linkages with the local state officials, or the officials at the apex level, the Department of Rural Development. These linkages were formed during the movement as well, which were—in the book, I have argued—initial signs of epistemic network being forced together.
This was actually the main push from the movement, and that’s why . . . I’m not saying social movement is not important. What I’m saying is social moment is important in the context of how the ideas within the state had reached a certain threshold. It’s somewhat complicated but also very simple in that sense.
Global Versus Local Norms
RAJAGOPALAN: A second aspect that I thought that the grassroots movements helped a lot is the last discussion that you have in the book which is about global versus local norms.
In one sense, freedom of information is one of those things that every liberal democracy must have. It is promoted in a big way as a best practice by all your international agencies that we talked about. There are lots of governments in Asia and Africa where the governments do a terrible job, but on paper, they have amazing freedom of information.
Alex Tabarrok and I have talked about how, in India, we have this elite imitation, this premature imitation where we import these best practices from different countries, and they just don’t work very well.
But I think in the case of right to information, the other thing that these civil society groups—in particular, the grassroots movements like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan [MKSS] and so on—did was, they rooted in a very specific local context, which, as you pointed out, is access to all the welfare entitlements that the state has already promised and budgeted for the people, but is not able to reach the people simply because they don’t have the information.
I think that contextualization of how this works in India—most people are not interested in what is going on with the border in Pakistan or China. Most people are interested in, “I was promised an LPG gas cylinder three years ago, and it hasn’t reached me.” If we don’t contextualize it that way, in some sense, it never penetrates the state establishment. The people are really not going after these national security issues that we’re trying to covet in our secret files. It’s really things that we’ve already promised them and that we were working so hard towards delivering to them. Right?
JHA: Yes. The whole issue of global norms—there is literature which talks about this global norm diffusion from global to the local. But norms matter as far as the political context or the domestic context are taken into consideration.
You are absolutely right, the social movement actually provided that local context, but not only social movement. It was also the ongoing discourse which was actually taking place in India since 1947, with the opposition parties and the ruling party, with the judiciary, with the reports of the government committees, and so on and so forth, within the Parliament. It is within this endogenous discourse, endogenous churning of ideas that global norms have to be understood.
One role that I have called is this whole contribution of norm demonstration. Global norms had a demonstrative impact on the ongoing domestic discourse. As a democracy, other countries are having freedom-of-information or access-to-information laws. As a mature democracy, we should have one too. There were debates in the Parliament where they cited these laws, and so on and so forth. Also, when the mainstreaming happened and the ideas had reached a certain threshold, the government committees actually looked at these specific laws.
The second thing, which Amitav Acharya calls norm localization, is something very important to consider. In this, the global norms are not just adapted as passively as best practices, but they are calibrated, as you rightly pointed out, Shruti, according to the local discourse, local needs, and so on and so forth. The norms are borrowed, but actually localized and embedded in the local discourse and contexts.
These are the two arguments that this book actually talks about. In fact, global norms, by the way, is another silent issue. When we talk about the dominant narratives, nobody actually talks about the role of global norms when they explain the evolution of RTI. I think that’s one of the important aspects that one needs to untangle to explain the evolution of right to information.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s probably the strength of why it has taken so well in the grass roots and why there is so much demand-side support, as you mentioned.
JHA: Absolutely, yes.
Institutional Change and Institutional Persistence
RAJAGOPALAN: At the head of the conversation, you said that RTI is a case study, from your point of view, of studying institutional change and persistence. That’s really what you’re trying to understand. Can this kind of lens be used to study, say, other types of institutional changes or these tipping points and moments that we’ve had?
I know, and you reference this—some of the work done by Rahul Mukherji on, say, the 1991 reforms and the liberalization that followed. But do you think this can also be applied to the other social movements?
A lot of people are now talking about how the moment has arrived for something like the Uniform Civil Code, which has ebbed and flowed and been debated over 70, 75 years. But people say now, the moment has arrived. Of course, we don’t know if that’s going to happen or not in terms of law. Do you think a similar lens can be used to study all these different rules and laws and norms? Or do you think each one is contextual in a very, very specific idea and environment, and this cannot be replicated? What you’ve done—it cannot be replicated?
JHA: It can be surely replicated. Of course, one has to locate it in a certain political context. What are these interconnections across timeline, and whether this whole moment has come because of the long-drawn churning process that I have shown in the book.
Rahul Mukherji shows that, for him, ’91 was the case of institutional change because a lot of things changed after ’91. A lot of things which were put in motion after ’91 have not been countermanded.
So, it depends on the case. Not every case of change is an institutional-change case unless there is what Douglass North calls change in the rules of the game—informal or formal rules of the game or the standard operating procedures. Unless there’s a policy departure from the previous regime, unless the change is both de jure and de facto, it cannot be claimed as a change in institution or institutional change.
However, there can be change in policy paradigms, for instance. I think instead of having a snapshot view of explaining change, it is very useful to have a historical-institutional approach to explain changes in policy paradigms. In a complex democracy in India, with various pulls and pressures at multiple levels, I think this is a very useful lens to examine other cases of policy paradigms as well.
You cannot pinpoint the exact threshold when that change happens, but if ideas actually reach a certain threshold, the system is set to be tipped over. This is like an earthquake model of change. Tectonic plates under the Earth’s surface shift over time, earthquake happens, and what seems sudden is actually not sudden. It is a long-drawn process. This is a very useful lens to explain how changes happen in India, or a complex country like India.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s also really important to highlight two things. One is not just the idea, and that ideas matter, which, of course, you do in such great detail, but also that this is a constant process, and it’s not linear. It will ebb and flow. There will be moments when transparency is suddenly the flavor of the day and committees will be instituted and things will happen, but sometimes you will also regress. It might be because of a war, or it might be because of something else, or emergency that is imposed, exogenous or endogenous.
It’s going to be put on the back burner, but maybe a decade later, the same people will again revisit that idea. What is really important for very long-run institutional change, as you mentioned, is that epistemic network is vibrant and consistent so that whenever the moment arrives in terms of actually passing a statute and signing on it, all the work has been done, all the contextualization has been done, all the interests have been spoken with, and all the consensus and bridges have been built so that that’s the moment when it can actually happen.
JHA: Yes. That also leads to robust laws and robust policy changes. Changes which happen quickly or very quickly without consensus actually don’t reach a fruitful conclusion.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and they’re also easy to reverse.
JHA: Absolutely. They can be easily withdrawn, whereas something like this, which is long-drawn, cannot be easily withdrawn or reversed. On a lighter note, you can argue that every 70 years, stars align in a certain manner, and institutions change in India. That can also happen. You are absolutely right about how ideas are negotiated.
RAJAGOPALAN: Though this is not the purpose of your book, I would recommend everyone reads it to understand how democracy really works.
RAJAGOPALAN: Now, I want to move on and ask you a little bit about you. You mentioned that this is your doctoral work. I wanted to ask you, what was your intellectual journey like up to the point where you became a political scientist and then eventually wrote this book?
JHA: That’s something which, again, takes me back to history, Shruti. I have my undergrad in history, so I’ve got this bad habit of going back to history and explaining everything through historical lens.
The seeds of this research can be actually traced back to my involvement in the developmental sector in India, where I worked from 2004 to 2011, a long seven years. As part of this work, I was involved in this policy think tank, advocacy think tank called Social Watch, where we used to examine or scrutinize the performance of the institutions of governance: the Parliament, the judiciary, the executive and the institutions of local governance. Every year, we used to take out this report, which was called Social Watch Report.
It also coincided with the time when these rights-based legislations were enacted in India, around 2005, 2006, but there were rights and there were rights. Right to information, according to me, was this dramatic right, which was not the same as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. National Rural Employment Guarantee Act had a policy precursor. Right to Information had no policy precursor. There was no continuity. In fact, Right to Information represents a policy departure.
At that point of time, I was also engaged with right-to-information activists. I remember I had done this program where we heard fascinating stories of how RTI was used by citizens in collaboration with UNDP, and there was this organization called Kabir which was actually run by now the deputy chief minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia.
There were settled narratives about Right to Information, how it came about. Of course, Aruna Roy is known to me. In fact, she endorses this book from those days. There were settled narratives about that. People had researched it, but surely, I knew from common knowledge that there was more to the story than just this dominant settled narrative.
That brought me back to the drawing board where I tried to connect the dots. Of course, a similar work was already being done by Rahul Mukherji. There was an ideational cohort which formed at the National University of Singapore where this doctoral work was started. I kept a distance from my doctoral work for about one or two, three years before I actually started again working on this book in Heidelberg.
RAJAGOPALAN: How did you become a political scientist? Was this always the plan? Or was it the work that you describe that led you, and you realized political science is the best way to study this problem?
JHA: I am a political scientist, but I am a political scientist who actually has his heart in praxis, in the sense that I like to engage in action-oriented research because my M.Phil. is also in public policy. At Social Watch, I was engaged in advocacy work, more grassroots-oriented work. That brought me closer to political science.
Of course, as a discipline, as a scholar, I was always rooted in political science. I have a master’s in political science. I have an M.Phil. in public policy. That brought me closer to the whole subject area of . . . Politics can explain a lot of things which actually happen on the ground. That led me to engage with political science at a deeper level. Doctoral work or doctoral degree is like getting a driving license to drive on the roads.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re also part of this resurgence of looking at this kind of social change through the lens of political science, and also careful empirical work. If you look at what Tariq Thachil is doing, or Adam Auerbach or Gabi Kruks-Wisner—they’re all looking at how people are negotiating change between citizens and state, and in different local context and subgroups.
You, of course, tell a much longer arc of the story relative to some others, but I think this is making a comeback in Indian political science at the moment, and a very fresh and welcome comeback, in one sense.
JHA: Yes. This book, actually, in many senses, brings the state and the ideas back in, the whole political science lexicon. The next leg of this research, where I actually look at how RTI is being used, is something which would be closer to Gabi’s work or Tariq’s work or Adam’s work. The work which talks about the evolution story is actually more historically grounded, longue durée review of political science. You don’t just look at the picture, but you look at the whole series of pictures spread over across the timeline.
RAJAGOPALAN: I know exactly what you mean because I wrote my doctoral work on amendments to the Indian Constitution, and it was a very similar effort on my end to look at what’s the role of ideas and the role of interest groups in negotiating constitutional change. This kind of long-arc view before you take the snapshot picture—I think that legwork is difficult to do, and certainly incredibly important.
What are you currently working on, other than the implementation element of RTI? Anything interesting that you’re reading or writing that you can share with us?
JHA: Yes. Apart from the RTI work that I want to expand on, I’m also looking at this whole question of state capacity—not only state capacity in terms of broader state capacity of the state, but also the state capacity in terms of how weak states develop state capacity.
There’s this whole body of literature which talks about state capacity in pockets. I want to extend that argument forward and test it in the field through cases where even some weak states have showed remarkable capacity to formulate and implement public policies. This is something which I want to expand on in future. Fingers crossed. Hopefully, somebody is able to fund it, Shruti.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is interesting because a lot of people have asked me this question about India in recent times. One was when the elections were happening in the United States, and there was a big lag before the results could be announced, and so on. Suddenly, all eyes were on, “Oh, how does India actually logistically manage to do what it does, which is, potentially, count, six, seven hundred million votes and announce the results fairly quickly?”
Another instance, just a couple of days ago, where someone was asking me about how India manages to do what it does with its state capacity is the current vaccination drive, how even developed countries are really struggling with vaccine delivery. Some part of it is, of course, vaccine development and science and research, but the last mile is all logistics and supply chain. It’s the delivery mechanism. India is used to doing things on a larger scale than virtually most other countries in the world, except maybe China.
A lot of people have been asking me this repeatedly—pockets of high state capacity and effectiveness nested within an overall weak state. I think that’s a fascinating line of research.
JHA: Yes, Shruti. This whole “’state capacity in a weak state” argument is rooted in bringing the ideas, the rationality of the state back in, the role of the state back in. COVID is the context within which we have to actually consider it, where we have seen this whole push for privatization and private entities have not actually been in focus. The state has actually come back in a big way.
Even at the subnational level, for instance Bihar and UP are a case in point, where they have actually managed COVID quite impressively. Even within this whole micro subnational level, there are cases where, in pockets, weak states have shown remarkable capacity.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process?
JHA: I like to listen to jazz, and then I like to write. For me, the writing process is a creative process, but it’s also, in a way, a process which is quite state-like. It’s a process which is more bureaucratic in the sense.
I set targets for myself. I’m a lazy guy, Shruti. If I don’t set targets for myself, I tend to procrastinate. I keep it off. My writing process is creative plus bureaucratic in the sense that I give targets to myself. For instance, every day, I will write 500 words or 1,000 words, or something like that.
Dave Brubeck is one of the classics that I like to listen to. Not only Dave Brubeck, but a mix of jazz music which is there on Apple stream or something like that. Of course, action movies, whenever . . . Yesterday night, I purchased the new Justice League movie, the new Snyder cut. There goes my writing for this weekend because it’s a four-hour movie. That’s my writing process, actually.
This is for somebody who is still thinking about writing a book or an article, and also for younger scholars who are in the process of writing. Collecting the material and how you categorize this material is very important. This is what I tell my students as well, that you have to do a mapping of the material that you have in front of you.
I always give this example of making a movie where you do a mapping of the movie, blow it scene by scene, and then you finish up a movie. Similar exercise needs to be done when you start thinking on writing something, rather than just writing from your stream of consciousness.
RAJAGOPALAN: You storyboard, basically. It’s like you storyboard a movie. You storyboard and outline a book.
JHA: Absolutely. It’s difficult. That’s why I say it’s boring and also bureaucratic. Writing process is a mix of creative and bureaucratic process.
RAJAGOPALAN: During the pandemic, this is the most important question that I ask everybody—what are you binge-watching?
JHA: Oh, my gosh, a lot of things, Shruti, which has to match with my wife’s and family’s proclivities. For instance, Crown was something which we binge-watched. On my iPad, I binge-watched the Cobra Kai series, which goes back to the Karate Kid. I watched that.
RAJAGOPALAN: I loved it too. They keep changing the underdog.
JHA: Of course, the Indian series, like Mirzapur and Paatal Lok, the Panchayat which was pretty fascinating. That’s what I’ve been binge-watching. Probably that’s what explains my eye bags, Shruti.
RAJAGOPALAN: [laughs] Well, we’ve got to keep busy during the pandemic. This was such a pleasure, Himanshu. Thank you so much for doing this.
JHA: Pleasure, Shruti. Good to talk to you.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Virginia Postrel about the history of textiles and the history of human progress.