Please Study Political Science – But Not Just to Sit for UPSC Exams

Many of today's aspiring political scientists use the course as a tool to crack the civil services code, thereby losing the loftier goals at the heart of the discipline.

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I have taught political science in the postgraduate department of Delhi University for many long years, therefore, the news that the subject is in great demand by school leavers cannot but be gratifying to me. But why do they choose one discipline over the other?

The response by some of our aspiring political scientists is that they wish to crack the prized UPSC code. Certainly, young people have the right to choose what they want to do with their lives – and I wish them well. But the idea that a flagship B.A. Honours course in political science – which Greek thinker Aristotle had called the ‘master science’ – is little more than a study course run by random and dubious teaching shops, definitely dampens any sentiment of gratification. The larger, more ambitious project of the discipline has simply gone missing.

There has to be something more to political science simply because the discipline provides a ready battleground for clashes of opinions. Politics is always contested and knowledge about how politics is organised – and how it should be organised – is bound to be contested. In this battleground, different groups compete for power and control over ideas and thought processes.

Nothing excites the immoderate passions of ideologically inclined groups more than a proposed change to the syllabi in Delhi University and other universities as well.  After all, political science encourages students to think. The last thing a ruling class – particularly one that prizes mediocrity and even ignorance – wants are citizens who think, for thinking is primarily an insurrectionary act. 

That is why, across the world, ruling elites and compliant vice-chancellors have tried to downplay the role of humanities and the social sciences in universities. Young people are offered apolitical courses which will enable them to become another cog in the machine of power and the market, instead of social science and humanities courses that create informed minds and expand imaginations. Is that what a university is about?

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On December 17, 2010, celebrated literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote a piece on universities in the Guardian. Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, he wrote, there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic syllabi, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or a corporate research institute. When students and teachers explain the rush for political science because of the attraction of applied courses, they do an injustice to the grand project of discipline and of its core: political theory.

Witness the achievement of political theory over the age. It has transported the supreme values of justice, freedom, equality and rights, from some dense academic tomes to the political platforms of, occasionally, sensitive governments and to the agendas of democratic civil societies.  

There are, of course, other ways to depoliticise reflective and critical disciplines. One is to banish essays or books that interrogate or ridicule power through schoolboy bullying tactics. The recent hysteria over the inclusion of the magnificent piece Draupadi by Mahasweta Devi in the syllabus of Delhi University’s English department and the demand that it be expelled is one such instance. Groups that blindly follow a ‘nationalist’ agenda obviously do not know that imaginative and resourceful university teachers, who bravely pursue their academic tasks in the shadow of censorship, vigilantism and authoritarianism, can subvert even bland literature and poetry. They can do so by imparting knowledge of the techniques of destabilisation to their students. 

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One of my favourite detectives is Kate Fansler, a professor of English literature and protagonist of the detective series authored by Amanda Cross (the name adopted by the late Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a professor of English literature and an academic feminist.) Fansler is asked at the end of one of the novels how she managed to discover the murderer. “I am a professor of English literature,” she replied, “I know how to read between the lines of a text”.

The academic trick is not to saddle students with masses of information; the trick is to teach them to read between the lines; to destabilise accepted meanings; to uncover hidden subversions and to reveal the questions that great literature asks of the human condition. The heart of political science and political theory accomplishes precisely this.

Many years ago, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that political theory will never become a science because it asks normative questions. And normative questions, he continued, “remain obstinately philosophical”. It is difficult to define philosophy but roughly, to think philosophically is to cultivate a critical and reflective mind that asks challenging questions on the “way we are” and “what we could be”.

The distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought to be’ is crucial to normative political theory, which overlaps with philosophy. Whereas philosophy tells us how to lead a good life, political theory teaches us that we cannot live a good life unless we live in a society that strives to be a good society. 

Think of the main preoccupation of philosophers: freedom. Now think: Can we be free when governments crack down on anyone who dares to voice an opinion that does not satisfy the bloated egos of power-holders?  Can we be free in a society where people are humiliated for reasons they have no control over, such as birth into a community that is stigmatised as inferior or as the enemy, for perverse reasons? Can we be free in a country which does not respect the basic codes of justice; that every citizen is entitled to the same opportunities as her fellow citizens?

The question that logically follows is: How can we neutralise the multiple constraints that cripple the human capacity to be, well, human?

Political theorists who think about the good society enable us to ask, once again, the eternal questions that prominent political philosophers have asked since time immemorial. That is why political theory also overlaps with great literature; literature that is inspiring and transformative.

The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is known as one of the best opening lines in literature: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The sentence triggers reflection. Perhaps happiness is overvalued; perhaps it is an illusion; perhaps it is simply banal. Great literature is born out of unhappiness and tragedy and yet, it upholds the autonomy of the human will. Similarly, great political theory is not a mere litany of ills that confine human beings; it tells us how to overcome these constraints.

Take Karl Marx. The bodies of workers which constitute the core of his society are scarred with the violence of capitalist exploitation and other injustices. Yet Marx’s working class can stand up and speak back to history. Workers can make their own histories.

Political theory speaks of the tragedies of human existence; of poverty, injustice, exploitation, discrimination, the commodification of labour and of the dehumanisation of humankind. It addresses the political predicaments of the day, but it also inspires us to discover a way out. And crucially, political theory explores the many meanings of concepts that form the bedrock of our collective political existence; the state, the nation, the market, and ideology. It tells us that there are other meanings that the nation holds in political imaginations; a collective where no one is discriminated against because of their caste, religion, gender and ethnicity; where everyone is a citizen with equal rights. This is a civic nation as opposed to an ethnic nation. 

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The ability to distinguish between different meanings a concept holds and to work out which meaning proves convenient to the ruling class enables us to discriminate between the notion of democracy as elections and a democracy that delivers on its basic promise: the respect for the inherent dignity of human beings. This is the way human beings should be treated, nothing less.

Let political science and political imaginations be harnessed to this noble objective. This, every aspiring IAS officer should learn because it is only then that they will be able to distinguish between legitimate protest and illegitimate state power. 

The lessons of political theory, like those of literature cannot be proved in the way we prove a scientific experiment. Nor do they need to be proved in quite this way. Human beings are not inert matter; they are essentially interpretive. More significantly, they can bring moral judgement to bear on the issues of the day. Political theory gives knowledge and knowledge brings humility that educates the mind. We must ask questions of the political condition, for a society that does not ask questions degenerates and decays; it descends into the slough of ignorance. And ignorance encourages us to accept the vocabularies of power holders as self-evident truths, howsoever absurd these vocabularies might be.  Knowledge inspires us to understand that power must be resisted if it exceeds limits of acceptability.

To sum up, I hope young people, who have turned their backs on market-oriented disciplines and towards reflective and interrogative science as knowledge, learn the lessons of political theory: solidarity, freedom, equality and justice, human rights and obligations towards fellow citizens. These lessons grant energy and relevance to other fields of the subject. I know that our bright young people want to go beyond the ‘breaking news’ that often befuddles the mind and numbs the senses. They have to be taught how to bring an informed a historical perspective to the question of how we arrived at where we are today.

I sincerely hope that future political scientists will know the distinction between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’, learn that we need not live with ‘what is’ and commit to the idea that it is possible to transform the world according to the principle of ‘what ought to be’. I devoutly hope that young people will come to know the difference between knowledge and information. And above all I hope that they will learn that the task of scholars is to speak back to history and engage with power. 

Political scientists will probably never become advisors to government, but they can become the conscience of their society because they know the difference between the constitution and the hastily enacted laws pushed by a government; between the government and the state and between the nation and the government.  Above all, I hope they realise that the subject teaches them to bring normative considerations to bear upon the great questions of the day. It is only then that they will discover the virtue of a good which we seem to have misplaced in India; that of justice. And justice is a concept that continues to obsess political theorists.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.