A contagion of littleness

The rot in our institutions stems from individual insecurities

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:August 7, 2013 5:23 am

The rot in our institutions stems from individual insecurities

Our institutions now present a dismal spectacle. Attempts to address one crisis are immediately subverted by another. There is no stable context for arguments. What shall we address: The dreary logjam in Parliament? The corrosion of the Supreme Court’s authority brought about not just by the spectacular bluntness and lack of clarity in its judgments,but also by public dirty linen-washing by judges? The decimation of universities as sites of free speech? The death of the IAS? We could go on. It is almost as if a deep contagion has spread through democracy,infecting every institution in its wake,as if an undiscriminating tide of narcissism and envy is drowning all the good news. Gandhi rightly thought that behind every political malaise,there is a deep psychological disfigurement,and narcissism and envy may well be ours.

Narcissism is easy to identify and is deadly for a democracy. It is self obsessed. Democracies are successful when they provide a way of figuring out “all things considered” solutions,where different interests,views,judgements are negotiated to the extent possible. Instead,every single deliberative intervention we have now is “only my thing considered and no other thing considered”. Every assertion is preceded by a totalising “my”: my state,my ethnicity,my caste,my interests,my industry,my beliefs,my institution,even my folly. And even where we agree on what should be done,I should be the one doing it. These assertions,made largely by self-appointed elites,do not even have the dignity of being mutinies,revolts of disempowered constituencies. They are a myriad narcissisms run amok, producing a logjam.

All those worried about democracy have worried about envy as a democratic vice. Envy pulls down all achievement. And often it is a hypocritical envy: we don’t resent the idea of privilege or achievement. We resent that others have it. Is the resentment against “lal batti,” a genuine popular aversion on principle? Or is it the envy of those who feel entitled to it but don’t have it? There is something about our public culture that is relentless in its quest for indiscriminate tearing down of all achievement. How can there be a genuine critical context where the pleasure in taking down personalities — intellectual,artistic,professional — far outweighs the quest for genuine intellectual enlightenment?

Mark Twain,the great theorist of a democratic sensibility,while fully alive to this depressing possibility,thought democracies more than made up for this by a generous exuberance. They would revolt against snobbery. But rather than levelling down,democracies would have the generosity to find virtue and achievement in the most unexpected places; they would appreciate the extraordinary side of being ordinary. This would give democracy a certain joyous and exuberant optimism; indeed,democracy was nothing but a generous exuberance institutionalised. Trust in others,a measure of reciprocity as a check on excessive narcissism,a faith in freedom,granting others’ standing,a premium on hope rather than fear are what drive democracy. These are the preconditions for mobility and creativity. But as envy has triumphed over exuberance,we have become prisoners of our own monumental pettiness.

This strange combination of self obsession and pettiness in our elites will need deep diagnosis. Although hard to pinpoint,there is something peculiar in our aversion to the idea that achievement can be genuine. The quest for superiority finds its easy satiation in tearing down. Finding fault everywhere serves as a security blanket. In case you are on the wrong side of virtue,it will be easy to present yourself as the victim of a system that indiscriminately brings everyone down. It is insidious because it allows genuine wrongdoers to also present themselves as victims. When Richard Hofstadter described the paranoid style in American politics,the world was at least Manichean: a contrived contest between good and evil with no shades of grey. Occasionally,paranoid Hindu nationalists and other peddlers of collective identity would construct the world that way,abridging its complexity. But our paranoia is now more narcissistic than collective: it stems from individual insecurity.

There is an acute observation made about India that it has elites,but no establishment. Or rather,those who are the establishment cannot take their position for granted; they have to fight daily to maintain it. In some ways,it is a tribute to the power of Indian democracy that no one remains unchallenged. But in a steady kind of way,this has produced an extraordinary insecurity all around. Many politicians may act as if the world is at their command. But more often than not,they do not have the faintest confidence in the foundations of their own power,and therefore lurch from one pressure to another,not knowing what their undoing will be. And as their social distance from the populations grows,as the social structures in which they were embedded change,this lack of confidence is even more palpable. Some are genuinely arrogant,but mostly,what strikes you about them is their risk averseness. They act as if every small wind will sink their boat. And therefore,rather than being leaders who guide the ship to safety,they are the first to lose direction.

The middle class,for all its privileges,is an inherently insecure class. And as it grows,it will become more insecure. Against the upper classes,the genuinely wealthy and the genuinely powerful,it always harbours a deep suspicion. It regards politicians as usurpers who have somehow coaxed the less worthy masses into giving them power. It asserts its superiority over entrepreneurs by holding on to the suspicion that great wealth must always be ill gotten. Despite the growth of private sector-led middle class employment,the social acceptance of enterprise is skin deep in India. And it is not an accident that whenever the middle class flexes its political muscle,the resultant imagination is almost always more bureaucratic,both anti-masses and anti-creativity. But the middle class is deeply insecure in another sense. The genie of competition has been unleashed at every level; just witness the scramble for education. But this creates a psychological disposition of even more unstated insecurity: a mad scramble to hold on to whatever shards of privilege are left. It retreats into a narrow politics of protecting itself,and into its illusions of superiority.

There is one line from Gandhi that cannot be repeated often enough. He wrote,“Our besetting sin is not our differences,it is our littleness”. As the economic crisis deepens,as there is no larger story to occupy us,this contagion of littleness will spread even more. The shrinking republic may need a shrink,to liberate it from its insecurities and self obsessions.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ express@expressindia.com

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