The recovery of idealism

It cannot happen where language is corroded, resentment is paramount. In 2016, let’s reset ourselves.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:January 1, 2016 12:00 am

The assessment of the year past, the balance sheet of hits and misses, can be drawn up in different ways, depending on one’s political persuasions and allegiances. But all sides will, perhaps grudgingly, agree that the last year was marked by a continuing, and perhaps deeper, corrosion of idealism than usual. The big political task of the coming year will be to recover, against all odds, a little space for idealism: the idea that politics can be better than what it is. There are, doubtless, a lot of things happening, some even progressive. But the sense that we are trapped in deadends of language, leadership, institutions, and a sense of self constituted by layered resentments, is growing. It is easy to articulate what one might wish for in the coming year. It is harder to face the fact that conditions of possibility of giving any of those wishes meaning is

I am using idealism not in a philosophical sense that the world is the imprint of our ideas, or even the utopian sense that a more redeemed world is possible, or the deep moral sense where the self is sacrificed to higher moral good. I am using idealism in the sense of creating a world where the balance of hope and fear, trust and distrust, possibility and constraint, progress and inertia tends in the positive direction.

But, in a subtle way, our crisis is deeper now because even the language in which we can begin to articulate a viewpoint is already considered corroded from the start; the words that are meant to carry the weight of the hopes of any party seem sinister even before they are uttered. “Liberal” has become the caricatured “Adarsh Liberal” or “neo-liberal,” a posture of hypocrisy and social privilege. “Toleration” has been twisted to the point where the critique of the intolerant carries more moral odium than intolerance itself. “Justice” is not about fine-grained moral judgments; it is becoming synonymous with satiated vengeance. The idea of the “public” and “private” is confused in its institutional articulation. Even the articulations of religious imaginations veer uneasily between deep aggression and defensiveness. “Development” is a series of projects with no framework or sense of reciprocity. And even the “Idea of India” is becoming more a sneer than a value. These words, meant to be a common currency in which some ideas can be articulated and differences handled, already signify failure rather than possibility. Our habits of argument, the technologies of interchange, now freeze and harden divides. Language has become a chasm rather than a bridge. It is in this sense that the articulation of idealism has become near

The loss of language has been accompanied by the loss of exemplars. No matter how rationalist we are, idealism always advances through embodiment: flesh and blood exemplars that give a sense of possibility. It is true of all societies that ordinary acts of grace where people give more than they receive, often go unnoticed. But the mobilising of even a modicum of idealism requires public articulation. There was hope in some quarters that the political upheavals of the 2014 election would generate the possibility of pathbreaking change. The political actors all carry great baggage. But there was a sense that circumstances might create new exemplars. But in some ways they have turned into their worse selves.

The progressive moment that AAP represented has turned into institutional hogwash; the BJP’s hubris and doublespeak has managed to overshadow whatever sense of destiny the prime minister at moments might have had. The regional parties can provide some check and balance, but almost none of them have shown a capacity to be transformative. And the Congress in opposition comes across as even more callous, entitled and corrupt in its convictions. In fact, for liberal politics the really serious crisis is that liberalism has been compromised by the people who represented it. This crisis is made deeper by the fact that all those spaces, professions, universities, voluntary associations, trade groups, civil society organisations, those “little platoons” that Burke rightly thought were central to morality in a liberal society, have been corroded. So what began as a year of high aspiration has now settled back sullenly into a politics of accommodation, where avoiding the worst seems the only task at hand. How does one set about the political task of rescuing idealism from a loss of exemplars?

Idealism also requires a different moral psychology. The primary governing emotion in politics has become resentment. The BJP got an unprecedented mandate, supported by the core of India’s elite structure. Yet it will still play the party of victimhood through and through, as if nothing can satiate its resentment. The Congress acts if an election loss was a loss of its birthright; hence, not a trace of self reflection or renewed sense of responsibility.

This political sensibility is perhaps part of a deeper affliction, where there is more pleasure to be had in knocking down than building up. This resentment would make sense if it were the resentment of the truly powerless, a reflection of the genuine injustice society has afflicted on so many of its members. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. The pantomime of elite resentment is crowding out genuinely important issues about justice. Instead, the tone is being set by the resentment of the powerful, as if they are all being constantly cheated by someone: media, political opponents or even the poor. Elites, because of their disproportionate power, matter a lot in society. And we are chastened enough to know that few forms of idealism extend to dismantling their privileges. But elites can look upon their privileges very differently: as power and trust to be deployed to create something that promises progressive change or something to constantly feed a feigned sense of victimhood. The first step in the recovery of idealism is the overcoming of resentment, so that partnerships can be built, mediation and debate can take place, and the possibility of building something looms greater than the possibility of self-destructive resentment.

All this is abstract, but for a reason. There is no shortage of ideas or talent or energy in India. But before we consider specific ideas, there has to be confidence that ideas matter qua ideas; that they will not devolve simply into tools of combat, strategies of hegemony or further grounds of mutual suspicion. This cannot happen in a culture where language is corroded and resentment is paramount. The task of the New Year will be to reset ourselves, as it were, to reclaim the language of values, so that they become a source of ebullience and hope, not division and despair.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’.