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
diminishing.

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’.

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  1. I
    indian
    Jan 1, 2016 at 12:41 am
    Alas, do also look at yourself in the mirror
    Reply
    1. T
      Tarakkad
      Jan 1, 2016 at 1:16 pm
      An elitist article meant for the so called elite readers.Would have appreciated if the author could have articulated his views in a more simple understandable prose.
      Reply
      1. T
        Tarakkad
        Jan 1, 2016 at 1:24 pm
        What had the Congress party given to the Indians during their rule of sixty years.More poverty,squalor and bulging un employment among the youth?
        Reply
        1. K
          K SHESHU
          Jan 1, 2016 at 5:51 am
          There has been a yawning gap between idealism and practice over the years. The politicians shower idealism in their speeches and practice exactly the opposite. While true idealism is abstract, more concrete idealism must be followed to increase the chances of human welfare and development.
          Reply
          1. A
            anil sarin
            Jan 1, 2016 at 4:46 pm
            Incisive and prescriptive. A tour de force. Now how to get the right people to read and reflect....
            Reply
            1. A
              A.Murali Krishna
              Jan 1, 2016 at 6:47 am
              In a society as diverse as India, press has a great role to play and to shape. Unfortunately press had pla into the hands of Congress and the so called liberals and liberal intellectuals. They downpla the actions and achievements of new government. Elite is positioned well but still they spoiled the mood of society. Scams are not now heard, infrastructure is getting boost despite opposition. India is getting positioned better in 2016.
              Reply
              1. P
                Pranav Bhardawaj
                Jan 1, 2016 at 3:33 pm
                The begining and ending of all human undertakings are chaotic or in quote "unjustified".There was always loss of language or resentment of elitesfact past was always the glory, present represents confusion n future was always "a promise" intrestingly all three were always indifferent to each other. Woods will remain dark n deep , there will be promises still to keep n still miles to go after "we" sleep...
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                  G M
                  Jan 1, 2016 at 10:54 am
                  "Hamen wafa ki ummeed hai unse jo nahin jante ki wafa kaya hai". The demaise of idealism is a result of well rehersed evil design of select few to establish a new order . To negate this systomatic erosion requires a urgent counter movement to arrest the evil design. Only then can hope restoration of glorious idealism which India was once famous for. Thanks for drawing attention on this mive national loss. Only a greate nationalist and ever vigilant citizen like Bhanu can enlighten the nation .
                  Reply
                  1. G
                    Gopal
                    Jan 1, 2016 at 3:08 am
                    The Hindu is completely biased but Indian Express is not far behind. Just read the intemperate language used just yesterday in a column against somebody who is pretty moderate in the BJP. Can you provide us with more details on the presentation about bias in the Hindu? It is a little hard to believe that Indian academics given how left wing most of the them are.
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                    1. G
                      Gautam
                      Jan 2, 2016 at 6:05 pm
                      Yy
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                      1. J
                        Java.id
                        Jan 1, 2016 at 6:18 am
                        The Hindu is not just biased, it is dishonest too. It does not publish comments that try to provide a different perspective or correct obvious misreporting and obfuscations. It does not matter whether you are as unbiased as possible, balanced and objective in your feedback. The Hindu will ignore your feedback, in order to promote and protect a totally biased story, that suits its agenda.
                        Reply
                        1. J
                          Java.id
                          Jan 1, 2016 at 6:26 am
                          Unlike The Hindu, The Indian Express does not censor your comments. The Hindu thrives on dishonest censorship. Regardless of its left orientation, The Hindu does come out consistently with some excellent stories by outstanding authors, but it does itself (and its readers) a dis-favour by blocking feedback that does not suit it. My comments here, for instance, would have been promptly censored in The Hindu.
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                          1. K
                            Kalyan Ganguly
                            Jan 1, 2016 at 6:48 am
                            I see eloquent arguments from the english educated "liberals" against the present dispensation but never a practical blueprint for future. Let me, for a moment, endorse the view that we have become an intolerant country. When were we tolerant? In the late 40s and early 50swhen we were led by the "great visionary"? What do we need to do for people to rise above suions when they are the victims of terrorists. How do we teach them to rise above narrow religious idenies?
                            Reply
                            1. K
                              Kirit
                              Jan 1, 2016 at 5:12 pm
                              Hindu newspaper keep pushing congress agenda is beyond belief. Congress ruled India for most of the time since 1947. India is horrible. Democracy as defined by congress has failed people. It has kept people of India poor and helpless. India needs new idealism not congress walas.
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                              1. A
                                ashok
                                Jan 1, 2016 at 6:02 am
                                From pseudo secular we have descended to sickular.
                                Reply
                                1. M
                                  manojeetjm
                                  Jan 1, 2016 at 10:03 am
                                  Most of the readers will not be able to read the article in full and many who try to read it till end may be trying to make some sense out of it for themselves. The politicians and media guys - who have their own agenda and biases - i am sure are not bothered and lay public can not understand what Mr Mehta is trying therfore , I wonder for whom this article was meant .
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                                    DILIP
                                    Jan 1, 2016 at 10:07 am
                                    India will only change when the paid media thugs and slaves, subservient , dynasty sycophants,supplicant craven dodgy elite sickular goons alter their intolerance mindset and reset their paranoia. Modi's Government is the best so far, least corrupt and highly efficient, that is managing the economy with prudence and long term vision. It is the visceral and corrosive dislike of the sick sickular media whose penchant hatred of Modi is clouding his development and economic progress plank. If any one it is the savage, miseducated liberal elitist media and their intolerant dalals need to reset their agenda in 2016 and throw the kitchen sink behind Modi's Master Plan to develop India and crack down on corruption.
                                    Reply
                                    1. D
                                      DILIP
                                      Jan 1, 2016 at 12:15 pm
                                      What did your CON GIT pleb and the dynasty thug achieve a core sector negative growth of -3.5% for ten years and food inflation at 12%, you waffling CON GIT toddie.
                                      Reply
                                      1. D
                                        DILIP
                                        Jan 1, 2016 at 12:18 pm
                                        You need to re-educate those slavish babboons that screams from the roof top about manufactured intolerance and bigoted propaa against Modi, the rest will take care of yourself. Media must clean the sh11t they have created in front of their door first by cowing to the CON GIT dynasty.
                                        Reply
                                        1. D
                                          Deepak Mehta
                                          Jan 1, 2016 at 1:55 pm
                                          A fox disguised a '' liberal intellectual''
                                          Reply
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                                            Ashok
                                            Jan 1, 2016 at 7:50 am
                                            An essay of superb writing with empty theme. Words have lost value since thinkers like you have cooked your biases around them, sweetened your hates around them. Yes , seeing your name, we don't feel like reading your article because we know what it carries. We know your thoughts, which can not grow any more Sir. It is in time wrap. It is in prison of own making. It can't really think or see. It has fixed likings, dislikings, arrogance, egos, sermons, comfort zones. How you expect lessor beings like your readers to think. We too do not wish to think only like you. We have open unlimited sky to think and grow. And realising that country has now first time proper leadership which can make country and us grow. Any comment Sir ? ? Just whisper to your comfort pal.....'Bhakt' and don't learn. After all you teach, why will you learn ?
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