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Gurgaons of the mind

As India has grown in power,there is a curious lack of intellectual self-confidence

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
July 13, 2012 3:44:03 am

As India has grown in power,there is a curious lack of intellectual self-confidence

The way a nation takes its own measure reveals a lot about its insecurities. Recently,an article in Time magazine described Manmohan Singh as an “underachiever”. It should have warranted Sherlock Holmes’s famous response,“Now we have a firm grasp of the obvious.” But there was something odd about the way in which the article itself became news: it made front-page headlines in several English and vernacular papers; the PMO felt compelled to respond to it. It was denounced,in some quarters,as a foreign conspiracy to malign India. Instead of being treated as an ordinary article,telling us something we have been debating for a few years,it was converted into an authoritative measure of the prime minister’s performance. The true scandal was not what it said; the true scandal was that we took it so seriously simply because it was Time magazine.

In a small way,this episode highlights several crises we are facing. It is symptomatic of our lack of intellectual self-confidence that we constantly take our measure from what is written about us abroad. Some of this is to the good: an outside perspective can be an aid to greater self-awareness. But our relationship with outside perspectives is not in the service of greater self-reflection. It has,rather,become the yardstick by which we measure ourselves,the basis of judgement and the mechanism by which our pride is inflated or deflated. We are overjoyed at vindication and hurt at denunciation,but we never take the argument on its own terms. It is almost as if a public culture has lost all sense of self-possession.

There are several reasons for this. There is a serious crisis of credibility across all knowledge-producing institutions. The Indian media is in a bizarrely paradoxical position. On one hand,it is free,contentious and still has considerable reservoirs of talent. On the other hand,its credibility is always in doubt: it is associated with too many subtexts,too much theatre over substance,and even the good in it gets drowned in excessive noise. The result is that it is no longer seen as a credible,authoritative interlocutor in public argument. It has become too easy to dismiss it. Its judgements,therefore,can be brushed off. There is always an intimate relationship between knowledge and trust. Since we don’t trust our institutions,the knowledge they produce is,by definition,less authoritative.

The same applies to Indian academia. There is absolutely no question that the Indian university system is still in serious crisis. Trying to get a sensible discussion on this crisis is like banging one’s head on a brick wall. As with the media,the core of the crisis is one of credibility. There is a lot of talent,but because you do not know whom to trust,it is easier to defer to the authority of institutions abroad. All of us have been candid about baring the warts of the Indian research environment. We ought not to be defensive about India. However,even when excellent thinking happens in India,it gets short shrift and is short-changed,simply because it has a made-in-India tag on it. In fact,our response to this crisis of credibility is not to address it,but to create conditions where we outsource practically all our thinking. We have an incredible amount to learn from abroad. Yet,there is a distinction between genuine learning from abroad and unthinkingly converting their experiences and models into the sole measure of achievement. We measure institutional reform simply by the fact that we have ticked off all the boxes to look like them rather than thoughtfully grasped our own conditions. With the crisis in undergraduate education deepening,and the forced secession of India’s middle classes from the domestic education system,the measures of who we are may get even more warped in the years to come.

Knowledge is knowledge,wherever it comes from. And we have to be mindful of the fact that part of the destruction of Indian intellectual life,particularly in the 1970s and 1980s,was due to a misguided nationalist search for something called “indigenous”,where we went about parroting calls for an “Indian social science”,which was neither particularly Indian nor social science. Identity epithets before knowledge claims are often signs of vacuity. But there is also no denying the fact that you cannot do much creative work if you don’t have confidence in the signalling quality of your own institutions.

What the Time episode unwittingly revealed was this crisis of credibility in our knowledge producing institutions. In a way the paradox of India is this. Around the time of Independence,we were broke,poor,had no power and not given much of a chance. But what saved India from becoming a banana republic was the intellectual ambition of its elites. They were sometimes haughty,sometimes got things badly wrong. They were open-minded,not foreign-minded. Now we are foreign-minded,but not open-minded. In the realm of thought,they never gave up on the idea that we have to do our own thinking and take our own measure in some respects. The failure of our education is that it has depleted that confidence.

Ironically,as India has grown in power,there is a curious lack of intellectual self-confidence. Benchmarking to global standards can be a spur to excellence and innovation,but what is happening is something more psychologically insidious. It is a kind of “Gurgaonisation” of the mind. Quality is signalled by an indiscriminate foreign branding: so long as you can give a building a foreign-sounding name,from Princeton to Beverly,you have signalled quality. What its real substance is,whether it is an appropriate fit for our circumstances,is beside the point. This intellectual defeatism has come at a price. It has created excessively fragile selves,demanding attention,or unable to take criticism in their stride. Indian higher education is waiting to be liberated from its stupor,as the clamour for foreign institutions continues. There are some exceptions in IT. But most Indian professional firms,rather than becoming global benchmarks,just want to reach a critical point where they can be swallowed up by a foreign brand. Given India’s advantages,there is no reason why Indian media should not be a global benchmark rather than a floundering player. It is hard to imagine a country achieving any measure of greatness,if it cannot take its own measure.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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