Sin of littleness

Sin of littleness

Caught in a moment of transition,India’s elites are revealing feet of clay

Caught in a moment of transition,India’s elites are revealing feet of clay

Contemporary India is marked by a paradox. On the one hand,despite political difficulties,this historical moment has immense possibility. There is a new energy and creativity in society. If India does a few basic things right,new horizons of overall well-being are well within its grasp. On the other hand,this moment of possibility is not acting as a galvanising force. It is rather filling us with nauseous dread. As institutions lose their authority,there is a sense of vertigo. Idols crumble by the day. A contagion of small-mindedness now afflicts almost every public interchange. Across the range of institutions,whether in the state or in civil society,there is no dearth of cleverness. But it is also hard to shake off the feeling that mismatch between responsibility and the character of those being called to exercise it has seldom been greater.

It is often said that behind every economic problem lies a political one. But it is equally true that behind most political problems there is a psychological one,a set of inchoate sentiments that underlie action: insecurities that warp judgement,fears that lead to inhibition,pettiness that leads to destruction. These psychological complexes cannot be understood in the conventional categories of interest. It will take a novelist with unusual insight to diagnose how structures of power can warp the sense of self of those who inhabit it,diminishing them at every turn. What else explains how quickly smart politicians,intrepid journalists,wise judges,serious academics,imaginative entrepreneurs are one by one revealing their feet of clay? What we are witnessing at the moment,across a range of institutions,is an elite bent on self-destruction: ideas have been replaced by vendettas,the future with past resentments,constructive engagement with rank cynicism. The words of Gandhi,that master analyst of Indian politics,are hauntingly appropriate: “Our besetting sin is not our differences,it is our littleness. We wrangle over words. We fight often for the shadow and lose the substance.”

This may be a bit graceless. But it is important to recognise this. Institutional reform is often important. But institutions derive their animating purposes from the fears and insecurities of those who house them. What do you do with a set of elites whose self-delusions are now reaching Shakespearean proportions? They are,literally,becoming shadowy figures chasing shadows. How does one diagnose this condition?


There are several explanations. On the positive side,it could be argued that this is part of India’s great churning. Years of accumulated poison is coming out. There is more to come. Old practices of governance had made large sections of the elite complicit to the point that they are insecure. But to this is added a subtle sense that you get that those who sit in high seats are implicitly conscious of their own lack of authority. Many have real talent and achievement. But they are tainted by the idea that somewhere they owe their positions,not to those considerable talents,but to formations of power. How can capital incite dreams of innovation when it is compromised by its manipulation of the state? How can media perform a credible function if its business practices require brokering power? How can politicians act as representative figures if their positions are more dependent on the top of hierarchies rather than on the citizens? A similar story can be told of most professions: academics deriving power from cliques,judges from deference to the Bar and so forth. But part of the vertigo we are experiencing is that moment of transition,where the old power structure remains active,but loses all authority. It does not command respect. But it demands it. Nothing signifies the corrosion of elites more than when they have to demand respect. You know at that point the game is up.

Of course,this characterisation of our elites is too sweeping. It does not make fine distinctions. It does not do justice to real achievement. But this distrust has becoming a self-fulfilling fact. It even ensnares those who seek to bring about change. Its biggest manifestation is the fact that we now seek authority figures outside formations of power.

So we are pressed between two phenomena: an elite structure that daily exposes itself as little more than a series of intricate rackets; and a generalised suspicion that any connection with power taints. With more and deals being exposed,this generalised suspicion is only going to grow.

But add to this two pressures. One is a kind of zeitgeist,which equates expediency with innovation. Part of the great churning was the idea that you break old fetters by asking about their instrumental value. But in a sense,this expediency has now redounded on itself. It is hard to imagine a society schooled in expediency having moral anchors. The second pressure is the pressure of visibility. Wealth and power will always have attractions as markers of accomplishment. But a paradox of media culture is that it creates a sense that no accomplishment is accomplishment unless it is visible. Thankfully,most ordinary Indians resist this allure and quietly work away. But elites driven by ambition now have an irresistible compulsion to be in the limelight. In a society where standards have withered away,achievement does not bring the limelight; the limelight is the achievement. What else can explain the inordinately diminishing ways in which respected figures of our establishment,from judges to generals,are converting their professions into a kind of publicity contest,seeking validation not in professional norms,but some inchoate idea of public esteem?

Put these elements together — uncertain authority,vast complicity,valorisation of expediency,and the search for validation in publicity — and you have a recipe for monumental pettiness. Lack of trust in oneself is compensated by corroding trust in others; complicity always produces a self-destructive aggression,expediency wears away the small graces of the moral life,and publicity invariably makes us overstep our proper limits.

As Gandhi knew,tackling psychological insecurities requires a special kind of skill. Extricating ourselves from the layers of insecurity and inhibition is a precondition for sensible action. Actors too wrapped up in themselves will scarcely internalise awareness of the demands of the historical moment; any historical possibility will vanish behind a parade of restless egos. The pessimism of the moment is not simply that decisions are not being taken or that reform is not happening. It is more serious and elusive at the same time. It is that it is hard for optimism to survive the bonfire of credibility that daily news has become.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,