1 January 2014

Overcoming cynicism

Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Posted online: Wed Jan 01 2014

A new democratic experimentalism is in the air.

India’s great churning will continue in the coming year. There is new momentum towards change. The momentum will be most manifest in glimpses of a new institutional order that is coming into being. India’s progressive moment is now beginning to find its feet, with a clamour for a governance architecture that is more horizontal, transparent, decentralised, based on public reason and allows for new political formations to emerge. This process will continue. The flotsam of the old order will continue to be visible, and will often disguise the new undercurrents forming. More poison may come out of the system as partisan competition intensifies. But amid all the high-decibel exchanges, a quiet revolution will continue.

But the revolution will be most palpable in a subtle reorientation of attitudes. The most besetting sin of Indian democracy over the last couple of years has been its corrosive cynicism. It was a cynical democracy with much to be cynical about. But the cynicism had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Few believed anything could change, so little changed. There were no texts, there were only subtexts. Virtue was nothing but deception. We converted it into such an art form that there was cynicism about everything that pretended to be anything other than cynicism.

The cynicism was compounded by what Amartya Sen has made India’s badge of self-identification: the argumentative Indian. We thought arguing was generally a good thing, since it denoted a kind of freedom and engagement with learning. But we forgot the other side. An argumentative person is someone who goes on arguing, well after the matter has been settled. Much of our public argument had this character. It was not argument in the interest of learning; it was argument in the interest of going on and on. Few who came to the argument were open to being persuaded, few were open to any possibilities other than what they had already committed to.

Cynicism contributed to a contagion of littleness. Cynicism is corrosive, precisely because it denies the possibility of there being a real distinction between virtue and vice, it denies the possibility that change for the good can take place. We become cynical not just about the fact that anyone can live up to high standards of morality; we become cynical about those standards themselves. The worst kind of levelling a democracy produces is one where all fine distinctions are levelled, where no utterance can be taken at face value.

The cynicism actually served the status quo rather well. If everyone’s motives could be distrusted, there was no possibility of credible critique. Cynicism made collective action impossible: when we cannot trust each other how can we work with each other? Cynicism was hollowing out democracy.

The most remarkable change over the last few months has been the overcoming of cynicism. In a small way, idealism does not seem so outlandish after all. There is a new democratic experimentalism in the air. Not only were voters in that most cynical of cities, Delhi, willing to take a chance on a new party, the AAP, they did so in ways that defy any neat narratives. The AAP’s single biggest achievement has been to change the mood of significant sections of the country. Arvind Kejriwal injected that real tonic that a democracy needs from time to time: the possibility of the new. But most importantly, it began to speak a language that we thought had become almost impossible in our democracy: the language of trust. The AAP’s ideas were not that important. What was important was the novel claim that if people just discussed thing as equals, things would get better. Instead of the needlessly argumentative Indian who had, in the name of freedom, undermined democracy, the AAP injected the thought that a people involved in collective deliberation could reach sensible agreement. It identified the key deficit of our democracy, which has always been founded on distrust. Its simple promise was that if people can more visibly and easily participate in governance, things can improve. The idea is itself not original. But making the very classes that have stood in the way of that ideal accept it, even if fleetingly, is an achievement. It crafted a symbolic vocabulary around that idea. Even if government as a daily plebiscite is not always an attractive ideal, it certainly had the virtue of not being cynical about the virtue of ordinary citizens.

The older parties are, of course, weighed down by their complicity with older and corrupt structures. But in their own ways, they have been dragged to a point where they have to acknowledge that business as usual is no longer possible. Underneath the surface drama of familiar faces, and occasional reminders of reactionary ideas, we should not miss the fact that the BJP has also been trying to script a new narrative. It is easy to spot Narendra Modi’s baggage. But critics missed his novelty. By gatecrashing his way to national prominence, he showed that he could create a new basis of appeal. He has been consistent on the theme that India should enlarge its aspirations. It is a politics based on will, not ideas, but that is exactly the kind of politics you would expect a cynical environment to generate. In a curious twist, the politician we had a lot of reason to be cynical about became the embodiment of a kind of anti-cynicism.

This is where Congress lost out. It was too causal in grasping the winds of change. Rahul Gandhi talked about them, but with an odour of defeatism. If Modi managed to brush off his vices through sheer energy, Congress managed to make even its virtues looks suspicious through sheer lethargy. Rahul Gandhi seems to be acknowledging that old corruption is no longer acceptable. But the way he embarrassed his own governments by publicly ticking them off, whether it was on the Adarsh scam or the matter of criminal politicians, made the right stance more about him, not about change. The party of sincerity became the embodiment of cynicism. It is finding it hard to shake that off.

Professional cynics will warn us not to replace cynicism with delusion: aam aadmis do not stay aam in power for too long, a leopard cannot change its spots. Energy and sincerity are also not enough for one particular area that needs urgent attention: the economy. We should not be cynical about these cynics. There is something to these warnings. But there is little doubt that 2014 will belong to the party that can most successfully capitalise on the new yearning to overcome cynicism. A major political realignment is in the air.

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


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