Lost in the din
Our public discourse appears to have lost the complexity of thought that is so crucial to a democracy. The polarisations have shrunk the middle ground where the truth usually resides. Barkha Dutt writes.columns Updated: May 21, 2011 19:30 IST
India has often been called a country of contradictions, one impossible to categorise and store away in any neatly labelled box. But for all our multitudinous truths, we always knew - even if we couldn't explain it to anyone on the outside - how an intangible pride in being Indian, in believing in the idea of India, held our nation-State together. And our great, burgeoning middle-class powered the engine of a country that believed it was on the road to great things.
Suddenly, however, our paradoxes appear to drag us down into a morass of fear and loathing.
Of course, we must applaud the fact that the righteous anger of ordinary people and a sustained campaign by the Opposition has finally seen long overdue action against A Raja and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raids at the homes of the Commonwealth Games chief (and Congress MP) Suresh Kalmadi. And, of course, the Opposition and the people must ask the government why these interventions weren't made much earlier at the highest level.
People are entitled to be cynical and ask whether the gates of the barn are being bolted after the horses have fled. Who will seriously believe, for example, that the so-called 'Raja diaries' have survived over the many years that the former telecom minister had a chance to destroy all possible evidence. We have a legitimate right to question the naturally status quoist impulses of the ruling coalition and make them accountable for an exasperating slowness of action.
But, as we scrutinise others, we should also turn the gaze inwards and once again, ponder the paradox. Right before the Commonwealth Games were unrolled, countless viewers and readers wrote in to news organisations to say that the sustained media campaign on corruption allegations around the event was making India look bad in the eyes of the world.
Newscasts were seen as instruments of negativity at a time when the country needed to feel good about its athletes and itself. Now, in a contradiction we are barely aware of, we have unleashed waves of negativity all around us - and in a strange display of sado-masochism - are almost happy being swept up in an oceanic storm of generalised hate. The CBI raids have become the newest spectator sport and our motto of justice appears to have settled for the medieval slogan of 'throw them to the lions'.
Similarly, just a couple of months ago, we immaturely sought validation for our self-image in the mirror the American president held up to us and jumped through hoops when Barack Obama said India was no longer an emerging economy, but a country that had already "emerged." Now, in a bizarre fit of self-loathing and cynicism we have gone to the other extreme and lost confidence in our capacity to be a proud, performance-oriented country.
While we have every right to make our institutions - politicians, businessmen, judges and journalists - accountable to higher standards of leadership, should we not question our possible fickleness and impressionability as well? Take for example, the middle-class celebration of how many Indians end up on the Forbes list of billionaires. I personally always found the vicarious gratification it seemed to give us cringe-worthy, but also understood our emotional need for India to be defined in images other than postcards of poverty. But, now we have reversed our blind admiration and condemned all the same men as evil chieftains of a cavernous, corporate empire. Of course, we must question how big business makes its money and demand transparency and honesty in how our natural resources are allocated for money-making ventures. As Raghuram Rajan has argued presciently, too many billionaires in India have made their money from proximity to political power. But while these are genuine faultlines to explore and debate, must we lurch from one extreme to the other, alternating between easy, simplistic labels of praise and derision?
In other words, our public discourse appears to have lost the nuance and the complexity of thought that is so crucial to an enlightened democracy. We are in danger of becoming a country whose portrait is captured by the easy broadstroke; one that ignores the detail of the fine brush and misses the difference between the sunshine and the shadows.
In this present gladiatorial environment, we respond to the controversial, and many would say, scandalous court verdict of Binayak Sen (found guilty of treason, with what his supporters say is fabricated evidence) with the same 'off with his head' anger that we show for Kalmadi.
Perhaps the polarisations thrown up by ideological extremes have shrunk the middle ground where the truth usually resides. So, today, for some people, Ratan Tata has become a metaphor for all that is wrong in the business-political interface and for others on the opposite side of the divide, Binayak Sen is happily classified as a seditious villain. Aren't all of these labels problematic, unjust and most importantly, caricatures of the truth?
We, in the media, must take part of the blame for how easily and lazily some narratives are constructed around individuals. Are we in danger of losing the distinction between robust, independent reporting (which has often pushed the government to act) and television studios that double as kangaroo courts. I must confess to a sense of disquiet at how easily we judge others and how hysterical the environment we inhabit appears to have become. We are grappling with important questions about whether our journalism is adversarial and anti-establishment enough. But we must also ask ourselves whether we always use this power as responsibly as we should.
Or are we feeding the frenzy of a country that seems hell-bent on devouring itself?