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A contagion of littleness

The rot in our institutions stems from individual insecurities

Our institutions now present a dismal spectacle. Attempts to address one crisis are immediately subverted by another. There is no stable context for arguments. What shall we address: The dreary logjam in Parliament? The corrosion of the Supreme Court’s authority brought about not just by the spectacular bluntness and lack of clarity in its judgments, but also by public dirty linen-washing by judges? The decimation of universities as sites of free speech? The death of the IAS? We could go on. It is almost as if a deep contagion has spread through democracy, infecting every institution in its wake, as if an undiscriminating tide of narcissism and envy is drowning all the good news. Gandhi rightly thought that behind every political malaise, there is a deep psychological disfigurement, and narcissism and envy may well be ours.

Narcissism is easy to identify and is deadly for a democracy. It is self obsessed. Democracies are successful when they provide a way of figuring out “all things considered” solutions, where different interests, views, judgements are negotiated to the extent possible. Instead, every single deliberative intervention we have now is “only my thing considered and no other thing considered”. Every assertion is preceded by a totalising “my”: my state, my ethnicity, my caste, my interests, my industry, my beliefs, my institution, even my folly. And even where we agree on what should be done, I should be the one doing it. These assertions, made largely by self-appointed elites, do not even have the dignity of being mutinies, revolts of disempowered constituencies. They are a myriad narcissisms run amok, producing a logjam.

All those worried about democracy have worried about envy as a democratic vice. Envy pulls down all achievement. And often it is a hypocritical envy: we don’t resent the idea of privilege or achievement. We resent that others have it. Is the resentment against “lal batti,” a genuine popular aversion on principle? Or is it the envy of those who feel entitled to it but don’t have it? There is something about our public culture that is relentless in its quest for indiscriminate tearing down of all achievement. How can there be a genuine critical context where the pleasure in taking down personalities — intellectual, artistic, professional — far outweighs the quest for genuine intellectual enlightenment?

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