Gurgaons of the mind

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.

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