Overcoming cynicism

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.

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