Sin of littleness

Caught in a moment of transition, India's elites are revealing feet of clay

Contemporary India is marked by a paradox. On the one hand, despite political difficulties, this historical moment has immense possibility. There is a new energy and creativity in society. If India does a few basic things right, new horizons of overall well-being are well within its grasp. On the other hand, this moment of possibility is not acting as a galvanising force. It is rather filling us with nauseous dread. As institutions lose their authority, there is a sense of vertigo. Idols crumble by the day. A contagion of small-mindedness now afflicts almost every public interchange. Across the range of institutions, whether in the state or in civil society, there is no dearth of cleverness. But it is also hard to shake off the feeling that mismatch between responsibility and the character of those being called to exercise it has seldom been greater.

It is often said that behind every economic problem lies a political one. But it is equally true that behind most political problems there is a psychological one, a set of inchoate sentiments that underlie action: insecurities that warp judgement, fears that lead to inhibition, pettiness that leads to destruction. These psychological complexes cannot be understood in the conventional categories of interest. It will take a novelist with unusual insight to diagnose how structures of power can warp the sense of self of those who inhabit it, diminishing them at every turn. What else explains how quickly smart politicians, intrepid journalists, wise judges, serious academics, imaginative entrepreneurs are one by one revealing their feet of clay? What we are witnessing at the moment, across a range of institutions, is an elite bent on self-destruction: ideas have been replaced by vendettas, the future with past resentments, constructive engagement with rank cynicism. The words of Gandhi, that master analyst of Indian politics, are hauntingly appropriate: "Our besetting sin is not our differences, it is our littleness. We wrangle over words. We fight often for the shadow and lose the substance."

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