Not so long ago, I was asked by a client to speak about how iconic brands are built at their media conference in Mumbai. I said yes out of interest (and of course vanity), and flew to India’s City of Dreams to attend. The most vocal fellow speaker was Arnab Goswami, head of Times Now TV channel, who delivered a passionate speech on why he believes news television has an incredible future in India, given the size, economic rise and democratic nature of the country.

But the debate that followed—or rather, the lack of it—contrasted so sharply with his plea that it made the biggest impact on me. And I realized a point that has been simmering in my mind for a long time. It is that in many instances there is a pervasive need in India for more of what some call meta discussion: debates about one’s debate. In a diverse country that is transforming so rapidly and deeply as India, the severity of a lack of it is hard to overstate. In my view, therefore, it is a priority task for India’s elite to address this. Allow me to explain.

Goswami made an important enough point, and delivered it with enough flamboyance and polarizing force. News plays a key role in our lives. It keeps us connected to what is happening around us, to the events that shape our lives and the developments that define the times we live in. In growing India, news has a golden future as a business, he said. Yet, India is also on its way to becoming a democratic world power. Therefore, by definition, India will act as a geopolitical counterweight to China’s centralism. This adds to the great future of India’s news television and media. But it also means that it carries disproportionate responsibilities.

To my surprise, the audience hardly raised questions on this issue. One imagined young people in the audience, who were given the opportunity to debate directly with one of India’s most prominent anchors, to at least throw in some well-formulated remarks, or better, to pick his brain or try and grill him a bit. Nothing of the sort happened. It seemed that the meta issues his plea threw up missed the audience, which surprised me. Perhaps, of course, it was just me. But it seemed all questions remained faithfully within the frame defined by the speaker; no one questioned or expanded the frame.

India wisely adopted democracy in 1947. It chose a 2,500-year-old European, egalitarian system—diametrically opposed to its own stratified past—for organizing its society. When adopting such a system, one also adopts its assumptions as these are enfolded into it. One of those is that together with the legislative, executive and judicial powers, the media is the fourth estate of democracy and is tasked with acting as the people’s watchdog.

Especially, in the run-up to the 2014 elections, a number of great questions could therefore have been raised by our young audience—beyond the economic future of news media. News media companies must make money. So their self-interest might be more aligned to selling political entertainment (scandals, jibes, mud-slinging) than to providing level-headed insight into the election campaign.

What then is the current role of news media in improving the quality of Indian democracy? What is the role of journalistic independence in it? Is such independence possible? Is independence commercially feasible in India? How does a prominent media head deal with such issues in his daily work? The current Tehelka case shows that even seemingly well-intended journalists can go off the rails. Is this an incident or are broader lessons to be drawn?

Later it dawned on me that such self-aware, self-referential, self-monitoring questions were not absent from this particular debate. I realized they seemed to be relatively scarce in many other situations as well, at least compared with what one would experience in Europe and the US. Inside many companies and among individuals I find there is often relatively little debate about the debates people are having.

To use a metaphor, many people are busy complying with the temperature that the thermostat has been set on. But people generally spend little time in first asking constructively why it is set on this temperature, what the right temperature would be and how to implement the changes to get there. One could even ask if a thermostat is the best tool for the task and change it. Put differently, there seem to be many great time tellers, but few clock builders. Of course, I am exaggerating for effect and am aware of some of the cultural reasons for it. But a shortage of meta discussions may even be a development bottleneck. After all, collective self-monitoring is necessary for productive organizational learning, improvement and alignment.

Amartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian, on India’s traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism, has been a great companion for me to make some sense of the verbal gifts of the Indians I meet. In few countries in the world will you encounter people so adept and eager to state their views on whatever topic with such intelligence, compelling logic and passion. Even if it is only to disagree with someone for the sake of disagreeing. India’s intellectual pluralism is breathtaking and rich. Yet, what would be astutely valuable would be to use more of this intellectual horsepower for conscious debates about the debate. In my view, India lacks pervasive self-referentialism.

Herein could sit a gem of a strategy and positioning for a news medium in India that wants to become an iconic brand—and fortunately a medium like this newspaper seems to do this. Such media companies could even help teach children and students how to debate about their debates at schools and universities. It is vital. When argumentative Indians would start to seriously argue about their argumenting and base their actions on the outcome, a lot of the unproductiveness that results from unguided doing which many complain about, could be eliminated. In fact, given its vast intellectual traditions and capacities, it might be India’s greatest secret weapon.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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