Business News/ Opinion / Online Views/  India’s cocooned intellectual elite

Senior journalist Ashok Malik lamented recently that the “problem with Indian intellectual discourse is the so-called opinion-shapers, in media and academia, have no stake in the real economy."

Malik was referring to the permanent New Delhi-based intellectual set populating academic and media institutions for whom national affairs have become a spectator sport, and which is so ensconced in the inertia of Lutyens Delhi and so comfortably intertwined with its networks of power that it can scarcely fulfil its role as a contributor of new ideas and detached analysis.

Academics at government-funded universities and institutions see their pay and benefits go up with metronomic regularity. A comparative study of faculty pay by the Center for International Higher Education published in 2012 found that on a purchasing power parity basis, Indian academics receive the fourth highest pay in the world, ahead of academics in the US, Germany, France and China.

Media organizations, especially small outfits, can reliably count on government advertisements, provided the reporting on their paymasters remains favourable enough. Open magazine reported recently on how Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar would use the state government’s media spends to censor the news, calling him the “editor-in-chief" of Bihar. Daily News & Analysis former editor-in-chief Aditya Sinha went on record about how the Union information and broadcasting ministry under Ambika Soni tried to arm-twist his newspaper, threatening to pull government ads if their coverage did not fall in line. It is safe to say that both India’s media and academic establishment are dangerously under the influence, if not control, of governments.

In his book Intellectuals and Society, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that intellectuals are judged by whether their ideas “sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public." Sowell has said that there is no objective test for the ideas that intellectuals offer, and “the only test for most intellectuals is whether other intellectuals go along with them. And if they all have a wrong idea, then it becomes invincible", as the idea gets repeated and endorsed by the establishment en masse. Intellectuals have no accountability to anybody but their own community.

India’s intellectual elite have routinely blamed opposition parties for not offering clear alternatives to the Congress-UPA’s failed governance. But this fundamentally misunderstands the role of a political party in a democracy—it is more the intellectual establishment’s job to originate new ideas and educate the public about such ideas, not that of a political party that faces electoral pressures every other quarter in a parliamentary democracy like India.

The reason India’s intellectual establishment doesn’t challenge the government’s policies on a philosophical plane is that it is very comfortable with the status quo and in fact is in broad agreement with the leftist philosophy that has directed governance in India almost uninterrupted since independence.

Intellectuals such as Amartya Sen were quick to conjure up morbid imagery of children dying every week the food security legislation was delayed. But they remained mute on the scope the programme enjoys and the methods it employs.

It doesn’t matter that the food security Bill misdiagnoses the problem, and that the public distribution system is probably the worst way to provide food to citizens in any case. Specious arguments are spun circumventing all these fundamental issues, with some “neutral" commentators even going to the extent of nakedly justifying it as a smart political move ahead of the general election. A similar spectacle was witnessed when the Congress party waived off farm loans before the 2009 general election—intellectuals lamented how the idea did not see any political opposition, without themselves critiquing the impact it had on India’s banking system and the moral hazard it created for the future, for the loan waiver penalized those who had taken the trouble to pay back debts.

Opposition politicians are expected to commit electoral suicide and reject legislation such as food security outright, while the intellectuals cannot get themselves to unequivocally critique the design of such deeply flawed programmes, and just as importantly, offer actionable ideas for improvement should a political consensus exist in favour of a policy. Eventually, we are proffered the defeatist view that the politicians and “the system" are incorrigible, as India’s raucous democracy will force any politician, no matter which party they come from, towards fiscal irresponsibility.

What the elite successfully veil is their own distaste for new ideas and for a new kind of governance, for such a change would undermine their influence and shake up the establishment. They have so deeply internalized and accepted the shibboleths India needs to break out from that they are unable extricate themselves from this mental straitjacket.

The intellectuals have invented their own version of Godwin’s law—no matter what the issue, it will be turned into a debate on “secularism" and identity, feeding upon India’s millennia-old caste- and religion-based tensions. Economic growth is portrayed as favouring only certain communities despite evidence to the contrary and without regard for endogenous social factors at play that are responsible for holding certain communities back.

Terrorist threats to internal security are painted with religious colours, as if the intellectuals are in collusion with brazenly opportunistic political parties who are evidently open to pitting India’s security and intelligence agencies against each other in their quest for the marginal vote. When Swiss citizens voted in 2009 to prevent the construction of Islamic minarets in their country, in a statement that would befit a rabble-rousing, bigoted politician, one television anchor went so far as to call it “a fundamental threat to millions of Muslims" in India.

All in all, we are witnessing a calamitous spectacle—the world’s largest democracy hurtles from crisis to crisis on almost every conceivable front, be it economic, foreign policy or internal security, while its effete, deracinated and comfortably cocooned intellectual elite is unable to offer new ideas. They endorse or criticize an idea not based on whether it might work, but where it came from. Rather than their political positions being informed by a philosophical worldview, their philosophical pronouncements derive from pre-meditated political positions.

Sometimes, when they judge new ideas based on whether those ideas will be “acceptable", the elite forget that they are not politicians but analysts who should first and foremost inform public debate on issues. In truth, they are only clamouring for acceptability from others in the opinion-shaping industry, and are competing naively to influence the political party in government, which simply selects the ones who suit its political and electoral objectives.

It is telling that the intellectual whose work resonates with the public is almost extinct in the prevalent climate. Social media and the Internet have made it easier to put out ideas for public consumption and break the monopoly enjoyed by India’s intellectual elite, steeped as it is in a leftist consensus, on setting the narrative for public discourse. As Wall Street Journal columnist Sadanand Dhume noted recently, social media may not have a big electoral impact, but it is certainly helping shift the debate on public issues.

Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta are co-founders of the India Enterprise Council.

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Updated: 25 Jul 2013, 01:13 PM IST
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