Last week, India successfully launched a mission to Mars. Even before the scientists involved could savour the achievement, a fierce debate started around the theme of whether the money was well-spent.

One camp argued that the Mars mission was another example of throwing good money after a meaningless idea. The red planet is not inhabited, went this argument, and, until now, only rich countries such as the US had indulged their space fantasies.

The resources, the argument continued, would have been better utilized to tackle India’s endemic social problems such as poverty. Why, they could have even gone towards improving the quality of science education in the country, it said.

A few months ago, when a court sentenced to death four men who had raped and murdered a woman in Delhi last December, there were arguments against the death sentence (and not just from people opposed to the death penalty) on the grounds that it wouldn’t end the menace of rapes.

In both instances, the binary or Boolean logic of the critics is baffling. Worse, this simple yes/no approach underlines a more worrying trend that such logic propagates: intolerance.

This is exactly why India is stuck with the my way or the highway syndrome. The common thread running through discussions in legislative assemblies, Parliament, TV news channels, and even arguments on the road is intolerance to an opposing view. Such trenchant positions obviously preclude dialogue—critical for a democracy to thrive.

Take the two examples cited above. Without even going into the strategic advantage derived by developing the capability to launch an inter-planetary mission and that too at a minimal cost, it is ridiculous to claim that this money could have been used to fund poverty alleviation or improve the quality of science education in the country.

Yes, it is critical to fight poverty. But how does a 450 crore funding of a space mission to Mars preclude focus on a laudable social objective? The simultaneous pursuit of both objectives, one scientific, the other social, is surely within the fiscal reach of a $1.8 trillion economy. And what about the positive impact a successful Mars mission would have on an entire generation of young people who are considering careers in science?

Similarly, the opposition to the death sentence for the murderers and rapists is completely miscued. (It would be an entirely different matter if the opposition is on humanitarian grounds.) It is important to have a deterrent. Just as it is important to educate society to treat women equally—the only enduring way that such crimes can be contained.

If we follow this misplaced logic, then why book people for jumping red lights? Or for that matter, why try anyone for a crime at all?

Reality, as all know so well, is far more complex; it comes in many shades of grey. Unfortunately, most debates in this country are couched in you-are-either-with-me-or-against-me terms, inevitably leading to confrontation. More recently, we were witness to a vitriolic exchange on assumed differences in policy prescriptions by Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. Given that the acerbic nature of the debate that ensued completely clouded the underlying issues. As a result, we remember the debate but not the issues.

Going forward, as a nation, we are going to encounter more contentious issues—one very obvious being the trade-off between environment and development, or for that matter, between equity and growth. An either-or approach will necessarily result in a logjam similar to the one we are experiencing at the moment. Obviously the best way is through dialogue and recognizing mutual compulsions and circumstances.

Traditionally, political parties were designed to undertake this task by bringing about a political compromise. Unfortunately, growing ideological polarization in the country as well as the structural move away from grassroots politics has diminished their abilities considerably. The caustic discourse in the run-up to the next general election confirms this.

Any incoming government, regardless whether it is led by the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party, will face an additional handicap because the space for persuasion through dialogue has all but disappeared. Unless of course, the argumentative Indian rediscovers himself.

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