We are living in an age where everyone receives compliments. Everyone is being “so humbled" by tributes. Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel, would have told them, “Don’t be so humble, you are not that great." The fact is that these days, the greatest tribute you can receive is the hatred of fools. Compliments have become so common they have lost their value. You may argue that what matters is who is issuing the compliments. We now arrive at a caste system the world is allowed to respect—prestige.

A prestigious event is different from a moment of mere tribute. Prestige is always issued by an institution; it is never issued by the low to the high; as a result it is influential and useful; like compliments, in a context, prestige too dies, but it dies in a different way; prestige becomes worthless when the process of achieving it is so democratized that the wrong kind of people have a fair shot at it; its death is never known for many years and thousands endure great suffering to achieve it long after the prestige is not prestigious anymore.

Except in some spheres, like sports, the rationing of prestige is an autocratic process. The commercial success of a film, or a book that sells millions of copies is not prestigious. Outside sports, anything that can be objectively measured is too democratic to be prestigious. But some kinds of prestige are not fabrications issued by institutions; they naturally stir human emotions. Like the achievement of sending a human to space, or scaling Mount Everest. But prestige that is not manufactured by an institution and is, instead, fuelled by raw human reverence is prestigious only for a brief period of time.

A few days ago, there was an astonishing photograph of more than 300 climbers on Everest lining up to stand on the summit. The overcrowding resulted in deaths. Since the peak was first scaled in 1953, over 4,000 people have done it. A few years ago, a newspaper reported, there was a brawl involving 100 climbers near the summit, during which some sherpas threatened three Europeans with death. There is no prestige in climbing Everest anymore. Too many people, including improbable people, have done it. Also, with modern technology and modern ways of training, it has become much easier. We must be careful to note that many who climb the mountain do so for the thrill of the sport. But I am certain that for a majority of climbers, it is about winning the right to say that they did it. They risk death for a prestige that does not really exist anymore. Scores of climbers die every year, and the disabled undergo great suffering to pursue a false honour.

The farce of scaling Everest for prestige is the story at the heart of many futile pursuits. Those doctorates, for instance, that imprison impoverished youth for over a decade, making them produce sham theses, when they could have achieved more in the slightly riskier world outside the refugee camps of campuses. I must make clear that if one truly wants to explore whether Robert Frost’s iconic poem about two diverging roads in the woods was really about choice and destiny (it was not), or explore the inside jokes in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (there were many), then the youth is blessed. What can be more satisfying than the pursuit of knowledge, any knowledge. Also, there are practical utilities, like employment opportunities in academics. But if a person is pursing a doctorate in these areas for prestige, the society has a duty to tell him, but won’t, that there is none, especially for those who do not have the social equity of that class which asks cute questions like, “Can the subaltern speak?" On the many overrated summits of this world, there are queues of the naive.

Many of us went to institutions that were considered prestigious to varying degrees, but they have today lost their status purely because a wide spectrum of people have access to them. Even the civil services and the Indian Institutes of Technology have lost their shine. Even though it is more difficult than ever to crack their entrance exams, they have become accessible to an increasing number of poor small-town and rural Indians. In this light, the most foolish step of the government is to replicate “prestigious" institutes. Buildings can be replicated, not prestige. Prestige in India migrates the moment there are equal opportunities to achieve it.

This is exactly how the world treated India, which used to crave prestige and imagined that it lay in a set of achievements. Our space mission, for instance.

Even though the founders of the mission projected it as a development exercise, it is hard not to see the lure of prestige in it. Rocket science then was sexy. At various points in the nation’s life, Indians have felt immense pride in their rocket science. India demonstrated that it could send metal to space, around the moon and to Mars. And some people did get overexcited about space scientists in saris as though it was some great contrast. And India demonstrated that it can do many things, which the Americans did, at a fraction of the cost. The real costs of India’s space programme are opaque, but still its moon mission famously cost less than the film Gravity. India’s Mars mission cost less than Interstellar and its space station, too, which it announced this week, will be cheaper than most Hollywood films that feature a space station . But has India won the admiration of the world or, did it instead diminish the prestige of rocket science itself?

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