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The big battle we must wage for the hearts and minds of people

That incompetence almost won popular endorsement shows how much hard work still lies ahead

The kotwal was held responsible for the death of a goat. The king sentenced him to death. A life for a life was the king’s principle of justice. A wall had collapsed on the goat, killing it. The wall was weak because the mortar used to build it had too much water because the sheepskin of the waterman was too big because the shepherd had sold a bigger than required sheep because he was distracted by a large procession which the kotwal was then leading. Thus, it was crystal clear to the king that the he deserved execution.

The noose did not fit the thin neck of the kotwal. To ensure justice, the king sent out his guards to catch a man with a neck thick enough, on which the noose would fit. A hapless and overweight young monk who had chosen to live in this kingdom, against his guru’s advice, was soon caught and put on the gallows.

Bharatendu Harishchandra’s classic play Andher Nagari, Chaupat Raja is ingrained in Indian cultural conscious. Andher Nagari is literally City of Darkness, but Andher actually means egregious injustice. Since 1881, when the play was written, Chaupat Raja has become the popular descriptor of an absolutely incompetent ruler. Even a thin veil did not cover the play’s attack on the British Raj.

India was colonized by the British, Chaupat Raja was a hereditary ruler; neither were chosen by the people they ruled. But why does a population elect a chaupat president? And then, four years later, why do some 73 million of them vote again for a president whose record showed incomparable incompetence on almost every front?

The answer stares at us if we accept the nature of human beings. We value different things, and our capacity to assess whether what we value is being delivered is also diverse. About 79 million co-citizens seem to think their president was chaupat, prevailed, and have ejected him from power. But 73 million don’t think that, net-net, he is chaupat. They probably think he is delivering what they value. So, they voted for his re-election.

The horror and disbelief over the closeness of the vote strike only the surface. The innards show that after 233 years of trying to forge one country, there still exist at least two, divided to the core. This chasm between people has been revealed by the presidential election. So that horror and disbelief is really about all that human beings can be. Which is what has hewed the chasm to the very body of the nation.

People can be racist, bigoted, misogynist, violent, and worse. Not in the ones and twos, but in the millions. They can also be such that they value their faith and its expressions above all else, or they value their community above most else, or they value the past more than the present, and are all decent people. Angry or afraid for any of many reasons, they can get sucked in by deliberately constructed vortices of hate as outlets. Inside them, they may hold several of these and more, sewn together into the complex tapestry of their life and personhood. And their capacity to discern a charlatan also varies sharply.

This is the nature of human beings. They are not reducible to any one or two things. Least of all to economic self-interest or rationality. We hold multitudes. The angelic and devilish, too.

Getting rid of a leader whose regime was a historic disaster from the most important office in the world is a good thing. But the 73 million people are real and not going anywhere. They are us. The cabals and institutions complicit with that regime are also not going anywhere. Witness how many of them seem to be conniving to keep their electoral base enraged and grieving, perhaps to be encashed in the next election and the next, with the lie that the “election was stolen", democracy be damned. So, it may be a matter of time before a person takes that office whose regime would be even more destructive.

This is America. But it is not only America. It is everywhere, or will be tomorrow. So, what do we do?

We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that this is primarily a political or economic or sociological project. Only the hearts and minds of people can be a bulwark against such destruction and careening into chaos. At its core, it is a psychological project. The most effective of us, Gandhi and King and others, understood this profoundly. Which is why at the core of all their work was a project for moral-ethical renewal and intellectual empowerment.

Aside from religion, education is the only institutionalized vehicle for such a society-wide psychological project. But in effect, we have abandoned this most important function of education. In part because of the misguided reduction of education to an instrument of the economy in the past few decades. As also in part because the self-described pragmatists among us remain trapped in the necessary “basics" like literacy and numeracy, abandoning in effect what they themselves would like education to do but see as too distant.

But the unwinding of progress, chaos, and human misery, all caused and exacerbated by misrule, are not distant. It is today and now. We have to wage an eternal battle for the hearts and minds of people. Education can build on the mystic chords of human nature for our better angels to be eternally vigilant.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation.

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