In a recent interview with Tehelka, Noam Chomsky remarked on the striking indifference of the Indian elite. How do you account for this indifference?
I think that all over the world, elites have a tendency to protect their privileges and resist any obligations of social solidarity. There are many noble exceptions, of course, but the general tendency is fairly strong. Perhaps one reason why it is particularly strong in India is the tremendous social distance that separates the privileged from the rest. I mean it’s not just that the economic inequalities are very large, but on top of that, there are sharp disparities of caste, gender, education and so on. And these inequalities tend to reinforce each other, compartmentalising the society in an exceptional way.
On a related note, despite all indications to the contrary, despite the numbers that attest to our often catastrophic failures, what accounts for Indian bullishness, our confidence in our inevitable ascent to economic superpower status?
I am not sure that this sense of confidence is widely shared. I certainly don’t see much evidence of it among, say, rickshaw pullers or domestic workers. This “Indian bullishness”, as you put it, is the mood of the privileged, who are indeed doing very well in the present circumstances. The euphoria is fed by the mainstream media and the entertainment industry, which have a stake in this upbeat mood. From this bubble, it can become quite difficult to see the rest of the world for what it is. The delusions of superpower status are part of this hazy outlook. Another part, which is a serious obstacle to more enlightened public policy, is the failure to recognise how badly the country is doing when it comes to meeting people’s basic needs.
We often pat ourselves on the back about our robust media. What role does the media play in perpetuating exclusion, and ignoring the deprivations with which so large a proportion of our country lives?
Sometimes the Indian media does play a very important role in bringing issues of deprivation and injustice closer to the centre of attention in democratic politics. But the mainstream media is largely an advertisement business, and that inevitably detracts from the social role it could otherwise play. For instance, the dependence on advertising makes it quite difficult to expose corporate scams. The symbiosis between business and the media also creates a tendency to pander to corporate culture and values. Perhaps a bigger obstacle, however, is the lack of interest of the target audience, namely potential consumers of the products being advertised, in the lives of the underprivileged. As one senior editor put it at a recent dialogue between child rights activists and media representatives, “Don’t have any illusions. You will never be able to compete for attention with the wardrobe malfunction of a model on the ramp.” So it’s a kind of vicious circle, where the media reflects but also perpetuates this indifference. Even then there is space for imaginative and committed editors to depart from the beaten track.