Vanita Kohli-Khandekar Column: The negative Indian

Other countries rarely witness the accusatory negativism that pervades all conversation in India

Are we a negative-minded, negative-spirited people? It is a question worth asking as the bile and venom on social media goes through the roof. It is a question that arose after a five-day work trip to Singapore. It arises every time I go out of India on work — to Hong Kong or London, the two markets that I keep tabs on. In conferences or discussions in these countries, there is rarely the kind of accusatory negativism that pervades all discussion in India.

Bile and venom are overflowing on social media in India. Representation pic/Thinkstock
Bile and venom are overflowing on social media in India. Representation pic/Thinkstock

It is second nature, now, for us to immediately attach motives based on religion, money, nationality, among other things, to an event or person. So a gate change by Jet Airways prompted an Indian gentleman behind me to talk about how “They (Jet) had messed it up”. When I mentioned gently that gate changes are a given, that they had announced it more than two hours before the flight took off and that it was on all the information screens, he huffed that he hadn’t heard it. And, “It never happens in Europe.” What does happen, and which this gentleman conveniently ignored, is surly behaviour in the name of service. The Jet Airways staff, on the way to Singapore and back, was extremely patient with some difficult passengers. Can you imagine passengers throwing tantrums on a European — or worse still, American — airline and getting away with it?

This may be a random example but it is a microcosm of the same behaviour that plagues India online, in mass media and in dining room conversations. Without any understanding of history, economics or context, we are ready to jump in with a negative perspective on everything. Take, for instance, the terrific negativism around Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. (Note: I don’t hold a candle for any political party or person). Everything he did or said is now being ridiculed, questioned and trashed.

As an MBA student many years ago, I remember having a discussion around how his whole notion of a ‘mixed economy’ had pushed us into economic oblivion. Now when I think of it, it still looks like a bad call. But this opinion is softened by some other facts. Think of where he was coming from. It was 1947. India had just got rid of foreign rule, it was poor, just getting over the violence of Partition, with the threat of more looming over it. And socialism, as an idea, was gaining currency around the world. In fact, till the seventies, even the Americans believed that the Russians had cracked the economic code and that free markets, as an idea, were threatened. So the mixed economy, which tried to blend a bit of free markets with the Russian model, seemed great for a nation struggling to get to its feet.

Nehru, Sardar Patel, Babasaheb Ambedkar — among many others — had, largely, the best instincts for what could keep the disparate group of states that became India together. They insisted on democracy, a robust Constitution and all the frills that many prosperous economies still don’t have. And democracy survived, inspite of our differences as Indians — between north and south, between various religions, between castes, languages. It survived and became second nature to us. But we forgot that it survived because leaders such as Nehru and Patel stood firm against the forces that could have destroyed the fragile democracy that India was in 1947. Now, as you see nation after nation failing to deal with freedom — the Arab spring is a great example — it hits you how much we owe our founding fathers.

Why was Dr Manmohan Singh a good prime minister in 2004-2009 and a bad one from then onwards? Why was Atal Bihari Vajpayee such a fantastic statesman through one of the worst communal riots in recent times? Was PV Narasimha Rao the true designer of economic liberalism in India because he stood behind his finance minister Manmohan Singh? Even these questions, from recent history, cannot be answered completely. And here we are, trying to decide what Nehru or Patel should have done in a time that we cannot even begin to imagine.

Both, half-baked, pointless questioning of history, or the ignorant glorification of it, is bad. Now throw in the underlying negativity, technology and access. What you get is thousands and thousands of ill-informed, historically flawed, opinions — also referred to as social media.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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