By Dhananjay Dhurandhar
Jairam Ramesh, everyone’s favourite equal-opportunity offender, has declared with characteristically little substantiation that the IITs and IIMs – and particularly their faculty – are not “world-class”. The yowls of outrage and hisses of agreement have been deafening.
The phrase “world-class” resonates oddly for us Indians. Unlike most references to India’s attitude to the outside world – which I like to think of as alternately touchy and fawning, like a half-tame puppy – “world-class” says less about what we think of the world, or what we hope they think of us, than of what we know of ourselves. And that is, by and large, that so much in India is hopelessly mediocre.
Dismiss the usual silly explanations in favour of a false Indian exceptionalism. No, it is not because Indians are genetically or culturally predisposed to cut corners that no corner in this country is left uncut. No, it is not because it’s hot in the afternoons, so we never have time to build a work ethic across a working day. Nor does it have anything to do with Hinduism, caste, Oriental fatalism, the emasculating legacy of colonialism, or a rice-heavy diet.
After all, it isn’t regular things that we worry about. We said we wanted Delhi to become world-class, not anywhere else. And we meant flyovers, not slums – since we already have world-class slums. What we suffer from is a national anxiety that our best is never very good. Our best colleges are mediocre. Our best films are laughable. Our best songs are copied, and our best attempts at sport involve beating seven other countries.
And we know why that is. It’s immediately evident to anyone who has been to a South Delhi party or gone to the “right” boarding school, and it’s increasingly visible to the rest of us, too. India’s best don’t scrap and climb their way to the top. They glide. They have it handed to them as if by right. They are schoolfriends, children, cousins, and neighbours of each other.
In the past six weeks, I have seen the following things: a major magazine with a cover story on artwork done by the editors’ friends, and a review of a play featuring the editors’ flatmate; a book contract handed out to an old school chum at a school reunion; a book review half-dictated by the author to an acquaintance; newspaper op-eds suggested and accepted in a business-class lounge; the first choice for a job being someone who someone else sort of knew in college.
And because a lot of these people will, in the end, do a halfway-conscientious job, we think they’ve earned whatever plaudits come later. They certainly do. In the process, we pervert the very meaning of the word “merit”. In a land that inverts meritocracy, where the smooth slip to the top and the creative but unconnected drop out or leave, it isn’t any wonder that mediocrity rules in India.