On the sixth anniversary of this magazine, we, in the hoary tradition of journalism’s commemoration fetish, argued a lot about a suitable cover. It was then, as abandoned ideas piled up, one of us had the epiphany: why not those who do it for a living and make a difference in the affairs of others? After all, who doesn’t love a good argument, words arranged as arrows that pierce the calcified truisms of our times, in a country where what makes the discourse noisy is invariably a string of disparate—or even desperate—sentences aspiring to be an argument? An argument that shatters the idyll of consensus and clears the fog of ignorance?
We at Open do. Every week, what we do best is make an argument; the reported essays that fill the pages are ‘informed’ arguments that are increasingly hard to find in our news bazaar. And that is how we try to keep pace with the Indian story, a political thriller among nations. Six years ago, when Open began its journey, it coincided with the disintegration of an argument that tapped the aspirations of a people who wrongly thought an apolitical politician at the country’s helm would be more engaged with the future than with the expediencies of realpolitik. What Dr Manmohan Singh did, as against what he initially did evoke, would turn out to be an idea undone by a good man who failed to play out his goodness for the sake of the nation. He lost his argument with India so badly; maybe, in retrospect, he did not even try to make one.
When I began to edit this magazine 15 months ago, India was in the midst of another argument—provocative, aggressive, and determined not to lose. It was an argument with an India scarred and plundered at a time when the faith in the professional sloganeer was at its lowest; still, Narendra Modi soared because he was in a conversation with the future rather than dancing on the already-dead UPA regime. It was an argument that was made intimate by a politician who led an ideological war but never looked doctrinaire. He smoothened the rough edges of the Indian Right with ideas of modernity. At Open, his campaign for India provided some of the finest pages of narrative journalism. We loved every moment of it as much as India did, and in the whirl of soundbites, our writers refused to be swept away; their stories were as dramatic as they were argumentative.
As I write this, our anniversary precedes that of the Modi Government, and we do not think that the argument has ceased to be interesting, that the prose of governance is boring after the poetry of the campaign (with due apologies to the late Mario Cuomo). The prose spawns a new set of arguments. It is the face-off between the power of the elected and the impatience of the ruled that provides dramatic tension in a democracy, and in India today, the irrationality of expectations is a subject as inviting as the ways and means of a government that wants to change a country still not free from the shibboleths of a socialist past. So it is still the possibilities of questions, not the finality of answers, that make the Indian story worth writing about.
That is why we have put on the cover minds that continue to be swayed by the idea of India. Quite a few of them could be called public intellectuals, the thoughterati. They are people whose influence extends beyond their profession, and sustains the marketplace of arguments. The history of ideas is populated by adventurers and street fighters, beer-hall philosophers and slayers of false gods, iconoclasts and romantics, all in a permanent combat with what Derrida would have called ‘state of the lie and lie of the state’. The picaresque of a Malraux or a Bernard-Henri Lévy, Sartre and Camus making a case for freedom from opposite poles, or a Christopher Hitchens blasting icons and shifting his ideological position to keep himself on the right side of the argument—such struggles of the mind make yesterday a passage worthy of revisiting in the book of ideas and action.
The public intellectual is an idealist, and in the words of a formidable one like Edward Said, no matter the professor seldom stepped out of his private imperium of victimhood, “nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take.” He said so in the BBC’s 1993 The Reith Lectures, later brought out as a slim volume, with Palestine on his mind. The temptations of positions and patronage that he said could compromise the integrity of an intellectual ring true even today, here in India. All the minds that we feature, from different realms of knowledge, may not measure up to those lofty standards, but they are on these pages because their ideas have a role in the political, economic and cultural wars of India. That said, we have excluded some venerable names because they are members of a permanent establishment; and some others are not there because their political affiliations or positions have restricted their argument. And this list has no ranking. Variety makes hierarchy impossible.
This list is born out of an argument that went on till the last extended deadline of Thursday evening, and I’m sure our editorial consensus will be challenged by some of our readers—which will make our effort well worth it. And the efforts of three fine minds of our editorial team stand out: Deputy Editor Ullekh NP, Mumbai Bureau Chief Madhavankutty Pillai and Associate Editor V Shoba did all the writing, even as the names kept changing on the list. It could have been so frustrating if it were not for their speed and smartness.
In the end, the men and women on the following pages are at home; you hold them in your hands right now because you love reading good arguments, week after week. By the way, we have decided to make it an annual tradition.