I wrote this piece in 2007. Thought I'd re-circulate it because to me it still seems relevant. I've edited it.
In September 1897, an eight-year-old girl in New York City, Virginia O’Hanlon, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun. She wanted to know if there was a Santa Claus.
The letter drew a response from Francis Church, a lead editorial writer for the paper.
Church’s editorial, Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, is widely regarded by students of journalism as perhaps the most famous edit ever written in America; it was the subject of a film starring Charles Bronson as Church.
Writing about the “skepticism of skeptical age”, Church reassured his interlocutor that Santa Claus did exist: “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy...”
As a graduate student specialising in editorial writing, I can remember virtually memorising Church’s words and hoping that some day mine would have such meaning. With Christmas upon us, the edit came to mind.
What happened to wide-eyed innocence? The question is relevant in India today, where cynicism and guile have hardened hearts all across the nation.
Humanism and compassion are stored on the highest, most inaccessible shelves of values.
Hard-bitten people have emerged as leaders in business, politics, education, entertainment and media. They hold sway over the national discourse.
Intent on getting ahead, they push and shove, scream and shout, lie and cheat. It’s about accumulation of power and wealth: the worst form of capitalism, without the moral anchor that the European Enlightenment provided in the West.
In 21st century India, while the economy booms, the social contract is splintered by divisive caste and communal agendas raised by power-hungry politicians and money-grubbing bureaucrats, not to mention hard-boiled industrialists.
Such Dickensian characters as the Artful Dodger, the scoundrel who dodges responsibility for the consequences of his actions, and Ebenezer Scrooge, the killjoy who has come to symbolise a lack of charity, are emulated; gentleness, guilelessness and similar values of what the editorial writer Church called “eternal light” are discounted, even scorned.
It is almost as if existence is a zero-sum game in which victory is never sweeter unless it’s at the cost of someone else.
This mindset has a deep and lasting influence on public affairs. The individual, corporate and political values that flow from such thinking eschew the larger cause, the public good, the common weal.
Conflict is the central theme and the media seem to wallow in it. Celebrities, bureaucrats, companies and political parties are featured like gladiators of ancient Rome, while bloodthirsty citizens watch from the coliseum stands.
In this sport, only these groups count: the players and the media..
Beyond that there is filth, disease, poverty and ignorance that provide compelling evidence of the failure of governance.
Given such lopsided public priorities, there are garish malls, office buildings and apartment houses rising from the middle of a rubble strewn landscape.
Everywhere there is confusion: badly designed roads, unmanageable traffic, overburdened public transport, ill-equipped public hospitals and stressed out citizens who contract the diseases of wealth such as coronary heart disease and diabetes without the requisite bank balances to pay for their treatment; never mind those poor people who die of easily treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhea.
As the twelwth year of the millennium recedes into history, it is clear that that a Las Vegas bonanza style seems to have overtaken the practice of public affairs.
Public policy must be rescued from the roulette tables and the slot machines of zero-sum thinking.
Winning and losing; all manner of one-upmanship and conflict, true, are major drivers of history, to be sure. Without a social contract, India is a victim of the Las Vegas approach that promotes short-term thinking when what is sorely needed is a long term vision to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; to give some hope to the mess of villages, towns and cities that are hellholes.
Let me hasten to add that I am not advocating a return to the days of central planning when deadly serious bureaucrats focused on the long term objective of peace on earth even as the neighbourhood fell apart.
This article appeared on DNA website on December 18, 2007