Conversations flow, ideas don’t

Almost every leading newspaper and magazine in India these days seems to think it is necessary to organise an “intellectual” event. They call these events summits, conclaves or conferences. The organisers project these events so as to appear on the side of “thought” or “ideas,” as if seeking credibility and justification for their existence. But these gatherings are nowhere close to the brainstorming sessions they are cracked up to be. Basically, they are huge “talking” extravaganzas in which every participant is a performer before an audience, and like any other performer, craves its approval. To hand it to them, the performances are quite extraordinary, and those who anchor them are equally skilled in the art.

Speakers are drawn from politics, cricket, Bollywood and a variety of other arenas, not to forget the smattering of international personalities, without which no conclave is considered worth its salt. Of course the activist who is the flavour of the season has to be included and given a prime spot, so that the social-political-cultural spectrum is covered. We also need to bring in the gossip and romance, which is provided by at least one well-known Bollywood star.

If his or her film is being released at the same time, it is only a coincidence. The audience consists of the usual suspects from politics, bureaucracy and media, with some socialites in tow; among them will be those who can ask intelligent questions, playing to the script, to bring out the best performance from the lead characters. Everyone looks serious.

The clothes are appropriate. Nobody is overdressed such that the event is misconstrued as a social gathering. But everyone is still distinctive enough to be noticed. So what we have is a well-scripted film with abundant funding, which also exudes a sense of social responsibility.

Why are such events needed? This basic question must be answered to assess their efficacy. Presumably, the concept is to provide a platform where thoughts are expressed, initiated, exchanged and discussed, leading to some kind of ideation. If so, such events must leave us with perspectives that are incisive and important.

But what are the speakers saying? Nothing new, nothing thought-provoking, nothing that changes your life, or even makes you think about life. It’s nothing.

It’s just talk — yes, loaded with wit, drama, controversy and intrigue, but beyond that, nothing. Content, if it is present, is often lost; if there is one speaker who brings out an important issue and deals with it seriously, it is but an accident.

Let’s not forget that a lot of money is involved in these events. Why should we care so long as it is private money? But we should, as these are the same institutions that question the way public money is being spent. When such questions are being raised, every citizen has a right to question private practice too. Huge corporate houses back many such events and some speakers are chosen due to the financial support available for them, bringing into question even the basic integrity of such events. Are thoughts being manipulated? Are speakers succumbing to corporate pressure? These are serious ethical issues that need to be addressed.

I wonder why there cannot be a televised conclave with the same aam aadmi (common man) that the politicians, bureaucrats and media houses love to talk about. Perhaps they are not intelligent enough to add to or receive the wisdom that is being purveyed at these events. The aam aadmi seems to have only two roles: to make a noise about the issues that hurt him most and provide a foundation for a discourse at a summit by the chosen people; and, to cast a vote that gives the same people an opportunity to continue to be a part of the discourse.

This way we can conveniently forget the person on whom most of these discourses are based. But if anyone needs to speak and talk about real issues, it is this aam aadmi. I haven’t seen a single event — excluding award ceremonies or political events — organised by the power houses where the speakers as well as the audience consist of this section of society. Such a summit would not sell. Economics finally decides even the basic format of discourse. We need television to partner such events, but it won’t unless we have the same people who say the same things in the same way, and we consume exactly as we have, always.

Such events are thus no different from anything else that we consume. Those who expect something different from such platforms are bound to be disappointed. We need serious dialogue with serious people who will change the way we think. Conclaves must trigger change but that will not happen unless the intentions change. This will in turn influence the curation and quality of the engaged audience. At the same time we need to provide the farmer, carpenter, household help, clerk, craftsman — and everyone else we refer to as the aam aadmi — a national platform to speak.

They should be speaking not just to the politician, bureaucrat and media but also to people like themselves, other aam aadmi. Only this can integrate society in the search for answers to our problems.

Originally written for The Hindu

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