The cognitive dissonance of Indian Life

For its billion residents, India is at the very same time on top of the world and at the bottom.


Dr Usman W Chohan April 02, 2019
The writer is the director of Economics and National Affairs at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies. He can be reached at [email protected]

At every sunrise, Indians wake up to the reality of an emergent superpower, and at the same time, they wake up to the abject misery of a corrupt, parochial, and chaotic backwater. On the one hand, they see a country confident and poised to challenge other world powers, and on the other hand, they are humiliated by both their dishonest, bellicose government and by the weakness of the Indian Air Force when it is decisively repelled by Pakistan, a country seven times smaller.

For its billion residents, India is at the very same time on top of the world and at the bottom. While some of its citizens are manning leading international institutions such as Microsoft and Google, its teeming masses lack access to basic amenities such as toilets and safe drinking water. It contends with one narrative that it is a country where everyone is a Bollywood superstar, and with another narrative of hosting some of the most desperate and grotesque poverty on earth.

This creates a problem that is known in the social psychology literature as ‘cognitive dissonance’: that there is a discord and contradiction between two different realities that the subject simultaneously perceives. As the theory’s pioneer, psychologist Leon Festinger puts it, “Human beings strive for internal psychological consistency to function mentally in the real world, [and] a person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable and is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance, by making changes to justify the stressful behaviour.”

The inability to reconcile two diametrically-opposed ideas in the collective mind is now polarising Indian society in a manner unseen in its post-Independence history. How can it be both a superpower and yet a quasi-Banana republic? How can it aim to challenge a country like China when it cannot even challenge Pakistan?

The cognitive dissonance is worsened by the systemic self-deception that the Indian media is now propagating. Research from Microsoft shows that India has the worst fake news problem in world. Its self-deception is so blatant that it needs to raise its defeated and captured pilot, who as a gesture of peace was returned unharmed, as some absurd kind of “hero”. The right-wing media connives to spin Pakistan’s mercy as “weakness,” deluding the Indian public to let their government try to save face.

As Pakistan extends its hand of peace, India wields a clenched fist, while its media turns a blind eye to the real causes of local disaffection: a permanent tyranny of half a million troops in Occupied Kashmir, and worsening economic inequality in India that benefits but a few and worsens the plight of the many. Record unemployment, particularly among India’s youth, is both a clear indicator of this adverse economic situation as well as the cognitive dissonance that the Indian public must bear. While a few young people are seeing substantial jumps in their incomes, so many young people cannot even land their first job.

In order to sway the cognitive dissonance in their favour, the incumbent BJP has tried its best to downplay its economic failures and sought to draw attention to India’s supposed military strength, as the May 2019 elections approach. That gambit has backfired spectacularly, with the Pakistan Air Force successfully neutralising Indian aggression, and providing ample photographic proof of the PAF’s readiness and commitment to national defence.

The evidence of downed aircraft and a captured pilot have left little room for the BJP to reconcile the dissonance towards the pole of strength, and have left it in a bind by highlighting Indian failures of political leadership, military leadership, operational deficiencies, intelligence failures, and public manipulation.

For any mature government, such incidences might persuade India to tone down its rhetoric and seek a peace-building approach that matches that of Pakistan. But the BJP is by no means the representative of a mature polity, and may seek an even more aggressive gambit as the May 2019 election nears. Yet this will only worsen the impact of the inherent tension that the Indian polity wrestles with, for it may risk dragging them down the path of open conflict, and thus wanton destruction.

Sadly, a full-blown war might provide the ultimate but disconcerting answer to the cognitive dissonance in Indian society; for as a destroyed country, ridden by both the physical and psychological damage of violence between two large and nuclear-armed neighbours, India may come to see that its superpower fantasies were always much further away than its current pretenses would permit.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2019.

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