The famously Argumentative Indian has today become the cynical Indian — cynical about politicians, policy, public life — and even about the Constitutional order itself. The problem is not a begrudging citizenry, but the harsh reality that every government gets the cynicism it deserves.

But what do we do to redress this corrosive condition — one that threatens not just the credibility of our governance but the idea of India itself? As we collectively yearn for the great leaders who can wave away disillusion and re-enchant our political imagination, it is easy to lose sight of a subtler truth: that great democracies are built and sustained not just by great leaders, but by steady, painstaking work in a quieter tranche — a tranche where urgent social problems are researched with rigour, where the word ‘debate’ signifies something more than a barrage of pre-rehearsed TV sound bites, where policy ideas are tested and refined on the basis of hard-won evidence, with an eye to the greater common good.

Without such incubatory spaces for independent inquiry, our political ideas will remain as wishful, our political realities as arid, our responses to a concerned citizenry as hollow, as they are today. It could not be more right that India’s respected newspaper of national record, published by the great house of Kasturi & Sons, has chosen this moment to create The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. It will support with full intellectual freedom investigations into our changing society and politics — and from its home in the south it will place its findings in the public sphere, for scrutiny and debate, and to improve our public policy choices and outcomes.

The work of The Hindu Centre must speak not only to government: but to academics and the media, to the corporate world and to activists, to the establishment and to the disaffected: and above all, to us as citizens. For we are past the time when Government, in its arrogance, could credibly believe that it knows best. But we need also to move beyond the current modish contempt for government, to be found among many corporate leaders, as also the condescension of intellectuals. These circles of mutual disdain damage the prospects for effective policy.

At a time when the Indian republic is in profound need of renewal, when we need to reinvigorate our institutions, remind ourselves of our founding principles — when we face, that is, big and daunting tasks, we need also to rediscover the primacy of policy: the smaller, measurable steps by which a society moves towards high ideals. For it is only if citizens can sense that movement in their everyday lives and struggles that the ideals embodied in our Constitution will appear as worth sustaining.

(Sunil Khilnani is a historian and Director, India Institute, King’s College London. These are excerpts from his speech.)