By Dr Satish C Aikant
The year we signed out saw the return of Narendra Modi with a thumping electoral mandate. One would have thought that the new government untrammelled by the opposition will begin with addressing the issues of rising prices, unemployment, farmers’ distress, falling GDP, and bring some succour to the suffering poor. The problems are enormous and complex and nobody thinks the government has a magic wand to solve them all. But at least some steps could have been taken, prioritising things. Instead, the government took a different track more in line with the BJP’s agenda (projected as the national agenda). The past year was defined in a curious manner by a series of acronyms – RTI, PSA, GDP, NRC, CAB, CAA and NPR. Next, it could be UCC (no prizes for guessing what it stands for). One of the first acts of the government was to dilute the RTI Act with a controversial amendment to it that seeks to make the Information Commissioners at the centre and in the states amenable to government interference, taking away their freedom to take independent decisions. Instead of weakening the Act, its ambit should have been widened to bring political parties within it. The long awaited electoral reforms that would bar the entry of criminals in the parliament – which is also the law making body – and state legislatures have been completely overlooked. The ruling alliance led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a wonderful opportunity to push through legislations that could further strengthen democracy but we do not know if the opportunity will be frittered away again as was done in his previous term.
Abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution was aimed at integrating Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian mainstream; no one disputes the intent behind it, but the manner in which it was done has raised questions. For the last five months, the Valley has virtually been under lockdown. The civil society there is stunned into silence and political leaders, including former chief ministers are not yet free. But we are told the situation is perfectly under control and life has returned to normal. There is a deep sense of insecurity gripping not only the minorities of the country but several other sections of society. The platitudinous ‘Sabka saath, Sabka vikas, Sabka vishwas’ has turned into a slogan that mocks more than it reassures. With toxic communalism injected into the Indian body politic, the society faces polarisation as never before. The justice of the mob has been brutally employed to snuff out ideological opponents, and the vigilantes are safe in the knowledge that they have political patrons who will protect them. They have the licence to operate with impunity and are free to threaten those who do not fall in line with the radical Right. A monolithic and monochromatic vision of nationhood steeped in the supremacist ideology of a militant and increasingly belligerent Hindutva is advocated.
There has been a deliberate attempt to distract people’s attention from their real problems which affect their daily existence. The debates over food sufficiency, social security and equity, focus on economic development and end to exploitative practices are overtaken by cultural issues which have more to do with what we speak, what we eat, and how we dress, etc. Even the benign and feminine tenderness of the customary form of greeting- Jai Siya Ram – has been turned into the menacing war cry of Jai Sri Ram. Emboldened by the advent of a friendly government at the Centre, the new culture warriors have launched an ideological offensive against diversity in faith, tradition and cultural preferences.
Debates on NRC, CAB (now the CAA) and NPR have raised considerable heat leading to spirited demonstrations both for and against the putative move. The war of words has turned into the battle for truth. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi accuses the opposition of spreading lies and rumours, the opposition leaders turn around to call Modi a liar. We better not join issue with either side as we are living in this age of post-truth. The search for truth in any case is an ancient one. We know the story of Diogenes the Cynic, (fourth century BC) who would walk around the streets of Athens conducting his legendary search for an honest man – in broad daylight and with a lighted lantern in hand. In the Mahabharata, Krishna persuades Yudhishthir to equivocate to Dronacharya so that the Pandavas could win the war (some would say deceitfully). As the anti-CAA stir spreads around the country, the vengeful and trigger-happy Yogi Adityanath tells us how to deal with the protesters, and the Prime Minister develops a wonderful semiotic insight to spot the troublemakers by their clothes. Shall we think that it makes the task of our men in khaki a lot easier? However, let us pin our hopes on the youth of India, especially the university students, who have valiantly shown on the streets all over the country that idealism is not passé. Their message is loud and clear: We’re all Indians. Don’t play the religion card to divide us. We have every right to oppose the obnoxious laws imposed by a hegemonic regime.
Why bother about the falling GDP, a senior BJP member of Parliament declared in the Lok Sabha; GDP is a misleading economic parameter; it just doesn’t matter and we can do without it. Another member of the ruling party comes up with the profound observation that all this talk of economic slowdown is belied by the fact that more and more people are thronging multiplexes buying tickets to watch movies. So, rather than depend on elaborate sample surveys and tedious statistical analyses we can measure the health of our economy by the box office collections for Salman Khan’s Dabbang. Don’t believe a word of what the Nobel Laureates, the leftists, the urban naxals and assorted opposition leaders blabber about our economy. Well, if there is some onion crisis, take it as a blessing in disguise. Look at the brighter side of it. Onions bring tears; so less onions, less tears. With more onions in your kitchen you might be forced to repeat what Mark Antony in Julius Caesar declaimed to a different audience: ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.’ Instead of counting your humble onions think of what Amit Shah has promised us: a sky high Ram Mandir in 2020. So while the other side quibbles over their five acres of land we have our salvation guaranteed.
Let me end this piece on a philosophic note. In the midst all the mess we find around us, and the absurdity of it all, we can still engage in purposeful social activities and find meaning in life. To fashion order out of chaos is a uniquely human ability. Hence, even if life is found lacking meaning in an external, objective sense, this does not lead to the conclusion that it is not worth living. The odds against me should not lessen my enthusiasm to come to terms with reality. Within our subjective universe we can build an autonomous domain of arts and culture to guard our sanity. A wealth of material lies in the arts. A Beethoven symphony, a Van Gogh painting, spiritual melodies of MS Subhalakshmi and Kumar Gandharv, a Dostoevsky novel; life is enriched by things such as these. Then there are one’s familial bonds as well as relationships of friendships and love. Transient and imperfect as these often are, they nevertheless provide us with some of our most heightened moments of joy. I find it marvellously interesting that man’s devotion, his reason and his passion, can elevate the quotidian existence into a transcendental experience – an experience which does not annul unpleasant reality but which reinterprets it to make life worth living.
Indeed the big political agenda of the coming year should be to recover, against all odds, the space for idealism that we are losing fast. One has to act on the axiom that politics can be better than what it is. We shall have to move beyond the textbook definition of a political act. Unfortunately, for India’s ruling class, the word ‘politics’ has lost its polysemic meanings. One needs to keep in mind that politics, which is not the monopoly of a power elite, is not entirely limited to the electoral arena. It is deeply implicated in human affairs both public and private. We have to find the missing links and connect the personal to the social to arrive at and engage with the notions of progress and development which are eclectic and people centric.
Maxim Gorky, paying tribute to Chekhov’s genius, remarked in his Reminiscences that in the presence of Chekhov, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself. I do not know if the coming year will make us simpler and more truthful but how I wish it makes us better in every other respect! Happy New Year.
(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)