(My column in Mint Lounge, December 31 2016)
Sometime ago I went to watch an atrocious Hindi movie called Mirzya, perhaps the worst specimen Bollywood produced in the last 12 months when it wasn’t being dragooned into seeking the “blessings” of local brutes for undisturbed releases. It took a while, though, for the audience to accept that the film was unfolding disaster, mainly because, at first glance, it was breathtaking. Each frame was visual delight, much like viewing exquisite landscapes through amplified Instagram filters. Halfway in, however, it became clear that despite the splendid settings, all hopes of a story emerging were futile, for the whole project dozed lazily on the back of its impressive cinematography. And on the charms of its actors pouting and posing in appealing fashions. When the movie began, the cinema hall was plump with hope; by the middle, it was clear that the ordeal was winding towards an eminently deserved flop.
Looking back at 2016, the tale of the government of India follows a corresponding line—much posing and grandstanding, but lacking that small thing we call a plot. Given this regime’s predictable propensities, the first defence tossed up is that if a plot is nowhere to be found, the blame lies with the depredations of the Congress for 60 years. And after much mournful head-shaking about the sins of a wicked dynasty, we are pointed towards the latest good intentions announced by our noble Prime Minister, who also wins in the department of being able to conjure up diverse emotions in stunning succession—defiant laughter when demonetization was received with obvious alarm, for example, and tears when this “surgical strike on black money” commenced its own inevitable spiral towards a tragic flop.
Demonetisation was probably expected to provide one of those mythical “big bang reforms” to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s clamouring constituencies, crowning also the government’s high-decibel, minimum-result quest against illicit wealth. Given the vacuum that is the intellectual reserve of the ultra-right in India, it is a given that the “next big idea” will not soar majestically out of their stables. But with all the overworked economic jargon in recent years, one would have expected at least one or two fully-baked financial proposals. Instead, what we have as 2016 inches to a shaky conclusion is a farce. And the government knows this—what was ostensibly a “war on black money” has been hastily reassembled as a vision to “make India digital”. After all what is the point of having a face if one can’t save it.
The authorities remain undefeated in inventing slogans too, but I wonder if Modi’s endeavour is to retire in history as the BJP’s reaction to Jawaharlal Nehru (with the enthusiastic, even if confused, emphasis on foreign policy) or Indira Gandhi (with all the centralization of power). Or perhaps it is P.V. Narasimha Rao he seeks to emulate, though if 8 November is any evidence, he isn’t going down as an economic mastermind after wiping out 86% of the national cash and forgetting about the little matter of replacing it. The best that can be done this New Year’s eve, given the circumstances, is to grin and bear it and join the government in twiddling our thumbs, chanting the word “progress” in the hope that progress actually makes up its mind to follow.
The irony is that in 2014 Modi took power promising Indians the moon that the Congress unjustly eclipsed for six decades. Nobody, though, warned us that after 10 quiet years with Manmohan Singh we would have a leader anxious to speak on radio, on TV, at live concerts, through mobile phone apps, and on other assorted forums except, of course, in Parliament. There he prefers to rest his voice—a clever strategy that once again this year exposed a fragmented opposition while Modi cornered stoic dignity for the cameras. In the meantime, we aren’t anywhere closer to the moon. And while the government lobbies obstinate ratings agencies to grant its lethargic performance a higher grade, there are methods to erase from public discourse all talk of the sputtering India story by replacing past promises with 24×7 distractions.
For instance, the aggressive tests of who is and isn’t with “the nation”—the latter were informed through the usual TV channels that they might find Pakistan more hospitable and should consider emigration. University students found themselves at the receiving end of new lessons in character building—it was the old way to believe that academic spaces were open to debate and dissent, where outrageous ideas are defeated by better thinking. Tall flags are being installed on campuses to impart to students the significance of loyalty to tangible establishments like the state, as opposed to refractory illusions of free thought. Free expression didn’t take Rohith Vemula far, after all, and Najeeb Ahmed is still missing—better to become uncomplaining bricklayers for “the nation” envisioned by the “pradhan sewak”.
This preference for compliance, which was pushed a little more this year and will continue making inroads in the next (through the systematic crippling, for example, of NGOs), comes, like all things in the BJP, from tradition. This was highlighted by the estimable M.S. Golwalkar, second “supreme leader” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who wrote at length on how democracy is actually a dreadful, horrid idea. It would, he believed, “poison the peace and tranquillity of the human mind” and “disrupt the mutual harmony of individuals in society”. Leaders must be worshipped and supported, not questioned. Golwalkar, in fact, celebrated monarchy as “a highly beneficial institution…showering peace and prosperity on the whole of our people”.
We can look forward in 2017 to more “tranquillity” and “mutual harmony” in the way of monarchs, and as with that awful movie mentioned earlier, the Prime Minister will be there to strike poses and give us sentimental speeches while his cheerleaders desperately scout for that elusive thing: an actual plot.