It is now clear as Delhi’s daylight that history never ended. Although Delhi’s daylight is smoggy the visibility of history, afflicted but alive, is not in doubt. In America it got reduced to Trump’s blustery pageantry; in Britain it marched humbly and swiftly out of the Brexit door; in Europe it dangerously tacked to the right; and in India, at the end of an unremarkable year, it stood in serpentine queues, bereft and battered. Afflicted yet very much alive.
Well, the winter-shrouded whupping was not something Prime Minister Modi, long and wrongly projected as a pariah by the cosseted elite of Lutyens Delhi, promised when, more than two years ago, he brought his paintbrush to give the arrogant club of India’s Davos Men a quick makeover.
For these governing suits, strong believers in the Brotherhood of Saville Row, someone coming from the rough and tumble of Gujarat, was akin to having a lumpen at their gates. Modi, a grounded product of Bharat, came armed with political nous and supreme confidence. His gumption allowed him an easy and comfortable march into the building.
From being a hick who spoke English haltingly, Modi ensconced himself in the prime ministerial residence and installed some elites as gatekeepers. The den had a new lion and the fast-depleting jungle of Lutyens had a new savvy master. Modi had defeated history and provided himself and the country he now singlehandedly led with a new narrative. It was a free-swinging and gutsy assault on the One Percent Club by a determined member of the Ninety-nine Percenter Chaupal. No one threatened his well-guarded kingdom.
Until Nov 8. The day a swaggering builder of luxury real estate became the new master of the United States, Modi, in a bewildering and bizarrely executed diktat, sent the entire country jostling into long and winding 24×7 queues.
History never moves in an orderly fashion. It zigs, as Modi’s friend Barack Obama recently said, and zags. It lurches, it leaps, it bites, it bounces, it moves, it shakes and, finally when it becomes uncontrollable, it lacerates. As a nation we all hope our history doesn’t turn into a never-ending queue of suffering and laceration. History is replete with examples of draining the swamp, but instances of drainers themselves drowning are few. If demonetization flops, Modi may not remain a blockbuster hero. If it does goes to what is now a constantly metamorphosing plan and achieves a new higher-than-before normal, he will carve his name in history.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus famously said men are disturbed not by things, but the view which they take of them. Let’s hope the view doesn’t change; only the queues alter. If the view changes, the prime minister will have to do some redaction. In the age of the smartphone, history, however, comes at 24 frames a second and rarely allows censoring.
2016 was a year when scissors, wielded by a man who perhaps never helped with simple homework, forget papier-mache, of his children, took centre stage. Culture, brutally barbered. As the film censor delivered bull-winders on TV, India’s creativity went to sleep. A story, as Jean-Luc Godard said, should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Perhaps our film censor, in his innate wisdom, heard history instead of story. All it needed was a Hi! And the entire country yawned.
A yawn–a long one at that–is a bodily function some Indians can happily engage in while being driven in their Ubers and Olas. The supersonic speed at which algorithms travel, from Bay Area to Bangalore, would have sent Einstein hunting for a new theory, but many economic theories now abound on how these algos are upending conventional and secure modes of employment. In the West, outcry against these technology leviathans is growing, and getting louder. The David of technology is every day getting kneecapped by the Goliath of Main Street America. For Team Trump, elected to the White House with the might of the jobless, it will be difficult to put the kibosh on the battlecry against these tech giants. It’s a matter of time–and some algorthims–before these protests travel to India. Big data, as the Israeli social scientist Yuval Noah Harari says, is an invincible conqueror. And Indians, already instagramming their plight in demonetization queues, may soon start facebooking more furiously with pokes of each other’s pink slips. Empathy is what they now demand of the insurrectionary Silicon Valley, but technological revolutions, history is abundantly clear, decimate many shibboleths as they roll ahead.
Like the anguished liberals, much to their chagrin, are coming to terms with their decimation across the world. This is not fake news that proliferates and multiplies readily in Zuckerberg’s colossal mansion, this is REAL. All caps REAL. Hillary did a lot of song and dance but never broke the glass ceiling; Cameron despite his Etonian cred thought politics a boarding-school joke; Renzi, hungry for too much hope, made an inedible spaghetti of reforms. Liberals bungled big time. Leaders who were blind to the tsunami of feverish nationalism rightly ended up being carried away into the deep ocean of oblivion. History came as a mighty wave whose forceful undertow took away many combined histories. Liberalism, as the American political satirist PJ O’Rourke said, is a philosophy of snivelling brats. The snivelling of these incorrigible brats will now continue for many years to come.
When the mind is without fear, wrote Rabindranath Tagore, and the head is held high…. The head, full of fictionalised facts, is burdensome in these parlous times. After all, mitron, this is the post-truth world. Where a blowhard president-elect ridiculously questions his own intelligence agencies; where politicians in Europe, with memories of the big wars and Holocaust still active in their capacious and learned minds, deride and jeer at refugees from Syria; where a revanchist party in the multiculti and chicken tikka Britain threatens to feed Muslims a toxic menu of hate and anger; and where a prime minister, still a thalaivar to most of his countrymen, tries to drastically change the narrative of the country as his boldest gambit yet stares at an uncertain outcome.
History certainly hasn’t ended; it has just moved from fact to fiction. When facts change, as Keynes said, I change my mind. What would he say now? Will he prefer the stony silence of Raghuram Rajan’s successor?
Finally, the mind will be full of fear, sticking with Tagore, the revered writer of our headline-grabbing national anthem, if you are in a cinema and somehow, busy popping popcorn or drinking diet soda, forget to stand up when Jana Gana Mana is played with a gigantic flag fluttering on the silver screen. You will not have to wait for the angry young man if you are in a theatre to watch Yash Chopra’s Deewar in 3D. There already will be many angry young men ready to clobber your head if you don’t respectfully stand up for our national anthem.
Tagore hated these virile displays of naked nationalism, but no one in our top court probably read Ghare Baire. The Home and the World. Well, when the world is tying itself up in tight knots, the home is at least singing the national anthem, standing of course, and in queues.
Queue sera sera, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s welcome 2017.