The ongoing churn in India lends itself well to anxious hand-wringing as well as cheesy humour about being transported back to the nineties. We’ve all seen and added to the déjà vu discourse, both light-heartedly and seriously.
The economic environment has prompted parallels to the crisis of 1991, with many asking whether tomorrow’s seemingly inevitable military strike on Syria will be yesterday’s Gulf War for what it will to do India’s oil bill.
For better or worse, we have traversed the bumpy journey from licence-raj to crony capitalism, ignoring all the speed-breakers along the way. And now find ourselves in reverse gear, re-opening fundamental, but clearly unresolved questions over how much of a welfare state India is, should be, and can afford to be.
In Uttar Pradesh the spat between the Samajwadi Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad over its Ayodhya yatra makes the past seem like a destination that all roads still lead to. Notwithstanding the relatively limp response to the VHP’s calls for a public surge, the attempts at competitive polarisation are an evident throwback to several decades ago — a time that scarred India indelibly. In this case the ideological division is politically expedient on both sides of the trenches.
Temple rabble-rousers hope to consolidate the Hindu vote in a state that is crucial to the election outcome. Akhilesh Yadav’s government has done a cynical calculation on a presumed Muslim vote in its ham-handed suspension of an honest IAS officer who cautioned against a mosque’s wall coming up illegally on public land. Strictly metaphorically, Durga Shakti of 2013 could be the Shah Bano of 1986; the year in which the Rajiv Gandhi-led government passed a legislation to overturn a landmark Supreme Court judgment on alimony for Muslim women. The protagonists of the Mandir movement have, of course, remained unchanged. Listen to them today and it’s as if a moment of history was frozen for future examination; even statements made two decades apart are marked by a surreal and stagnant sameness.
It’s fashionable to believe that economic liberalisation and the empowering of a burgeoning middle class, has offered guarantees against religious conflagrations. We all latch on to the rarefied notion of a ‘Changing India’ when we want to argue that politics and religion do not pair well on the menu of the new, more evolved Indian citizen. Political scientists like Ashutosh Varshney have gone so far as to argue that India is now “post- riot” (but, he adds, not post-prejudice.) But other than the entrenched cultural homogeneity that comes with globalisation — malls, movies, brands, cars — there is no evidence that economic reforms have delivered a substantively more modern polity or electorate.
From Kishtwar to Kanpur, our politics remains inflammable the moment religion is pushed into the mix. We have not even been able to discuss the arrest of one of India’s most dreaded terrorists — Indian Mujahideen co-founder Yasin Bhatkal — without the conversation being split wide open by predictably opposing camps. Even after Bhatkal’s custody and a congratulatory phone call from the prime minister to the chief of the Intelligence Bureau, there are several Congress politicians who still question the threat posed by the terror group. From the BJP, there continue to be representatives who push the burden of terrorism onto an entire community, showing little empathy for innocent Muslims entangled in false cases.
Common sense militates against any forced complexity; we don’t need politicians who make lame excuses for a bunch of terrorists who have claimed the lives of more than 200 citizens over the last few years. Equally, there should be no space for deconstructing terrorism in the prejudiced language of a Hindu-Muslim divide. The fact that even something that should have been non-contentious leads to such volatile eruptions in public debate is evidence of how discordant our setting is today.
It’s only going to get worse. We like to spin a political narrative around how efficient governance has thrown off the shackles of anti-incumbency. But the truth is that in the absence of clear victors or inspiring leadership, and in an atmosphere of intense cynicism, this is going to be an awfully bitter election year. In some ways, we are today, even more polarised than we were in the late eighties and nineties. Right now, it’s a simmering cauldron with the lid forced on top; a volatile next six months could swiftly pull the safety cover off.
Think of what Salman Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children. “No people whose word for yesterday is the same as their word for tomorrow can be said to have a firm grip on time.” Of course, in Rushdie’s own relationship with India the past has stalked him in a terrifying illustration of his critique. For several decades, and depending on how imminent an election is, old controversies are dragged out from history to keep the future tense.
Perhaps the only silver lining to the playbook of the past is the fact that we can still laugh at the mess we are in. So, you have the endless spate of back-to-the future jokes — the return of Dalmiya to BCCI, Madhuri to Mumbai, Narayana Murthy to Infosys — and just to keep it all friendly in the neighbourhood Nawaz to Pakistan.
But there’s actually nothing funny about a country where people are looking over their shoulders because they apprehend what confronts them up ahead. The only significant, but depressing, break we have made from the past is that we are less idealistic as a people, perhaps because nothing — neither an idea, nor an individual — offers us any visible Hope.
As a person who was shaped by the cusp of the liberalisation era, I remember a passionate India that was unafraid to think big. Today, it feels like yesterday once more, without the dreams.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal