A year can be almost an eternity in a country like India: last December, there was a sense of doom and gloom around us. Angry citizens had taken to the streets in protest against the gang-rape of the Delhi braveheart; the political class had lost credibility in a series of scams; the economy appeared to be on a downward spiral; and yes, even the Indian cricket team had just suffered a home loss to England.
A year later, we don’t quite smell roses in December, but there is a distinct change in the air. The same politicians who had fought to prevent the Lokpal Bill from being passed have now united to push the anti-corruption legislation through. A new political party has, in fact, shown it is possible to ‘sweep’ to power with a unique political model that is designed to break the traditional party system. A strong anti-rape law is in place which has given the Indian woman a sense of genuine empowerment. Inflation may still be hurting, but there are signs that the economy maybe on a gradual path to recovery. A plentiful monsoon has ensured that the granaries are full and the Sensex has touched new highs. And yes, even the Indian cricket team is competing with the best in the world at home and overseas.
The year 2013 – which we thought would go down as annus horribilis – hasn’t been so bad after all. And the good news is that 2014 maybe even better. Even given the penchant for hyperbole in the media, there is a sense that we are heading for a watershed election next year. Narendra Modi may have set the terms of the discourse with his macho nationalism, but even the original Hindutva hero is learning that India cannot be won by an exclusivist agenda. Which is why the original saffron slogan ‘Jo Hindu heet kee baat karega wahi desh pe raj karega’ is now replaced by a more universal ‘Vote for India’ appeal. Modi knows he has to re-invent himself, discard the baggage of the 2002 riots and make himself more acceptable to a plural, diverse India to win power. That he is making the effort to transform himself from a sangh parivar posterboy to an ambassador of good governance is itself a positive sign.
Rahul Gandhi too, is changing. A year ago, he remained cloistered behind the forbidding walls of Lutyens’ Delhi. Now, he is beginning to peep out of the shadows of silence and elite privilege. We still haven’t seen or heard enough of him, but the very fact that he is now willing to take public positions on a range of issues from the Lokpal Bill to Section 377 is a step in the right direction. It maybe too late to save the Congress from electoral defeat or from scoring self-goals like the recent rejection of the Adarsh committee report, but at least the Congress’ heir apparent is beginning to realise that politics is more than just occasionally rolling up your sleeves. Again, it’s a positive sign.
Then, there is the Arvind Kejriwal factor, which has crept into the national mindspace in the last 12 months. We can dismiss the Aam Aadmi Party as a Delhi phenomenon, criticise its populist rhetoric, but the truth is, it has awakened dormant social forces and reminded us that there is more to politics than the brazen use of money and muscle power. At the recent CNN IBN Indian of the Year awards, a cleaner at the Taj hotel came to me with only one request: he wanted a photograph with Kejriwal. I asked him why. His answer: “Sir, woh hamari baat karta hai”. We don’t know whether he will succeed in power, but by taking up the challenge of running Delhi with the Congress’ support, Kejriwal too is slowly realising that excessive self-righteousness needs to give way to the politics of pragmatism. Dare I say, it’s again a positive sign.
While politics throws up these positive signals, so is civil society. The candlelight vigils are giving way to more meaningful attempts at social change. Activists are now working to influence policy, engaging with the system rather than rejecting it. Whether it be the right to education, the debate over sexual harassment laws at the workplace or gay rights, the need for a cleaner environment or for better healthcare, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is space for a healthy dialogue that seeks to break away from stated positions. That even without any street rage, the government has chosen to review the regressive Section 377 judgment is in itself proof that conventional walls are breaking down.
An activist Supreme Court may have crossed the lakshman rekha at times, but has often played an important role in nudging the system to change. A good example is the judicial intervention in electoral laws that now prevent convicted MPs from contesting elections. Even the media, for all the stage-managed noise and misplaced hysteria, have played their part in holding those in lofty positions accountable. As the Tehelka case shows, we now have zero tolerance for the misdemeanours of our own fraternity.
This is not to suggest that we live in a completely new India. Every now and then, the old order creeps through. There are still enough sleazebag politicians and crony capitalists, corrupted judges and compromised media who will continue to preserve their self-interests and perpetuate an unequal society. And yet, every time you are pushed to the edge of despair, the sunshine of hope filters through.
Last week, we did a story on riot-affected Muzaffarnagar victims living in sub-human conditions in so-called ‘relief’ camps. Within hours of airing the story, several people, Hindus and Muslims, rang up with offers of help. The generosity of spirit was truly overwhelming, and suggested that compassion and tolerance will always triumph over those who thrive on hate and prejudice. Happy New Year!
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal