I have rarely felt as disturbed by the state of my country as I do today. It’s terrible to watch India slip into a quicksand of recrimination and under-confidence, where we alternate between whipping others and self-flagellation, to make our way out of the morass.
Back in the 70s, many Indians felt exasperated by the world’s inability to understand our multitudinous energies, our complexity and our determination to be a key architect of the global future. Today, our flight to the future seems grounded by a constant smog of negativity that hangs heavily over us, portending perennial bad weather.
Other than our cricket team (and we can be extremely intolerant and judgemental towards them too) and our movie stars, we have rarely anything positive to say about anyone. From being a country whose most famous global export was a Mahatma with a naughty smile and benign manner, we have become a compulsively angry, often intolerant people. As we get more and more defined by our restless anger, someone should well turn around and ask us ‘Why this Kolaveri Di’? Mercifully, the Tamil hit song is a peppy, foot-thumping number, but the slang phrase often used by young people to diffuse the rage of an eternally grumpy friend in the group could well be what the doctor prescribed for the rest of us as well.
If this were ‘Wonderland’— and why ‘if’, India has already become a pretty incredulous place — one could vividly visualise the Queen of Hearts and the limited menu options she offered in her version of democracy. “Now I give you fair warning,” she hollered at the Duchess who was released from prison in the middle of the Queen’s croquet game, “either you or your head must be off, and that in about half no time. Take your choice!” The Duchess vanished swiftly. And the Queen led Alice back to the game.
An uneasy Alice, who had not had any run-ins with the Queen yet, but didn’t rule them out either, wondered “What would become of me? They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here: the great wonder is, that there’s any one left alive!”
And that’s the point. In the end, in a world ordered by an ‘off with your head’ intolerance, no one is safe. While Lewis Carroll wrote satire, his words have proven to be chillingly prescient. The Queen’s motto encapsulates the current intolerance of our public mood. Our discourse seems woefully trapped in George Bush style binaries of ‘for and against’, with little capacity to understand that upholding principles is not the same as defending personas.
Take the recent assault on Union minister Sharad Pawar by a man who claimed to represent the public exasperation at corruption and rising prices, when he lunged forward and slapped the stunned leader. One would imagine that such an act of vigilantism would draw instant condemnation, no matter how critical one’s views may be on Pawar’s performance as the agriculture minister.
But in a forum often given to instant, pithy judgements that take no more than 140 characters, there have instead been many gladiatorial cheers. Several Twitteratti have lauded the attack in a modern version of ‘throw him to the lions’. And those of us who were quick to say that this was hooliganism hiding behind a fig leaf of public anger and could not be condoned, have been warned: Watch it or you will be slapped next. Once again the distorted, unintelligent binaries have been brought into play with journalists who have condemned the violence being branded as stooges of the political establishment.
The utterly ambivalent response from the Anna Hazare team has been extremely worrying as well. Hazare — who first asked mockingly ‘just one slap?’ when told about the assault on Pawar and later condemned the assault — must pause to remember when his own colleague Prashant Bhushan was viciously beaten up for his remarks on Kashmir. Later, the main brains behind the campaign, Arvind Kejriwal, also found himself at the receiving end of a shoe-hurler. Then too, many of us were unambiguous in our condemnation. Disagreement of thought cannot and must not be expressed in a manner that crosses the bounds of civility and decency. Surely, Hazare and his team musn’t be selective about upholding that principle?
And finally, while many of us have said that the generalised anti-politics rage can be detrimental to our democracy, our netas, too, have utterly failed to lead by example. Much of the drift that India finds itself in has originated in a dire leadership vacuum and disgust at entrenched corruption. There is also the obvious irony. When people watch rowdy behaviour stalling Parliament; microphones and chairs being hurled in state assemblies and violent scuffles at political rallies, they will turn around and question their politicians’ right to preach to the public. For instance, when NCP protestors took to burning tyres in some parts of Pune, they lost the moral authority of being the injured party. The answer to assault is not turning the other cheek. But nor can it be reacting in the same language.
When Alice watched the Red Knight and White fighting it out, she wondered ironically what the ‘rules of battle’ were. “One Rule seems to be that if one Knight hits the other, he knocks him off his horse; and, if he misses, he tumbles off himself — and another Rule seems to be that they hold their clubs with their arms, as if they were Punch and Judy — What a noise they make when they tumble! Just like a whole set of fire-irons falling into the fender!”
Those rules of battle didn’t help the knights. And our present rules of democracy aren’t stopping India’s self-confidence from fumbling and tumbling. Can anyone arrest the slide?
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal