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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 25, New Delhi, June 5, 2021

Chronicle of deaths foretold | Ash Narain Roy

Friday 4 June 2021, by Ash Narain Roy

by Ash Narain Roy

The Covid-19 pandemic marks what American writer and futurist Alwin Toffler calls “the premature arrival of the future.” It has led to an unprecedented craving for the past and put a big question mark on the future. While reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic, much of humanity finds itself “alone together,” stranded as it is in what American poet Rachel Hadas calls “our shared nowhere,” politics in India is going through magical unrealism. India is witnessing a tragedy of cosmic proportions. There has been a total collapse of an otherwise precarious health infrastructure. Inequality and the rich-poor divide, product of history, politics and power, has widened to a dangerous level.

Draconian state policies, pompous policy announcements, shoddy record-keeping and lack of a policy direction characterize the government’s response to the multi-pronged crisis.

Political and societal polarization apart, what is worrying is the steadfast dismantling of public education and the rise of anti-intellectualism. The media ecosystem had never been so fragile. Disinformation industry is flourishing. Ryan Holiday’s book, Trust Me, I am Lying, sums up the state of affairs. Today trolls hijack debates, opinion masquerades as fact and yet, no one is accountable for any of it.

During the pandemic, fake news has increased social media’s power of deception. The government is using various channels to inform, misinform and disinform. Fake news, the invisible sword, is getting weaponized. As Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon says, “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.” Experts agree that fake news is the outcome of information overload. Endless blogs, videos, tweets and memes have inundated information marketplace. Life in endless lockdowns means we are getting used to our political echo chambers. Herd immunity may have eluded us but we have ended up in social herding.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari says that pandemic tends to accelerate history. But has it accelerated politics as well? Politics today has to wrestle with scarier elements of human nature—aggression, tribalism, fearfulness and rage. Suddenly, the Indian state looks like Hobbesian Leviathan. Crises often set the stage for change. The Covid-19 hasn’t changed anything in India, much less its politics. Our bragging rights about being the fastest economy went up in smoke long ago. Stagnant economy often leads to toxic politics. The idea of India is in peril which is being attacked by false prophets. Suddenly, India looks another country.

Of all the states, UP’s downhill journey is a cause of great concern. The lawlessness which is tearing apart the social and religious fabric of UP is neither wanton, nor is it without explanation. For long, the state has witnessed social decay and administrative collapse. Today, UP has become a forbidden land, a dangerous place. It is gripped by a crisis of confidence. An amalgamation of fear, confusion and pessimism pervades all aspects of life.

The causes of the state’s decline are numerous, deep-rooted and decades in coming. Under Yogi, it is not only queerer than we imagine; it is queerer than we can imagine. Faith and bigotry trump reason for Yogi and his followers. If Yogi still manages to project himself as a saviour of UP, it is largely because the people have lost the ability to be outraged.

Horror is part of life in UP where blind hatred rules. This hatred is unfathomable and alive, spitting fire and smoke sucking blood. In an atmosphere of lawlessness beyond any sense of proportion and shame, it sometimes veers into the surreal. It is a system of fear where nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven. When those you fear need your favour, it is your turn to make them fear. The Yogi government has become synonymous with a brazen display of autocratic power.

UP has become a metaphor for ruthless barbarity. Hundreds of bodies floating in Ganga and the burning ghats of the holy river will remain itched in public memory for a long time. The ruling dispensation has left the people at the mercy of one man’s moods and hostage to a fear of state power. There is much that is bizarre in UP. Those visiting the state, media persons in particular, covering the pandemic, have the taste of the comic and the grotesque of the bizarre world. That India Today opinion poll should declare Yogi as the best chief minister raises questions about how pollsters gather data. a world where trolls hijack debates, marketers help write the news, opinion masquerades as fact, algorithms drive everything to extremes, and no one is accountable for any of it. I’m pulling back the curtain because it’s time the public understands how things really work. What you choose to do with this information is up to you.”

 India is now being viewed as “world’s largest illiberal democracy.” Illiberal leaders are building modern autocratic regimes with a new set of rules to keep themselves in power. They suppress unflattering stories about their incompetence and their policy failures. The India story of democracy and development going together has collapsed. The second wave of Covid-19 has dealt a deadly blow to the rising India narrative.

The Modi government is caught in the self-inflicted vaccine quagmire. India’s dream of becoming a dominant global power has been shattered by our myopic Covid diplomacy. As Time magazine recently wrote, “India has come a long way in a short time—from the swaggering vaccine Guru boasting about saving the world to desperately scouting the globe for vaccines.”

India has suddenly realized that the matrix of donor-recipient relations is no longer relevant and that there is no donor who is not receiving and there is no recipient who is not giving. Our short-sighted policy has made 91 nations vulnerable as India is in no position to supply the Covid vaccines.

Another worrying trend is the dangerous road that federalism in India has taken. Under Modi’s rule, it has meant more intertwinement than separation between federal and state governments. What we are left with is ramshackle federalism, not cooperative federalism that Prime Minister Modi swore by. Cooperative federalism implies that the federal government is supreme but national, state and local govts should work together cooperatively and in harmony to overcome common challenges. The Modi government is following “what is mine is mine, what is yours is negotiable” model of federalism. When a policy is doing well, the Central government takes all credit, but when the going is not good, the states must take all the blame.

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Atmanirbhar India may very well have its own Google. Hasn’t China created its own search engines and platforms like Baidu, Sogou, WeChat etc? For some time now, our data have been sounding too Chinese. Data is the sword of the 21st century. Despite great data technology advancements, our data are often redundant, disparate, inaccurate, missing, misplaced and undefined. Maybe, new India now needs ‘One India, One Story’ as the 1971 film Mere Apne song so eloquently portrayed, “Haal Chal theek thak Hai/Sabkuchh theek thak Hai” (https://youtu.be/oZZMehyXpds)

Another pandemic or health crisis is a matter of "not if, but when." Are we better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly co-ordinated fashion?

Nations and governments need to prepare for what Henry Kissinger describes as “transition to a post-Coronavirus world order.” Geopolitical sages are already talking of likely winners and losers. China is working to shape international narrative in its favour by posing itself as a savior. China can be trusted to sell its digital police state as a model of success claiming superiority of its system.

 Our leaders are busy peddling fantasies and live a fairy tale world. No one believes in “Indian exceptionalism” anymore. Surely, we are close to becoming a land of “utopia achieved.” The India story of “democracy and development going together” has collapsed. The second wave of Covid-19 has dealt a deadly blow to the rising India narrative. Two decades ago, China and India were seen as geopolitical pillars. Yasheng Huang of MIT and Tarun Khanna of Harvard Business School wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, “The real issue isn’t where China and India are today, but where they will be tomorrow.”

That dream of India becoming a dominant global power lies in tatters. The world is navigating a new geopolitical order framed by the rising dominance of China. India, the self-appointed ‘Global Guru,’ looks more like what Charles De Gaulle said disdainfully about Brazil as “the country of the future and always will be.”

It is never easy to predict political weather. No government can hope to go unpunished for repeatedly failing to reach across the aisle. The second wave of Covid-19 is a huge wake-up call. And the third wave may be on the horizon. What seemed impossible all these years may become inevitable as the politics of a certain kind may have begun cleaving apart. The “Team India” can continue to stick to the politics of ideological necrophilia, the passionate commitment to dead ideas, at its own peril.

(The author is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, India)

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