There is palpable despondency in the air as India concludes one more calendar year under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Following Modi's abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of high denomination currencies on 8 November 2016, Indians have had intimate acquaintance with a term that an overwhelming majority had not even heard of before: demonetisation. The social chaos, economic mayhem and the business downsides that have accompanied it are a fitting culmination to a dismal, depressing year.
The term "Banana republic", often tossed around casually in TV debates as a mere caustic innuendo to describe India , is actually assuming defined contours. Nothing explains that better than impatient crowds attacking bank security guards after waiting for interminable hours in endless queues. At least 105 unsuspecting, innocent Indians are dead. Apparently, it is a "small sacrifice" that proud patriotic Indians must make to see India become a cashless economy. Modi seems remorseless; even his crocodile tears have run dry. Forbes was trenchant in its candor" demonetization was "sickening and politically immoral". The Wall Street Journal describes the hard-sell of a cashless society as creating economic devastation and usurping of an individual's economic liberty. The more than 100 changes in deposit/withdrawal rules since the black-money drama began are nothing short of bizarre.
We have a government that is running around like a headless chicken, obsessed with headline grabs.
There are no 50 shades of grey in India (pardon the kinky metaphor)—everything is black and white under a supersensitive dispensation that gets an upset tummy if it even sniffs an iota of remonstrance. We are being schooled into accepting State subjugation as de rigueur, something that is often described charitably by political commentators as the "new normal". When an upright editor of a national daily publicly chided the government for applauding journalists who genuflected without any seeming physical discomfort, it seemed a rare moment of hope. Modi sat with a cold countenance on the stage during that epochal moment. A sliver of sunshine though was visible in that honest outburst. Even if it was, ruefully, too transient. Criticising Modi or his feeble, faltering , failing government is promptly labeled as an act of treason. Often in acrimonious TV debates, BJP spokespersons have with enormous aplomb called us poor opposing souls "Pakistani representatives". Interestingly many TV anchors encourage bloody slugfests and advise their studio camerapersons to give more screen space to those indulging in the mindless shouting. For many viewers, it is entertainment of the David Dhawan variety—pure, unadulterated madness. It looks stupid. Even funny, as nobody knows what's going on. Best, nobody cares. Indian democracy stands compromised as a result of mainstream media's (at least large sections of it) pusillanimity and the dumbing-down of critical issues. Crucial matters such as the independence of the judiciary, the Kashmir unrest, Dalit atrocities, a missing JNU student, economic stasis, carcinogenic communalism, foreign policy blunders, disastrous policy failures get lost amid the cacophony, even as TRP accumulates. If Parliament has remained gridlocked despite a majority party calling the shots, it tells us of BJP's intent to stifle debate, discussions and deliberations. Quite extraordinarily, Modi cheerleaders in newsrooms question the opposition more than the government. They choose pre-show hashtags that pre-determine the editorial standpoint. We have staged shows, almost.
Until the deadly tsunami of demonetisation overwhelmed national discourse, surgical strikes were the stars of the show. It was used as a zeitgeist; everything was precision personified, it was said. Modi was trumpeted as having the Midas touch. When the Indian army counter-attacked Pakistan following the Uri terror attack, the BJP promptly pounced on it to give it a Hindu mythological twist. Modi transmogrified into Lord Rama; posters displaying his mighty prowess proliferated all over in poll-bound states. Frankly, credit for decision-making is implicit in successful cross-border endeavors. But the BJP and Modi appeared egregious in their desperation. They were cheap in their vulgar greed to appropriate military honors for themselves. Once again, electronic media turned their innocuous studios into blazing war-rooms, interspersed with retired army folk , many of whom wanted bloody reprisals. Some politicians even suggested a nuclear exchange, never mind the few million lives that would be lost for the noble cause of annihilating a dangerous neighbour of 69 years. Serious bilateral problems were reduced to GI Joe comic-book war games. One clownish TV anchor was hell-bent on provoking military adventurism from the air-conditioned confines of his luxurious studio. There were moments I felt I was part of a reality-TV show. As a spokesperson of a political party, you have limited room to manoeuver. Often, you have to feign indifference when you really want to burst out laughing at the ludicrousness on display.
As a spokesperson of a political party, you have limited room to maneuver. Often, you have to feign indifference when you really want to burst out laughing at the ludicrousness...
Udta Punjab and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil became political jacket potatoes with blue cheese dressing. Everyone is very thin-skinned and easily offended in our country these days. If you are a film-maker, first you need to learn how to waltz on sea-shells. Social media trolls use violent language to indulge in digital warfare which often surpasses the real world in its virulence and intensity. They did not even spare a newborn. Their grouse? The child's name. We moved from the absurd to the atrocious.
The much-consecrated Tata empire witnessed an ugly brawl; the old patriarch and the young inheritor clashed in a gargantuan ego battle. Skeletons with substantial meat in them emerged from creaky cupboards. At this rate one will witness the irreversible destruction of India's most haloed corporate brand. Perhaps it was always very overrated.
But morbid consolation came in recurring bouts from the miseries of others. Worldwide many have been swallowing anxiety pills ever since the current wave of hyper-nationalism resulted in a Brexit triumph and propelled the unexpected entry of the unpredictable Donald Trump into the White House. Brutal events in Syria portend dark days ahead, even as ISIS collapses. The refugee crisis will only escalate, even as Europe's xenophobia and inward-looking politics will create more geographical barriers. The big fear of 2017: Frexit.
Back home, we have a government that is running around like a headless chicken, obsessed with headline grabs. For the 130 crore people of India, minus the ideological diehards who support even its every ridiculousness, this has been a rough year. For 2017, all one has is hope. But that may by itself be a good beginning.