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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Wonder Year: The seeds of present-day politics were sown in 1989

In 1989, it may have seemed quaint. Three decades later, it is no longer just an anthropological curiosity.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Updated: October 27, 2019 4:41:10 pm
politics, world politics, Eye 2019, Sunday Eye, Indian Express news Donald Trump (right) with Larry King

The academic archive JSTOR sometimes throws up the most unexpected results in searches. A search for European events in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, produced what must be the most exhaustive and perceptive press release ever written, to introduce a special issue of Daedalus, titled “Another India”, which appeared in December that year. Daedalus is the bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and this was Vol. 43, No. 3. Written by the editor, Stephen R Graubard, the release betrays extraordinary insights into stuff about the US and India which could not have been obvious at the time.

For instance, Graubard protests about the narrow coverage of India read by Americans in their morning newspaper: “In recent years, the news has been principally of terrorism and violence, poverty and corruption, Rajiv Gandhi and Salman Rushdie. The same American, reading equally distinguished foreign newspapers on major developments in the United States, would be properly aggrieved if the offerings were limited to tales of crime and drugs, homelessness and hunger, George Bush and Donald Trump.” Trump was delivered to the world by a long history of American misadventures and miscalculations. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall came down and its bits and pieces began to be sold to tourists, Francis Fukuyama published “The End of History” — the article which was developed into the influential book three years later — in The National Interest, which is actually about international affairs.

Fukuyama was wrong, of course, since Western liberal democracy is clearly not the endpoint of civilisation. Entropic disorder has taken over, and the scum has risen to the surface. Trump arrived on the world stage in 1989, with an interview with Larry King, in which he said: “Maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.” It would take him almost 30 years to channel the darkness in the soul of white America. It would also take the invention of Twitter on the back of an envelope in 2005 to give Trump the lever that would move the world and give it “covfefe”, but he had mobilised it in 1989.

politics, world politics, Eye 2019, Sunday Eye, Indian Express news The Berlin Wall (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

And so to India, which is what the special number of Daedalus was all about. In the winter of 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was out of office and VP Singh had succeeded him. It does mention caste in passing, but it was too early to appreciate that his tenure would sow one of the seeds of the modern Indian polity — the only positive one, the assertive politics of caste, led by the formerly dispossessed. And obviously, there is no inkling of the impending arrival of Narasimha Rao a couple of years later, and the other foundational blocks of a new era — liberalisation, the Babri demolition (which he could have prevented, had he not chosen to sequester himself, ironically, in the puja room) and a certain suitcase which Harshad Mehta handed over, but neglected to provide the key.

Almost all the seeds of the politics of the present day were present in 1989. The principal beneficiaries of liberalisation, the middle class, are precisely those who deride its architect, Manmohan Singh, most vehemently. The future of Babri is about to be settled in the course of a property suit in the Supreme Court. Technically, it is of no more importance than one of the thousands of property disputes languishing in the Tis Hazari court, just half an hour’s drive from the Supreme Court. But the outcome will decide the nature of our society. And Harshad Mehta? He rigged and diddled the markets, but he wasn’t a patch on the forces that are swelling the bubble which we live in today.

Surprisingly, the press release also brings up a dichotomy which actually began to be talked about after liberalisation — the paradox of one of the world’s biggest economies being dismissed as a zone of endemic poverty. Business was ahead of geopolitics in this matter, of course. After liberalisation, bizarre metrics were hurriedly designed to identify the Indian middle class, which would be the main beneficiary of free markets and globalisation, and therefore worthy of multinational attention. The most bizarre divided the middle class from the rest on the crucial question of whether the males used a traditional razor blade or a twin-blade razor.

We have survived these excesses. These days, in the Supreme Court, we are grappling with another oddity about India that Graubard mentions — that the old gods have not been displaced by “contemporary secularism that often parades as a watered-down version of socialism.” In 1989, it may have seemed quaint. Three decades later, it is no longer just an anthropological curiosity.

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

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