Disgust Can Change the World

A year in which India’s politics was altered in unimaginable ways.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: December 29, 2013 3:43:51 am

A watershed year is upon us,heralding an eagerly awaited general election which may bring India out of limbo after two years of palsied fecklessness. Here on,things can only look up. When you’re at rock bottom,every way you look is up. So,where were we… Oh yes,we’re heading for a general election in which we get to choose between a bull,a calf (the old Congress cow and calf election symbol takes on new meaning) and a jhadu for sweeping the Augean stables with. We’re rich,in a barnyard sort of way.

How did we get here? To borrow Rahulji’s finest quote of the year — and it’s produced a bumper harvest — 2013 has left India changed in ways that we cannot even imagine. Alternative politics has morphed into a political alternative,brushing away certainties as ancient and as durable as the Gondwana Plate. The ethical foundation of an instinctively patriarchal,feudal and possibly fascist society has been shaken by that very society,following an incident of rape that was totally gruesome,but not significantly more so than the fine crop that we raise every year. Star editors and godmen discovered,to their mortification,that the trivial pursuits of 2012 had become serious offences in 2013. Everything was on the move. Even the Light Combat Aircraft,which had been on the drawing board for so long that it had almost attained mythical status,like the roc and the simurg,took to the air.

We,along with Rahulji,can scarcely imagine where such tectonic changes will take India,but they were obviously triggered by the same first cause: disgust. Disgust at ourselves,our ossified values,our bovine patience,our infinite capacity to take abuse from ourselves,and our triumphant equanimity in the face of so much disgust.

Disgust is one of the most powerful human responses to the world. It helps us to tell food from poison and self from other. That is why politicians paint opponents as disgusting. The BJP assigns its foes the disgusting traits of pseudo-secularism,anti-national economics and flaccid foreign policy. Secular parties paint Narendra Modi as altogether disgusting,doomed to pervert all that he touches. Moditva is so comprehensively disgusting that we can’t bear to look at the details.

But politically generated disgust is puny compared to the real thing: epiphanic disgust,the sudden discovery that we live in an ugly world,and that we ourselves are ugly. That alters politics in ways that cannot possibly be anticipated. This year began in the shadow of the Delhi gang rape,which caused India to look deeply into its own eyes in the mirror. Revolted by the inhumanly grinning thing it saw reflected in there,it had two choices — reach for the cyanide,or hit out at the whole system. This is a nation of survivors. The choice was obvious.

It is just over a year since the death of the 23-year-old woman,who had fearlessness thrust upon her. The weeks of rage were over and Delhi’s streets were eerily calm. In a rare show of responsiveness,the government had designated fast-track cases for rape in January and tightened the law. It didn’t seem to deter rapists. The “lapse of judgement” suffered months later by former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal,who should know the law quite intimately,suggests that we believe that the law applies to other people,not to us. Even last winter,when the degree of public revulsion was so high and the urge to public expiation so powerful that Delhi had become a city of lynch mobs waiting to gather,rapists were calmly going about their business,raping at will. So much for deterrence.

The year closed with an election in which rape was billed as a key issue. The BJP spent disgustingly large sums on outdoor publicity. It had a jingle that went,“Dilli ki pehchaan hai rape…” But it worked as indifferently as legal deterrence. Voters had other things on their minds,such as that ancient fellow traveller of rape: pillage.

If the movement against rape was like a match lit in a kitchen where the gas has been left running,revulsion — and self-revulsion — about corruption was like something rotten in a pressure cooker over a slow fire. Since the 2G scam broke in 2010,it had made life unbearable for everyone. For a while,it felt like everyone was involved,and everything tainted. Even the media,which is expected to bring transparency to the life of the nation,was implicated by the Niira

Radia tapes. It was simply disgusting beyond endurance.

Now,jhadu in hand — an ironic concatenation of election symbols — India is apparently about to cleanse itself. It’s Delhi today,and India next year. In the spring of 2014,AAP plans to contest the general elections. If it has the stomach for it,that is,after spending the intervening months pondering an unprecedented political problem: how do you run a government with an ally whom you plan to send to jail,a goal that is written into your manifesto? It’s a perfectly disgusting situation to be in.

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