Time was when there was more to the politics of the street than street-level politics. Newly-independent India, for example, used the avenues of its capital to display its solidarity with the leaders and countries — Sukarno, Nasser, Tito — that stood with it as a non-aligned third front. But not all street naming was so benign, or so lofty in its goals. The politics of the Cold War, too, was continued by similar means. Now, while there is no Cold War and history (some continue to insist) has ended, the US and Russia are taking to the streets yet again.
Last month, the US renamed the street on which the Russian embassy stands in Washington after Boris Nemtsov, the anti-Vladimir Putin politician who was assassinated in 2015. A Russian lawmaker, miffed at the glaring insult to leader and country, has proposed that the street which houses the US embassy be called “1 North American dead end” — an escalation of the proper-noun provocation, if a little less subtle. But for those who remember the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is the Russian lawmaker’s directness, rather than allusion through a dissident political figure, that is unique. In Calcutta, the then Communist government of West Bengal showed its solidarity for the Vietnamese fighting the “imperialist yoke” by renaming the street outside the US consulate Ho Chi Minh Sarani.
There is, however, a silver lining in the harsh diplomacy. What if, as many on social media have suggested, street (re)naming can be used as a proxy for actual conflict, and remove the bad blood between nations? China, for instance, suggested “Snowden street” after the US proposed “Liu Xiabao” street after the Nobel prize-winning Chinese dissident. Neither has gone to war. And imagine the creative punchlines that will come at the expense of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.