This piece was first published by Huffington Post India.History makes for very heavy baggage to carry. Even the most unimportant events often involve the worry of “what shall we tell our grandchildren?” Big events are called “historic”, and we “make history” when we do great things. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Indian government is desperate to prove that demonetisation was a test it passed handsomely.
A narrative of success is needed, not just for today, but also for the future of Indian history. The Great Cash Siege of 2016, which impacted every single Indian, cannot be remembered as a failure.
This urge to impress future generations shows how much we care about being part of a great history. We’re told at school that history teaches us what the human race has done well and ill, so that we can be careful in future. Yet, it is increasingly certain today that the ills of history are evident only in school lessons and debates. When they unfold live, we fail to notice them or create enough of an alarm.
It is one thing (and totally acceptable) to subscribe to a right-wing, conservative ideology. It is something different, however, to not recognise bad history when it is repeating right in front of us. Today’s India, in its rush to side on the right or the left, is not being stern enough in its protection of democracy.
Governments have for centuries used the same tools to keep power and puncture democracy. It’s simple: to strengthen regimes, they need to be in control of all civil society institutions. Controlling the judiciary, the opposition, the legislature, and civil watchdogs helps tame those meant to provide checks and balances. Influencing the media and the schools does the remaining job of overpowering institutions that could have kept the public vigilant. Lastly, such governments want us citizens to fight with each other.
The forms of control may have changed over decades, but lesson after lesson in history has taught us: ambitious governments need that important institutions toe the line, and that the public knows less, and fights and worships more.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not Adolf Hitler as some exaggerate, nor is today close to being the Emergency as many fear-mongers would tell you. History is not a matching game to draw similarities between individuals and events. All history hopes to do is teach us to compare symptoms, and be wary of where we might end up. History teaches us to predict the worst.
If we respect history as a guide for the present, today’s symptoms should worry us, irrespective of our personal ideology. Unending lynchings, bully lawmaking, a meek media, a pea-brained opposition, expanding power across states and legislatures, state-backed social media crooks, fake news—even if the government is not directly responsible for any of this, the truth is, the current government feels comfortable. History teaches us, that whether left-wing or right-wing, a government must never feelcomfortable.
The comfort today is such that issues that have nothing to do with the core saffron ideology — demonetisation, Aadhaar, or floods or child deaths in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states — can also be used to put us at war (a key element of how governments expand power). Supporters are rabid and unconditional. Verbal wars over obscure topics can become about religion, gender and caste — existential topics for the social right.
Spreading misinformation is easier today. Most of those lies get their punch from glorifying one man, so rumour-mongering has political rewards too. Public relations work better when the government has a synonymous face that people deprived of leaders can go gaga on. An adoring, unquestioning public is another key sign of things that must worry even the right if they care for democracy.
Criminal charges against adversaries are being cleverly timed. Acting on the corrupt is good for the CV, and timing it well sends much needed signals. An opposition in fear and disarray is yet another warning. When a news anchor barking at a ruling party manbecomes a matter of pleasant surprise, we are in dangerous times history has seen before. Again, it’s worrying for the principles of democracy and the wisdom of history, even if that ruling party is the one I voted for.
Our neighbour Pakistan is based on a history full of lies and manipulations; we not as much. Today, we are showing willingness to edit our own history to suit an ideology. We want to take the refuge of history, but this time, not to put up a good show in front of our kids, but for something even more dangerous: to doctor their thoughts and facts. A government keen to invest in lies is not something that history has not warned us about.
Irrespective of one’s political leanings, believing in democracy needs us to worry about a government that feels in control and risks going overboard. Such a government may have done wonders that make it deserve power; some of the warning signs of history may have nothing to do with the ruling party’s misdeeds. What remains of concern is a government that feels comfortable: comfortable enough to do all that could potentially rewind history.
Hence, this is a time when the two antagonistic ideological poles must give way to one united stance, one for the health of democracy and the lessons of history.