What will be different in 2014, and where?

Whenever we think about the future, we do so on the basis of past events and experiences, which is really the only way to go about the exercise.

So many predictions made earlier have failed to materialize that it is better not to venture into any; rather, one may try to make a reasonable projection taking into account trends or major singular happenings. But even that is subject to so many unknowns that it may well go off the mark. Nevertheless, it is instructive to ponder future perspectives from the vantage point of known facts, and perhaps then we may be better prepared to handle whatever comes our way.

A quick look around the world will show that countries and regions have been facing pretty much the same set of regular and cyclical concerns. The threat of religiously-inspired terrorism has continued to hang like a pall over the world, with certain countries (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq) being more frequent victims than others. The ongoing recession has affected all countries and economies to various degrees, with issues of slow growth, soaring youth unemployment, widening social inequalities within and among countries topping the list of problems needing urgent attention and pragmatic solutions which have not always been forthcoming.

Africa and the Middle East have continued to be shaken if not torn apart by unending ethnic and religious divides, with the accompanying violence that has left in total thousands of deaths and no sign of any abatement any time soon. Syria, Mali, Nigeria, Congo and South Sudan come to mind. Political instability still prevails in countries that gave hope to an Arab Spring that alas turned out to be more of a winter. To this trail of man-made woe the fury of nature added its toll: from Brazil through midwestern and northeastern America via England and France, to India which faced a ‘Himayalan tsunami’ and the utter devastation caused by cyclone Haiyan in the Philippines, all regions of the globe have had their share of unbearable misery. They are still grappling with the consequences of the disasters which have been of literally earth-shaking proportion.

Amidst all this, however, three things stand out.

The one that united the world, albeit temporarily, is the death of a global icon, Nelson Mandela aka Madiba.

The second one was the unravelling of the workings of USA’s NSA – National Security Agency – by a former consultant to the agency, Edward Snowden, who revealed to the world that Big Brother was not the communist Soviets as in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the pusher of liberal democracy across lands willing or ready and unwilling or not ready, his own country America.

The third one may well have initiated a new way of doing politics – the totally unexpected victory of a people’s party, the Aam Aadmi Party or AAP, in New Delhi led by someone who practically came from nowhere and overturned the applecart of the traditional way of doing politics in India.

So much has been spoken and written about Nelson Mandela, a living legend in his own lifetime just as Gandhi was, that it is not necessary to repeat the details. But two things broke new ground: his magnanimity in victory in forgiving his erstwhile sworn enemies, and his unique decision to step down after one term. They are part of his legacy, the single most important one being extracting freedom for his country against all odds and expectations. It is noteworthy that, in his own words, he fought against both ‘White domination and Black domination’ – perhaps part of the reason for his forgiveness?

But as for the rest of his legacy, let us turn to William Gumede, the editor of No Easy Walk to Freedom (a collection of Nelson Mandela’s writings) who wrote after his death: ‘The current South African reality is the opposite of what Mandela strived for. It can be seen in the contrast between the moral authority of a Mandela and the murkiness of a Jacob Zuma, the current ANC and South African President,’ and ‘Last year the ANC celebrated its centenary – a time when anti-democratic leaders and groups appear to have a stranglehold on the party. Mandela’s racially inclusive legacy is in danger of being destroyed by narrow tribalistic tendencies. It is not a way to treat his legacy.’

Information has filtered about another murky design by some of his family members: the expulsion of his wife Graca Machel. So much for the legacy of such an illustrious person.

As for Edward Snowden, who has had to seek the protection of the original Big Brother, now Putin’s Russia, he is a traitor as far as the US is concerned. And, given the enormity of the scandal that he has uncovered and what else he may come up with, he is unlikely to be granted any latitude let alone pardon by his mother country, although he and others like-minded see themselves differently.

Consider these extracts from TIME magazine of June 24, 2013: ‘The 21st century mole demands no payment for his secrets. He sees himself as an idealist, a believer in individual sovereignty and freedom from tyranny… He believes that information wants to be free, that privacy is sacred and that he has a responsibility to defend both ideas.’ Further, ‘this new breed of radical technophiles believes that transparency and personal privacy are the foundations of a free society. Secrecy and surveillance, therefore, are gateways to tyranny.’ Readers may draw their own conclusions.

Now we come to Arvind Kejriwal, who has shaken the established order in New Delhi by unseating a three-term Chief Minister, Mrs Sheila Dixit with AAP obtaining 28 out of the 70 seats, 32 going to the BJP and only a meagre 8 going to the Congress Party.

Arvind Kejriwal, a former income tax commissioner, resigned from his job to continue social activism by the side of Anna Hazare, a 74-year old staunch Gandhian who started a mass movement to force government into passing a signal piece of anti-corruption legislation that he and his collaborators had crafted: the Lokpal Bill (it has now been passed).

What is interesting however are the events that have taken place in the wake of that mass protest which was partly modelled on the Arab uprising and the Occupy Wall Street movement. While the latter has fizzled out, the former has not had the expected impact in terms of political change and the running of the respective countries. Besides, it has been associated with much violence, bloodshed and many deaths among the protesters. This is not so with the movement of Anna Hazare, which has remained non-violent and has been able to achieve the stated goal after a period of cooling off. That, at least, is a beginning.

However, although most would agree that the victory of AAP gave a boost for the introduction of the Lokpal Bill in the Indian Parliament, hurried further by the second indefinite fast undertook by Anna Hazare, sadly the latter has dissociated himself from his follower Arvind Kejriwal. Anna felt that street activism was a sufficient strategy, and did not want to get involved in party politics.

Clearly Arvind Kejriwal had a different view. Maybe because of his experience as a government officer he thought that to bring about change one must fight from inside and not remain outside, hence there was no alternative but to formally constitute a party and fight the elections, which is now a successful fait accompli.

The significant aspect of this victory is the emergence of a third force with funding from the common man, something which was thought impossible. This is therefore being touted as a new way of doing politics, and if this experiment is successful in terms of delivery on the promises made to the people of Delhi, then the possibility of extending this model nationally and its success is a potential game changer for India, and possibly for the world. It’s early days no doubt, but points to an exciting perspective ahead.

Already, Arvind Kejriwal has announced some measures which have momentous symbolic value. Thus, as Delhi’s new chief minister, he has ‘vowed for the first time to break from India’s colonial past by promising that neither he nor his ministers would take up residence in those sumptuous homes. He also promised to do away with a culture of privilege that allows ministers and top bureaucrats to zip through Delhi’s traffic in motorcades with police escorts and flashing lights.’ AAP prepared an 18-point document which he got approved by the people of Delhi through sms responses running into hundreds of thousands. They are issues which it has vowed to pursue, and Kejriwal has stated that ‘It is not me who will be the chief minister, it will be Delhi’s common man who will be the chief minister. Alone I cannot do anything.’

But will he be able to change the lives of Delhites? Because ‘significant challenges remain. Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted and crowded cities. A third of its residents live in slums with little access to sanitation or clean water; its electricity is fitful and its roads and infrastructure poor. Inflation is soaring, and India’s economy is flagging. While he based his campaign on eliminating corruption, Mr Kejriwal also promised to slash electricity rates in half and give free water to every Delhi household. He also promised to build 200,000 community and public toilets.’

As Sudha Pai, a political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, ‘It is easy to lead a movement but difficult to run a political party. Now they have to deliver on their promises of cheap electricity, free water and corruption-free government. Those are not easy promises to fulfill.’

If they manage to do so, the manner of doing politics may well change drastically in India, perhaps with lessons for the rest of the world too.


* Published in print edition on 27 December 2013

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