It’s that time of the year when we in the media, being true to the established fetish of the profession, pretend to be the biographers of the future. This year happens to be different, and no matter how much we resist, to play with a novelist’s phrase, the struggle of memory against forgetting is what defines the survivors’ lives. We crawled out of the plague year learning how to unlearn, for nothing is the same any longer. Still, a future built on the ruins of the past need not be fragile. That is the hope of 2021, and that is the shared sentiment of its biographers.
We want to forget many things that made yesterday what it was. Our original reactions to the pandemic were formed by instinct, expertise and expediency (mostly political), and in fear, questions were muted when rulers resorted to either drastic remedies or casual denials; when information was realistic, reassuring, contradictory, and even alarmist. And when politics was compassionate, urgent, autocratic and foolish. In the survivor’s tales, the pathogen’s persistence was matched by the range of our impulses. We want to leave all that behind.
We have regained hope, courtesy science. The speed and the competitiveness with which science came up with a Covid vaccine is the story of our time, and while giving in to hope, let’s not be distracted by vaccine doubters or be amused by those who insist that they will take only a halal vaccine. Consider it as another good story bringing with it bad distractions verging on the ridiculous and the mischievous.
What the future can’t escape is the aftermath of pandemic politics. As you read this, the last desperate act of the fallen to prolong power has come to a disgraceful finale. The pandemic denied Donald Trump a second term, but he, floating in the alternate reality of an unhinged Narcissus, refused to see rejection as anything other than subversion. On January 6th, the so-called Shining City on a Hill was a darker place. The storming of Capitol Hill was Trumpism’s final spectacle while Trump was still in power. The spectacle will continue, elsewhere, as an antidote to the elected normalcy; and the legitimacy of the normal presidency will continue to be challenged by the Trumpian militia. The politics of conspiracy may not sound as Dan Brownesque as QAnon; it will go mainstream when a great political tradition such as the GOP struggles to choose between disintegration and gangsterism. The idea of America never ceases to concentrate our mind, and in the coming days, it will be for its flexibility in redefining freedom.
We are the other great democracy, and the original land of spectacles. At this particular moment, the spectacle that hogs the headlines is the farmers’ agitation. On Capitol Hill, it was the lumpenisation of grievance at its dramatic worst, all in the defence of a fallen leader. At the Delhi border, the dramatisation of grievance reveals only one thing: a strongman who refuses to be browbeaten by the organised strength of anti-modernisation. As, elsewhere, strongmen fall or get more anti-democratic, here, the story is all about the one who is still indulged by the world’s most volatile democracy. Modi’s domination of the popular mind will define the Indian political story.
There will be regional show of strength—or its depletion. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, the lady who won’t give up, and one of Indian politics’ enduring symbols of struggle and perseverance, faces her biggest challenge as BJP threatens to storm her social base, which itself once belonged to Marxists whom she unseated in 2011 after 34 years of uninterrupted rule. In Tamil Nadu, the electoral battle of 2021 will be comparatively normal in the absence of two political lives larger than their cardboard cut-outs: Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. In Kerala, it will be a referendum on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who looms large over the battleground without a challenger worthy of him. We will see whether the thunder comes from the East or the South.
Poeticising the future is a human trait. It’s as comforting as a good dream. My favourite line about it comes from the novelist Julio Cortázar: every future is fabulous. That is what we wish, and that was what we wished long before the plague. The perceived poetry of the future makes the prosaicness of the present bearable.