Ideology and the pandemic by Jawed Naqvi

THE niece was in school in the US when she saw Nadia Comaneci live on TV in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In India, one could only dream of such pleasures although the kindly radio ensured we wouldn’t miss the cricket action at Old Trafford, Karachi or Kanpur thanks to John Arlott, Omar Qureishi and Bobby Talyarkhan weaving magic with the running commentary.

Coming back to Delhi the following year, the niece was greeted with fanfare reserved for people returning from a pilgrimage. She had seen the wondrous Nadia perform her fabled Perfect 10s on the beam and uneven bars. But, uncle, the schoolgirl moved quickly to alert me to a flaw in my eagerness. “Nadia is a communist.” And so? Didn’t we like the Romanian girl’s captivating smile? “Yes, but, you know, communists are trained how to smile.” Probing her reading list in school in America, out came the resolution to the puzzle. George Orwell’s Animal Farm had taken its toll.

The anti-communist primer had come up also for exams at our school in Lucknow, but somehow for most students it was water off a duck’s back. Indeed, the common man’s grip of political reality has remained at variance with, say, Ayub Khan’s, as the dictator turned his hatred of partisans into a bloody mess, or Nehru, who would abandon his fabled democratic instinct to dismiss the world’s first popularly elected Marxist government in Kerala over a disputed school curriculum.

When the Cold War was over, there was a sense of anticipation that the ‘free world’ would tone down the admixture of cretinism and propaganda, which it spewed for decades to describe a communist’s horns and canines. One thought the shrill imagery would give way to a sensible critique of many things that had gone wrong with communist systems.

‘Nadia is a communist.’ And so? Didn’t we like the Romanian girl’s captivating smile? ‘Yes, but, you know, communists are trained how to smile.’

Within no time at all, however, the Cold War-era slogan for free democracies turned into an insidious prescription for ‘free-market democracies’. That should have been figured out as early as 1955 when popularly elected Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in Iran by an American-British intelligence-led coup over the prime minister’s nationalisation of the oil industry.

One of the triggers for Orwell’s outburst against communism was his disenchantment with Stalin, though the British writer never reneged on his own commitment to socialism, provided it remained democratic. Much of Orwell’s anger deepened with his experience of the Spanish Civil War where he saw partisans turning on each other, aligning against Stalinists or supporting them.

As the world continued to see in the fable of Animal Farm the turning of an egalitarian dream into a nightmare, particularly for those that led the allegorical revolution, not much was said or discussed of Orwell’s ‘Man’ who symbolised the animals’ class enemy. It was Man in the form of the drunken farm owner, one Mr Jones and his perpetually snoring wife, whose untold cruelties set off the upheaval.

“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing,” the Old Major confided to the secret barn house meeting. The ageing pig was the intellectual fountainhead of the rebellion. “[Man] does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin.”

Replace Man with Capitalism and it reads like a fine précis of the Communist Manifesto. This critique of capitalism in the very beginning of the book has been lobotomised from popular memory. The Covid-19 pandemic may have pushed it back centre stage again, nudging societies to rephrase their worldview. The millions we saw on the roads in the wake of the badly called lockdown in India were as much victims of a callous state as of a reality in which the rich are the privileged and the poor their grovelling minions.

That equation may have been jolted. The world’s four best friends are definitely in trouble. Benjamin Netanyahu has lost his popularity from 70 per cent approval ratings to around 15. The virus has ensnared Jair Bolsonaro in more ways than one. He has a rebellion brewing. Donald Trump is fighting everything and everyone except the virus. His lack of leadership, when it was most needed to save American lives, looks primed to cost him the election in November. Narendra Modi, according to The New York Times, has used the virus-related lockdown to arrest more critics, indicating he is on the back foot.

The Times mentions the case of Natasha Narwal, a student activist accused of rioting by the New Delhi police. When a judge ruled that she be freed for she was merely exercising her right to protest against a divisive citizenship law, the police slapped fresh charges of murder and terrorism, sending her back to jail.

Vijay Prashad’s Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research has been studying the way in which governments in places like Laos, Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam — and one Indian state, Kerala — have tackled the coronavirus.

Both Laos and Vietnam border China, where the virus was first detected in late December 2019, and both have thriving trade and tourist relations with China. India is separated from China by the high Himalayas, while Brazil and the US have two oceans between themselves and Asia; nonetheless, it is the US, Brazil, and India that have shocking numbers of infections and fatalities. Asks Prashad: “What accounts for the ability of relatively poor countries like Laos and Vietnam to attempt to break the chain of this infection, while richer states — notably the United States of America — have floundered?” Orwell should have been around to figure that out.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2020

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