2020: When people spoke truth to power

The year 2020 has ended and Covid-19 is getting the better of us. We have yet to see whether we can reduce the impact of its onslaught and save lives in 2021. The virus is unrelenting and mutates to scare us with yet further onslaughts. It has changed the way we live and interact with each other. The elderly are most vulnerable and quarantined children are forced to grow up in isolation away from school. While the rich and the prosperous carry on their everyday lives, albeit somewhat constrained, the less privileged and the poor do not have this luxury. Quarantine for them has had disastrous consequences.

We saw in 2020, the spectacle which shook the conscience of the nation, migrant labourers stoically making their way home. The government stood by watching, oblivious of the consequences and at one time, informed the Supreme Court that there was no one on the streets walking home; that hapless migrants were being taken care of in every way. The reality was different. Our citizens’ outreach, along with that of NGOs, should have shamed the government’s unpreparedness and inept handling of the sudden lockdown and its fallout. Only an insensitive government could have boasted of distribution of free ration for survival of migrants on their long journey home. The painful images of migrants ready to endure extreme adversity will stay with us for long, their stories untold for years to come.

The year also saw the president of the most vibrant democracy in the world, Donald Trump, doing his utmost to denigrate the fundamentals of democracy, in a desperate bid to stick to power after losing to president-elect Joe Biden. What goes to his credit was his commitment to change the terms of trade with China. Trump recognised that the global balance of power had shifted and that America needed to protect its national interest by embracing the slogan — “America First”, modifying or rejecting bilateral treaties that, in his perception, hurt America. But in the process, American democracy was diminished. It brought about a Right-wing culture with Trump blaming “them” for the country’s inability to ensure that the fruits of the liberal economic order reach ordinary Americans. Immigrants, who empowered the United States (US) were suddenly portrayed as ones who took away jobs. Though consumers enjoyed the privilege of a variety of choices in accessing goods and services, it also resulted in the US losing its manufacturing capacity to China. Minorities felt uncomfortable and black Americans were targeted. Countries around the world became increasingly Right-wing and the level of tolerance within societies diminished. Those not part of the domestic cultural milieu were viewed with suspicion.

Nearer home, 2020 witnessed the juggernaut of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strangulating institutions. We saw the alacrity with which their well-oiled electoral machinery, by means fair or foul, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, decimating the opposition state after state. We saw elected governments fall by means that were clearly foul, with those targeted resigned to the inevitability of such an outcome. We saw governors attempting to destabilise elected governments. Eyebrows were raised when courts prioritised certain cases and pushed under the carpet issues which needed urgent attention. On many occasions, the cause of liberty did not find a door to knock at. The police functioned in tandem with their political bosses ensuring that some investigations resulted in the victims being targeted as accused and the accused kept away from the radar of investigating agencies.

We are witnessing the National Investigation Agency, the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the income tax department going after those who chose to raise their voice. We saw an 83-year-old, Stan Swamy, perceived as a threat to the State, being charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and denied essentials for survival by relying on colonial era jail manual prescriptions. We saw justifiable alacrity in dealing with the cause of liberty for some and a lackadaisical and insouciant shrug when dealing with the liberty of others.

We also saw the government issuing ordinances in matters of great public importance. The arrogance with which the government discarded the opposition’s demand for a more thorough scrutiny of significant legislations surprises none. Indeed, it is taken to be part of the privilege of a party that dominates the Lok Sabha and has the ability to manipulate parties in the Rajya Sabha. In a sense, the people of India have taken this to be the new normal.

The farmers’ agitation that has erupted, raises complex issues that need to be debated and addressed. Protesting students occupying part of a public road were arrested and prosecuted under UAPA. However, in the case of agitating farmers, the government realises that they are not easy targets. This agitation will impact 2021. Its political ramifications will be felt in the years to come. The government has shown no signs of relenting and farmers too are not backing off. The prime minister has stated that we can’t claim that god has made us perfect. That is a rare confession. We know that those who say so, play god and consider themselves infallible as they seek to charter the destiny of 1.2 billion people. Ultimately, it is these people who will determine the destiny of those who have never acknowledged their fallibility.