It’s said that the hour before dawn is the darkest. That consolation sustained Indians as not even the glory of the G-20 presidency prevented speculation about how long it would take the Tatas to restore Air-India’s former glory, or Gautam Adani to turn NDTV into another run-of-the-mill television channel deferring to the powers-that-be.
The good news was that even if the chill winds of an unprecedentedly severe winter threatened a nuclear conflagration over Ukraine and the Covid-19 tornado ripping through China accounted for 37 million cases on a single December day against the January record of a mere four million, experts denied the virus could surge over the Himalayas to displace Omicron which India has made its own.
China remained India’s -- and America’s, albeit for different reasons -- biggest concern as Beijing lurched from excessive caution to a hands-off approach after the November 25 anti-lockdown protests. With his vaunted “Zero-Covid” policy standing on its head, President Xi Jinping boasted he was only following the democratic will. This was obviously only a pretext for the three-term President facing his biggest test since his October coronation at the 20th party congress.
The brusqueness with which his ill and ageing predecessor Hu Jintao was bundled out of the Great Hall of the People indicated that President Xi has little time for Hu’s liberal reforms or protocol niceties. But elsewhere, his plea sparkled ripples of democratic hope through the dark clouds of despotic despair.
Exuberant Afghan girl students argued that if monolithic China could capitulate to people’s power, they, too, could force their way into university to grab a slice of the learning that the Taliban guards as a male prerogative. While defiant Iranian girls chopped off their locks rather than wear a hijab to class, girls in Karnataka resisted the ruling BJP government’s classroom ban on hijabs as an undemocratic deprivation. Clearly, one woman’s democracy is another’s dictatorship.
With the Third World manifesting such diverse assertions of people’s power, the Western media assumed that Russia’s masses could not lag far behind in revolutionary fervour. A revolt against the Kremlin was predicted. Some warned of a military mutiny. President Vladimir Putin was reported to be dead or dying.
And the jokes! “What’s Putin’s biggest accomplishment?” someone asked. Pat came the answer: “He has succeeded in turning the Russian Army (self-proclaimed second-best army in the world) into… the second-best army in Ukraine!”
Most such stories reflected wishful American thinking. The Central Intelligence Agency also launched a podcast called “The Langley Files” to demystify the agency and enlighten the ignorant. Unlike The Kashmir Files, it was not denounced as “vulgar” and “propaganda”, the charges levied by Nadav Lapid, jury chairman at the International Film Festival of India at Goa and a distinguished screenwriter and director considered “to be among the most internationally acclaimed filmmakers from Israel”. Lapid felt the film legitimised violence, bigotry and prejudice against Kashmir’s Muslims. His three IFFI colleagues agreed; the fourth, an Indian, patriotically distanced himself from that verdict. Official Israel, represented by its ambassador to India, Naor Gillon, castigated Lapid.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated his old friend “Bibi” in Hebrew when former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed Israel’s most right-wing coalition government. Many wondered what would happen now to the charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and media moguls that Mr Netanyahu faces.
American opinion remained divided on whether another friend of Mr Netanyahu’s (also Mr Modi’s), former President Donald Trump, should be allowed to contest the presidency again. Mr Trump reiterated that the last presidential election was “stolen” from him. The 845-page report of the congressional panel investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol accused him of conspiring to overturn his election defeat. It also recommended barring Mr Trump from public office.
Democracy suffered rough rides nearer home as well.
Ousted as Prime Minister in April and injured in a shooting in November, Pakistan’s cricket hero-turned-politician, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, threatened to plunge his country into even greater chaos by dissolving two provincial assemblies that his party controls to force the federal government to hold early elections.
Bangladesh, too, was in the grip of election fever, with US ambassador Peter Haas expressing concern over reports of political violence as the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party challenged Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s 14-year rule. Sheikh Hasina did nothing to live up to an earlier hint that she does not wish to lead her party into another election.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s return as Prime Minister of Nepal for the third time wasn’t expected to spark a revolution despite his underground years and nom de guerre of “Prachanda” (fierce). But Nepal released the “Serpent”, as 78-year-old Charles Sobhraj is nicknamed, who was serving a 20-year jail sentence for multiple murders, on account of his age. Myanmar’s ruling military junta might add another 76 years to the 26-year prison sentence that 77-year-old Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is already serving.
Further south, the Norwegian diplomat Erik Solheim, who spearheaded an abortive international peace process in Sri Lanka, blamed the ousted Rajapaksa brothers for only doing “politics for themselves” and not their country. Warning that the radical Janatha Vimukti Peramuna would gain the most, he advised Sinhalese politicians to link up with the Tamil National Alliance and heal the island’s ethnic divide.
India saw China as the elephant in all these neighbourhood rooms. The figures suggested a robust Sino-Indian partnership. Bilateral trade rose 14.6 per cent to $103.63 billion. India’s purchases from China soared 31 per cent to touch $89.66 billion. But India’s $75.69 billion trade deficit revealed far more about the relationship. Massive Chinese imports continued even as the guns roared in Ladakh, killing Indian soldiers, and People’s Liberation Army forces continued to creep across the border. Everyone talked of the intrusions save Mr Modi who denied there were any, and Parliament whose lips were sealed because the government thinks the subject too “sensitive” for discussion.
This crippling dependence was a telling betrayal of the “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” of India’s dreams. Indians voted with their feet, ignoring India Post’s advertisements of a “golden chance” to earn Rs 63,200 a month. Emigration reached record heights. Anywhere foreign seemed preferable to an India wallowing in the darkness. Waiting for the dawn was confirmed as the oldest national tradition.