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Chaitanya Kalbag

The author is former Editor, Reuters Asia, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindustan Times, and Editor of Business Today

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Red-Letter Days

Many anniversaries this year, but few happy ones .

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This is a year of anniversaries, some unpleasant, some prescient, some momentous.  

CE 2019 is important not only because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s crushing victory in the world’s biggest election – in many ways a more portentous event than Narendra Modi’s 2014 ascent to prime ministership.  It entrenches the Modi era.  His majority in the Lok Sabha gives him carte blanche to erect economic and social structures that could endure long into this century. This is non-trivial: how this sixth of humanity fares, lives and works will profoundly affect the other five parts.

It is also 30 years since the last Nehru-Gandhi to hold an executive office was defeated in an election. This is something to reflect upon as Rajiv Gandhi’s son keeps the Congress party on tenterhooks more than two weeks after saying he wants to quit. 

The West (conspicuously excluding Russia) has just celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy that marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.  Forty-five years later, in June 1989, the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests cemented the Communist Party’s iron grip. It also presaged China’s rise to be the world’s second-biggest economy. 

In stark contrast, the same month, the Soviet Communist Party’s hold on Eastern Europe began to fall away with the trade union Solidarity’s sweeping victory in Poland’s elections.  Communist control crumbled in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and eventually the most powerful Soviet satellite East Germany, where the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989.

These revolutions, except in Romania, were all non-violent. The civil disobedience that characterized them would have pleased Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary will be celebrated later this year. This is certainly not the kind of world he wanted to see. The non-violence he preached was scattered to the winds by Partition, but Gandhi remains a potent symbol in our time of hate.

Hatred and discontent abound in Kashmir, where open insurgency erupted 30 summers ago. In its election manifesto, the BJP has vowed to abrogate Article 370, which confers a special status on Jammu and Kashmir, annul Article 35A (which bars “non-permanent residents” from settling in the state, owning immovable property or applying for state government jobs), and ensure the return of exiled Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. Can the Modi government end the bloodshed?

To another revolution: Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Iran on April 1, 1979, an event that reverberates to this day in the Middle East and in Tehran’s stand-off with Washington.  

Happier history was made ten years earlier, on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle landing craft on to the moon’s surface, taking a giant step to win a crazy superpower race in space. America had pulled off the improbable target set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 with its Apollo 11 mission.

But the event most significant for us in our easily treasonous world occurred 70 years ago this past weekend with the publication of George Orwell’s 1984.  His unemotional portrait of a totalitarian surveillance state (with the unforgettable first sentence: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”) and the doomed love life of Winston Smith, master forger and falsifier of government statistics. Does that seem implausible today?


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