The costumes befitted their personalities. The quintessential FabIndia kurta for the erudite professor from JNU, khadi jacket over a thick cotton kurta for the chief editor, plain pants and blue checks for the earnest journalist turned novelist, made to order, impeccable designer pants, linen shirt and polished to perfection brown shoes for the serious man, designer silk kurta and salwar for the TV personality and well fitting semi formals for the moderator. Along with them, in a crumpled off white shirt and an ordinary pants,worn chappals on his feet, his hair in total disarray, appeared the boy. The darling of the masses, or so it seemed from the thundering applause that accompanied him.
The discussion started off quite amicably, with each one making their points without much fan fare. The professor expressing his angst, the editor opining that one shouldn’t expect everything to come from within, certain things like nationalism has to be forced down our throats, irrespective of who or what we are. The author seemed to be the only one with no agenda, his words were pure angst. The serious man spoke in measured tones, about North Indian nationalism vs. South Indian. Then came the boy. He was obviously not used to sitting on a plush white sofa and discussing life in impeccable English. With the moderator’s permission, he stood up, apologized in English of his inability to speak the language and moved on to Hindi. That his words were hitting its mark was evident from the applause that followed many a statement of his. He spoke spontaneously, for these were sentiments that were repeated by him time and again. The moderator in his opening session had mentioned that the boy and his professor had started the arguments on nationalism. The boy refuted it, referring to the Constitution. He sounded like a seasoned politician. The TV lady just kept on screaming, I hardly remember anything she said.
It was in the second round that reality jumped out of the perfect attires. The professor’s was a lecture. How it is a question of integrity, rather than of left or right, nationalist or populist. The editor chose his words carefully, but his true feelings jumped out in the end. ‘Triumph of the deplorables,’ he was heard quoting. The author put it in beautiful words, “populism is a false story told very well.’ It was the serious man who took derision to another level altogether. Sitting ramrod straight, his head held high and his upper lips stiff, the words that came out of his mouth was as condescending as those that come from his pen. It was so evident that he hated the boy and his ilk, he did not even have the courtesy to look at the boy on his face. And the boy gave it back, word by word, to each of them. To the insinuations hurled at him for being left, he answered, “yes sir, I’m left because I was left behind.”
I am not from JNU, I have not even visited the place. But, here was proof of what an educational institution could do. The confidence to question his teacher in a public forum, to tell him on his face, “sir, I want to be better than you,” could have come only from there. I am not denying the fact that all the mutual respect that was shown between the two would have been forced. In a different place and time, the situation could very well have been different.
The boy spoke to the audience, while three of the panelists spoke of the boy and to him. The topic of the discussion was by the way. Their body language showed how rattled they were by his popularity. The professor couldn’t hide it, he lost his cool in between. The editor seemed to accept the reality. And the serious man tried to hide his fear behind a veneer of disdain. The attack even turned personal at times. The boy appeared nonchalant throughout. When the discussion turned to how the elite owns the discourse on liberalism these days, he retorted, “sir, why should the elite own this? They are already liberated.”
“Isn’t he creepy?” a friend of mine had asked. “Have we created a monster?” asked another. The second question was foremost in mind. His words were inspiring, he was asking the right questions, I thought while listened to him. I was reminded of the ideal days of youth, where we questioned every seeming inequality. Wisdom may not come with age, but with enough practice, one learns to distance one’s self now and then and listen to the voice of reason. Yes, I was excited to listen to a powerful voice, one who asks the same questions as us. But there was this nagging feeling of having heard similar diatribes, the same tone elsewhere. Of a litany of ills of the then government, of a tone rising up and down in tune with the response, of the sentiments of the audience. Of almost an entire nation, turning blind and dumb. And that very voice seem to have created a clone. Only the words are different. And he is young.
In the previous day’s discussion on her book ‘Indira’ the moderator had asked Sagarika Ghose, “how would you compare Modi to Indira?” Her answer was classic, “I think Modi is the true heir to Indira.” That the boy reminded me of this response was not coincidental. He could very well turn out to be the next pied piper.
It was only the author that seemed genuinely concerned about what is happening in our country. The rest just played their part. Ironical that it was one of them that clearly called out the real problem we have today.
“It is not a matter of ideology, it is a matter of integrity.”
(My thoughts on the closing session of BLF 2017 – ‘Nationalism, Populism and the threat to the Global Liberal Order’.
The panelists (in the order they were seated) – Makarand Paranjape, R. Jagannathan, Suketu Mehta, Manu Jospeh, Harish Bijoor (moderator), Kanhaiya Kumar and Sagarika Ghose)