There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic: is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power?
In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”. America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well: though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives. In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos. The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either. And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel. Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally: democracy in the United States itself become imperiled. On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world. It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.
It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”. The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”. Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom. “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.
Almost to the day, one year ago, the Dadis (or grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh stood up to the Indian state while most of the Indian middle class, which capitulated to the Modi government when it first assumed power in 2014, looked on silently as one of the most remarkable nonviolent protests anywhere in the world was carried out with discipline over several months before the pandemic took over the lives of everyone and furnished the state with the pretext to send the Dadis back to their homes. Now, with the rebellion of the farmers, a new front has been opened in the battle of the country’s ordinary citizens against a wholly authoritarian government that is frighteningly intolerant of dissent and reeks of the arrogance of power. “Power tends to corrupts”, the English politician and writer Lord Acton famously declared, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Every nation has its, to use the word commonly invoked for such purposes, “myths”. Just how myths, lies, and fictions differ from each other is an interesting question in itself, but in his classic essay of the late 19th century, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan put forward the arresting idea that a nation cannot be forged without some shared notion of “forgetfulness”. Americans, especially white Americans, have for generations been brought up on the idea that the annual celebration known as Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November for many decades, marks the occasion when the Pilgrims first sat together with Native Americans and they broke bread together in celebration of the first successful harvest. This recounting of that idyllic past disguises the forgetfulness which would become critical to the making of America. The other name for that forgetfulness is “genocide”. It is for this reason that, in common with many other Native Americans, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving Day as the “National Day of Mourning”. As this collective of Native American organizations states, “Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”
It appears, at least as of this moment, that Joe Biden is headed for the White House in January 2021. A considerable segment of the American people will feel greatly relieved, as indeed they should, and what many characterize as the ‘nightmare’ of the last four years appears to be coming to an end. Biden had, among other things, declared this election as a referendum on ‘decency’ and many Americans will doubtless feel grateful that their country, long accustomed to viewing itself as the world’s greatest power, the leader of the free world, and as a shining beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, has had its reputation restored. There were fears that the election would be marred by violence but even international observers have declared themselves satisfied that the election proper has been conducted fairly, insofar as there does not appear to have been any violence at polling states, and indeed little effort appears to have been spared in ensuring that voters had multiple options to cast their ballots in the midst of a major public health crisis. None of this detracts from the ugly fact that for weeks Trump and his election campaign team had been making attempts to obstruct mail-in ballots from being counted and that lawyers representing the campaign have filed multiple legal challenges to bring the counting of votes to a halt. That there should be any question at all about whether votes should be counted or not is astounding and will be the subject of a subsequent essay.
As the coronavirus continues to maul societies, confounding the scientists with its cunning and increasingly finding victims among the young, who were at first considered to be largely invulnerable, it becomes all the more necessary to look closely beyond China and most of Southeast Asia to consider whether other countries or smaller political entities have had been able to prevail in stemming the transmission of the virus. One of the most astounding stories of such success comes to us from Dharavi, as described in my recently published book, The Fury of Covid-19: The Histories, Politics, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus (Pan Macmillan), from where what follows is excerpted with some modifications. Dharavi is often described as the most “infamous” and largest slum in Asia, ‘a cliché of Indian misery’, before the film Slumdog Millionaire turned it into the most “famous” slum by bringing it to the attention of the West. Somewhere between 850,000 and a million people live in Dharavi, which occupies an area of less than one square mile, or about 2.5 square kilometres, with a population density of over 275,000 per sq. km. To put that in perspective, the population density of New Zealand, which has also flattened the curve, earned the envy of the world, and won accolades for its young female Prime Minister whom the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and late-night American comic Steve Colbert fawn over as the jewel in the crown of world leaders, is 15 per sq. km.