By Swapan Dasgupta
Ever since a thoughtful English friend presented me with a beautiful leather-bound copy for Christmas some five years ago, I have been well and truly hooked to the Schott's Miscellany Diary produced by Smythson. To me, it is more than a diary for recording appointments. Its pages are peppered with some of the most useless pieces of trivia that become obsessively engaging during long car journeys and excruciating waits in overcrowded airport lounges.
A casual perusal of the 2011 edition confirms what I had always suspected: that the 11th year of a century is one of those years that, in hindsight, turn out to be reasonably inconsequential. Maybe that won't be the case a hundred years later in 2111 when the triple Nelson could assume some numerological significance—recall how the English umpire Dickie Bird used to hop on one leg and fidget insanely when the score showed 111. However, the occasional English eccentric notwithstanding, the 11th year—to me at least—seems destined to be drearily underwhelming.
The Schott's Miscellany confirms my worst fear. According to its somewhat Anglo-centric view of the past, the three momentous events of 1911 were: the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act curtailing the powers of the House of Lords, the staging of the first Monte Carlo motor rally and the inaugural voyage of Britain's first seaplane Water Bird. They could well have also added the Coronation Durbar of George V where the disastrous decision to transfer the capital from Calcutta to Delhi—"the graveyard of empires"—was announced.
The year 1811 seems marginally better. It was the year that the Great Comet appeared in the skies and tickled the embryonic scientific temper. It was also the year the Luddites began attacking and destroying industrial machinery—an anniversary that should provide hearty inspiration to the likes of Jairam Ramesh and Medha Patkar as they set about petitioning Sonia Gandhi for the immediate abolition of capitalism and the formal restoration of feudalism.
Going further back in time, 2011 will also mark the 500th anniversary of the Portugese conquest of Malacca by Afonso de Albuquerque—an event India will treat with contempt because we have turned our collective backs on colonialism, except as a way of adding to the national income from tourism. It will also be the 500th anniversary of the establishment of St John's College, Cambridge, the institution that hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Ideally, the Prime Minister should travel to Cambridge for the big feast but that will depend on the state of the country.
How will the aam aadmi—a copywriter's one-liner that has come to haunt the Congress Party—know whether India is well enough for Manmohan to travel down memory lane? Security considerations will obviously rule out any early announcement but like the old days of Kremlin-watching and peering through the chinks in the Iron Curtain, the bloodhounds of Lutyens' Delhi have learnt to read tea leaves and decipher smoke signals. If, for example, Jagdish Piyush, the purveyor of bad verse from Amethi starts invoking the rich tradition of Trinity, where knowledge flows down the generations, it will be the signal for the hidden army of loyalists to suggest that India has exhausted its patience with the scholar from St John's. Arguably, 2011 may yet end up as the year when change in Delhi becomes imminent.
But the "winds of change"—whose 50th anniversary was, incidentally, marked in 2010—may not be confined to Delhi and the Congress Party. The coming year will be the golden jubilee of the formation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. The anniversary will no doubt be commemorated with due solemnity, many vegetarian meals and some boisterous Bhagwati jagran ceremonies. But it is also possible that someone somewhere will make it a point to post some forgotten pages from history. At a time when the BJP senses the possibility of batting its second innings, an anniversary celebration may be the appropriate occasion to consider some incontrovertible facts: that Mookerjee wasn't a member of the RSS; that the RSS initially played a supportive, rather than a controlling role in the new party; that Mookerjee's idea of a 'people's party' was a grand coalition of non-Congress and anti-Communist forces; and that the new party was driven by nationalism and not Hindutva, which was an idea associated with the Hindu Mahasabha.
Whether the re-discovery of its true inheritance will influence its political choices is a matter of conjecture but 2011 may be the year the BJP is forced to confront the big question: does it remain a 20 per cent party or does it strive to be a party of government by enlarging its vision and social constituency? The answer to this question will determine the choice of its captain—someone who appeals to the committed or someone who can attract wider incremental support. The candidates are in place but still awaited is a considered choice and the formal anointment.
Finally, 2011 will witness the century of Delhi as the national capital of modern India. This is an occasion that will not be commemorated, not least today's India remains squeamish about its pre-1947 links. But acknowledged or otherwise, it may be an opportune moment to review the role of an 'imperial' capital in an increasingly federal India. An intrusive Centre calling the shots in the provinces is an idea that is finding few takers, and more so with a market economy having eased out an inefficient licence-permit-quota raj. Ironically, the champions of centralism today are bodies such as the non-accountable National Advisory Committee and the arbitrary Environment Ministry that harbour paternalist notion of imposing 'good' on people rather than allowing communities to determine their own priorities.
By precedent, 2011 will not be a year of culmination, but it could be a period of initiation of a future change. It's the anticipation of a better future that should make the 365 days worthwhile.