'The Crooked Timber of New India' by Parakala Prabhakar speaks truth to power : The Tribune India

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'The Crooked Timber of New India' by Parakala Prabhakar speaks truth to power

'The Crooked Timber of New India' by Parakala Prabhakar speaks truth to power

The Crooked Timber of New India: Essays on a Republic in Crisis by Parakala Prabhakar. Speaking Tiger. Pages 291. Rs 499

Book Title: The Crooked Timber of New India: Essays on a Republic in Crisis

Author: Parakala Prabhakar

Avijit Pathak

My task is simple, limited and focused. It is to point out when our government, our public institutions and our leaders depart from the ideals of our Republic and deviate from their shared objectives and promises to the people. It is a simple effort to speak truth to power. — Parakala Prabhakar

As I read this collection of essays written between 2020 and late 2022, I realise why Parakala Prabhakar felt like recalling Immanuel Kant to remind us that ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made’. Yes, this Kantian wisdom seems to have acquired added relevance at a time when our democracy has begun to look like electoral autocracy. ‘The rise and rise of the new BJP’, as the book states clearly, has led to the tyranny of majoritarianism and confused patriotism, with ‘militarism, aggressive religious identity and uncritical support for the ruling party and its shrill, bombastic leaders’.

As the greater ‘civilisational mission’ of transforming India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ seeks to demolish the ideals of cultural/religious pluralism and the nuanced democratic art of debate, negotiation and conflict resolution, we witness all sorts of violence. Feel Prabhakar’s pain and anguish as he writes: ‘Beating up Muslims in the streets and forcing them to sing Jai Shri Ram, or calls for the genocide of Muslims — none of these are arbitrary anymore.’ And hence, he is not wrong in saying that the challenge is much bigger than merely an electoral fight with the BJP. Unless the communal and majoritarian narrative loses its force and resonance in our society, as we are reminded, there is no possibility of collective redemption. Indeed, there is reason to be worried about what, according to Prabhakar, is the ‘subtext’ of the findings of the Pew Research Centre (2021) — ‘the prospect of the fusion of Hindu religion, Hindi language and BJP politics becoming the paramount and perhaps irreversible marker of national identity’.

These essays — written with clarity and lucidity — cover a spectrum of themes ranging from the BJP’s population politics to hijab vs saffron scarf, or from farm laws to the Lakhimpur Kheri incident. In order to understand the critical insight the book provides, let me refer to two illustrations. First, we are witnessing the growing cult of narcissism, or to put it more specifically, the projection of Narendra Modi as an unquestionable messiah of the nation. In a way, in this media-induced world, the politics beneath the making of the larger-than-life image of Modi needs to be understood. With absolute brilliance, Prabhakar has reminded us of the ‘act of eventifying a day’ — say, Modi’s 71st birthday. Yes, Modi was given a ‘special gift’ by the entire state/party machinery. Covid-19 vaccinations hit a record number on that day; 2.5 crore people were given jabs on that single day. However, the harsh reality is that ‘the numbers were far below the daily average during the days leading up to the special day, and returned to these low levels only a couple of days after’. Not solely that. Even ‘Bal Narendra’, the book reminds us, was ‘abnormalised’. A comic book published in 2014 reveals Bal Narendra’s ‘courage, compassion, empathy, bravery, adventure and heroism’. And as a captive audience, we are led to believe that Bal Narendra fought off crocodiles, saved a drowning boy and wrote a play against untouchability. Amid the all-pervading Modi cult, it is important to be aware of Prabhakar’s note of caution: “The cult of personality is the enterprise of autocrats and demagogues.” Yes, it abhors the spirit of democracy.

Second, as Sanjaya Baru has mentioned in the ‘Foreword’, ‘the power of Prabhakar’s pen lies in his summoning of facts to defend his views’. Indeed, essays like ‘Poverty Data and Data Poverty’ and ‘A Pandemic Log Book, 2021’ prove ‘the foundation of his political criticism’. In this context, it would not be inappropriate to refer to Prabhakar’s sharp insight — his way of looking at the Oxfam 2022 report. Well, as we look at the fancy five-star hospitals in our mega cities, we realise why India is a top destination for medical tourism these days. However, amid this hype and glitz, Prabhakar does not want us to forget the bitter truth: ‘The poorest Indian states have infant mortality rates higher than those in sub-Saharan Africa, and India accounts for 17 per cent of global maternal deaths and 21 per cent of deaths among children below five years.’

I have no hesitation in saying that this book ought to be read by all those who dare to speak truth to power.