If history is any guide, change can be either backward-looking or forward-looking – both reflecting a dissatisfaction with the present. Interestingly, backward-looking changes inculcate a distrust of the future, whereas forward-looking changes do exactly the opposite. Both do not necessarily achieve what they set out to do if their promises are utopian.
Perhaps, a better option for people is to look at the style of politics of change-mongers. If they condemn the existing state of affairs by comparing it to an idealised past, they probably are not trustworthy. To give you a recent example, if you compare Barack Obama with Donald Trump, you see the difference. The slogan of Obama was ‘Yes, we can’, without any harking back to a great American era, whereas Trump’s dictum was ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) implying that there was a great America which needed restoration.
MAGA caps and T-shirts appealed to unsuspecting crowds who longed for a great America again. The promised greatness turned out to be a hoax, as you can turn the clock back for a short while only. This is not to say that Obama was an ideal president, or he fulfilled all his promises, or he did not commit any mistakes. But at least he was not trying to turn the clock back; he had an intellect worthy of a top leader and he did not mislead his followers. The same applied to Joe Biden who did not promise the moon but had a forward-looking agenda.
The question is: why do people trust leaders with high-flying promises, and not those who present a more realistic picture? The answer can be twofold: one, by nature we love easy solutions even if they are not solutions at all; and two, people can make corrections provided they are allowed to do so. And that is where the beauty and efficacy of democracy comes in which permits people to make right or wrong decisions and learn from them. This learning process lasts for generations and at times we see a spiral-like movement – two-steps forward and one-step back.
After an age of revolution, you may have an age of conservatism. After the 18-century upheavals which thinkers and writers such as Rousseau and Voltaire heralded, conservatism in continental Europe exhibited a strong reactionary character throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century. It was a period of autocratic principles, and constitutional and representative forms of government were in a retreat in countries like France, Germany, and Russia where conservatives remained faithful to autocrats. In reaction to Rousseau and Voltaire, there was the statecraft of Metternich which rejected any concessions to reformist pressures.
These examples prove that history does not progress in a straight line; it is seldom a linear progression and, if so, it happens for a short period of time. Ideologies such as communism, fascism, nationalism and Nazism, and even religious fundamentalism of recent years all promise backward or forward change in a linear fashion and may succeed for a while. The same applies to ideologies, narratives and theories that seek to divide countries and people on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, religion or sects. Then come the reductionist narratives of anti-corruption, anti-secularism, illiberal thought, majoritarian and supremacist thinking.
The BJP’s agenda in India has been clearly anti-secular and Modi with his Hindu nationalist brigade succeeded in convincing people that a majority of their problems emanate from secularism as propounded by the Indian National Congress for decades. In Pakistan, Imran Khan and his proteges sold an anti-corruption agenda which has been so reductionist that it has blurred the eyesight of the PTI followers. If Hindutva ended up as an anti-secular narrative in India, the anti-corruption mantra in Pakistan targeted all political opponents. If you can attract a large number of people by hook or by crook, or convince the centres of power of your loyalty, you can turn the table at least for a while.
Another aspect of these narratives is that they glorify idealisation, masculinity, misogyny in the guise of protecting women, physical and military might, and regimentation. Such narratives promise you a change that is certain and secure; people love it because they do not want to see the reality that can be insecure and uncertain. In India and Pakistan, for example, if you give them a possible solution to the Kashmir problem, they tend to reject it because this change may lead to some insecure and uncertain future. Ideally, people and the states they live in should be confident enough to bet for an uncertain future for the benefit of people, especially to prevent bloodshed.
The same applies to family and traditional values. If they did once help create a more stable society, there may be a need to renounce those values if they fail to create a decent society today. The concepts of decency and stability keep evolving and maybe a more permissive morality of the present is better suited now than it was a couple of centuries ago. The prospect of backward-looking change can have less favourable implications in today’s world. Nostalgia can sooth you for a while, but a longer yearning can destroy your present as well as future.
Promises of change and revolution may be naive and romanticized and can develop an image of a society with no corruption, as opposed to the present charmless scenario. Here the key is to understand the selectivity of such promises. Most reductionist ideas derive their appeal with selectivity. Rather than presenting a more comprehensive picture of problems in society – which is more difficult to understand – present a simple picture and people will believe the promise of quick change. A selective portrait of society is often misleading because it can distort your understanding of the complexities that a society is full of.
A selective picture of both the past and the present may overlook some fundamentals: the fact that the past was replete with near-genocides, and the present is marred by grinding poverty. Projecting the past, they gloss over the miseries of the people, and in the present they overlook the abject condition of the poor and talk about preventing billions in corruption. They don’t talk about the everyday corruption and discrimination that common people have to face in seeking basic facilities such as dispute resolution, education, health, and justice. A selective picture may simply reflect a desire to escape from present-day problems by seeking comforts in myths of change and revolution.
Those who promise change without learning meaningful lessons from the past try to apply wrong solutions such as charity and dole. In the long run, charity and dole are questionable as they do not rectify the basic injustices that are more structural then cosmetic. There are interconnected cultural, economic, political and social factors that contribute to corresponding degeneration in society. If a society is stagnant culturally and economically, all talk of change remains hollow. A simple political change remains just a change of faces without addressing the causes of degeneration and stagnation.
If we talk about enterprise and innovation without applying the same to culture and ethics – be it in business or family – we keep reproducing the past. We also have to acknowledge that the onward march of history is irresistible; making an attempt to stop the flow of the tide ultimately becomes pointless.
If institutions refuse to change, they precipitate a more dramatic upheaval. Of course, looking at the past couple of centuries we may conclude that reform is preferable to revolution, but still you see an implacable resistance to reform, and precisely this resistance to change – irrespective of slogans of change – becomes self-defeating.
To be continued