When Pankaj Mishra compares Modi with ISIS maniacs

The fact is there isn’t - and can’t be - one reason for what’s wrong on the planet today.

 |  5-minute read |   08-04-2017
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Novelist and historian Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present seems to be the most ambitious of all his books. It gains significance from the fact that it’s one of the rarest books which attempts to analyse the rage sweeping across the world - as evident from the rise of Islamic State in West Asia to the emergence of Donald Trump in America and Narendra Modi in India, to a right-wing wave engulfing the European landscape.

Never before has one single book cared - or even dared - to look at the phenomenon globally, rather than from regional confines.

But that’s where the book falters. To be fair to Mishra, his failure gets magnified precisely because of the expectations the Age of Anger has aroused. The book, sadly, seems akin to a text promising to tell the history of everything, but ends up explaining nothing in particular.

There are problems with the author’s basic arguments themselves: Foremost being his attempt to find a single cause for the anger palpable across the globe. The fact is there isn’t - and can’t be - one reason for what’s wrong on the planet today. The anger in India can’t be similar to the one in West Asia. Likewise, the emergence of ISIS can’t be explained with the rise of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.

Mishra says he started planning the book in 2014, “after Indian voters, including my own friends and relatives, elected Hindu nationalists to power”. Brexit and Trump further shaped his arguments. But to say, as the author does, that these events epitomise a “global civil war” leading to “an apparent global disorder” and an “endemic and uncontrollable” violence seems an elitist, West-centric approach.

The rise of Asia and Africa doesn’t mean the dawn of global disorder and endemic violence per se. In fact, despite Syria, Iraq or Somalia, human violence as such has seen a sharp decline in recent times.

Yuval Noah Harari writes in his epochal book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, how “in ancient agricultural societies, human violence caused about 15 per cent of all deaths”, which came down to “only 5 per cent of deaths” during the 20th century, and in early 21st century “it is responsible for about 1 per cent of global mortality”.

As for the three events/personalities that/who shaped the author’s worldview - Modi, Brexit and Trump - these actually exemplify the intricacies of democracy at play. Modi’s arrival, for instance, was a democratic uprising of the disempowered outsider against the status quoist, entrenched establishment.

mishra-embed_040817075918.jpg To be fair to Mishra, his failure gets magnified precisely because of the expectations the Age of Anger has aroused. 

He is as much about the rise of Hindu nationalism as he is about the fallacies of bogus liberal/secular politics being pursued in India. Likewise, howsoever the so-called Left-liberals may detest, the Brexit was against, as Spectator had noted then, “a Parliament that represents many nations, but with no democratic legitimacy”.

It was Britain’s collective expression of democratic disquiet against a Brussels-based European Union setup which influenced almost 60 per cent of British laws without being answerable to its people. The Trump phenomenon, too, can be analysed in this backdrop.

The biggest drawback of the book, however, is its analysis of Islamist terrorism, especially when the author posits all the ills of modern times at the doors of capitalism and the consequent globalisation and, worse, makes the mistake of comparing Hindu extremists, Brexiters and Trumpists with ISIS fanatics.

This explanation not just completely whitewashes, quite erroneously, the role of religion in what’s happening in West Asia but also mischievously puts the Islamist terrorists on a par with the voters in India, US and Europe who are tired of status quoism and political correctness.

But Mishra doesn’t stop there. He takes the argument forward to showcase jihadi terrorism as a rerun of the Europe’s own history of “carnage and bedlam”, reminding the West of its own painful, violent transition to modernity.

No wonder, while speciously calling militant Islamism a modern phenomenon, he selectively digs out the likes of Timothy McVeigh (American terrorist executed for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing who described "science" as his religion) and Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (who occupied the Adriatic town of Fiume in September 1919 and created “a politics of outrageous rhetoric and gestures” which later influenced Hitler and Mussolini) to showcase them as predecessors of the present-day Islamists.

But why just confine this search to modern times? One could easily find such figures in almost every era of the past, but what the author has ignored, deliberately or otherwise, is the lack of a consistent ideology bolstering a movement, as is the case with ISIS today.

Last but not least, Mishra could have avoided showing his absolute intolerance and disdain for Modi. Differences are one thing but when they turn into abhorrence, reasoning becomes the first casualty.

Sample this: “But there is much that is clearly parodic today about ISIS’s self-appointed Caliph sporting a Rolex and India’s Hindu revivalist prime minister draped in a $15,000 Savile Row suit with personalised pin stripes.”

It’s wrong on the author’s part to place a duly elected PM of the world’s largest democracy alongside a bloodthirsty maniac. More so when Mishra himself has been an admirer of another Savile Row suit-wearing politician who created Pakistan in the name of Islam.

Maybe a Savile Row suit for Mohammed Ali Jinnah was a badge of his secularism. For Modi there’s no such redemption. Not at least in Mishra’s scheme of things.

Also read: Trump or Modi, democracies cannot despair


Utpal Kumar Utpal Kumar @utpal_kumar1

The writer is Associate Editor, Mail Today.

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