Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yesterday's column for Yahoo!

My column for Yahoo! India, published yesterday.

Do not hope to hope again

Brad Pitt, who has stayed impeccably diplomatic throughout his career, grew unusually opinionated while promoting Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, in which he had a starring role. Pitt said, about the movie that gave Jews fictional revenge on Hitler, "The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot. With Basterds, everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story." He went on to dismiss his Interview with the Vampire co-star Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie as “a ridiculous movie”. Pitt’s agent, immediately activating damage control mode, stated the actor had not seen Valkyrie, and suggested much had been lost in translation because the interview appeared in the German magazine, Stern.
I caught Valkyrie on its release, and found it a passable, workmanlike effort hobbled by its adherence to historical fact (we knew beforehand the plot to assassinate Hitler would fail). I viewed it again, on television, after going through the Inglourious Basterds experience, and couldn’t sit through it. Every character appeared to be a parody of himself, and scenes taut with tension in the initial screening now verged on comical. Brad Pitt’s characterisation of Tarantino’s achievement, I concluded, was perfectly accurate.

It must be obvious by now that this column is about the recently completed election in the United Kingdom. Just kidding. About the obviousness, that is, not about the UK election. Few were enthused by that poll, which ended with the first hung Westminster parliament for decades, and the first coalition government since the Second World War. We had, in Gordon Brown, a candidate very difficult to like; Gordon Grey would be a more appropriate name for him. He was faced, in David Cameron, with an opponent very difficult to hate, though his privileged Eton-Oxford schooling inclined many Brits to despise him. The third party, the Liberal Democrats, were squeezed by Cameron’s move to the middle ground. Their most pressing aim remained changing the constitution to enable more Liberal Democrats to be elected in the future. The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, referred to his party as, “the vanguard of the political centre-left”, a bit of an oxymoron, like calling Hrishikesh Mukherjee a revolutionary middle-of-the-road director.
Clegg and Cameron are now in a decidedly oxymoronic Conservative-Liberal alliance, their differences papered over for the time being by their uncannily similar appearance. I half-expect a scientist to announce the two were subjects of a twins-raised-apart project begun in the 1960s, which has conclusively established that ideological tendencies are not inherited traits.
India’s apathy to the election is a sign of its growing distance from the former imperial power. One cannot imagine today a scene of the sort depicted in Satyajit Ray’s masterful Charulata (itself based on Rabindranath Tagore’s semi-autobiographical novella Nastanirh), in which the Anglophile Bhupati Majumdar is so preoccupied with the tussle between Liberal Gladstone and Tory Disraeli that he fails to notice his wife Charulata’s growing romantic attachment to his younger brother Amal. I suspect, however, that the dullness of the UK election as seen from an Indian perspective was not just a function of the personalities involved, nor of India’s increasingly independent developmental trajectory, but the result of another election held eighteen months previously, the US Presidential race that ended with Barack Obama’s move to the White House. That was the Inglourious Basterds of campaigns. It put a cover on the genre of the election as spectacle. The son of a Kenyan goatherd rising to become the world’s most powerful man: who can top a narrative like that? Who can compete with those momentous speeches, that epic tussle with Hillary Clinton, the grotesque intervention of Sarah Palin, the urgent context of two wars and a financial meltdown? Most importantly, as the soaring poetry of Obama’s campaign turns into the plodding prose of administration, and as his promise of an end to partisanship gives way to the reality of a nation seemingly more divided than ever, who can once more hope to evoke hope in an electorate? Not even the most charismatic politician could possess that degree of audacity.
There is, however, a little light at the end of the tunnel. Ed Miliband shows signs of running for the leadership of the Labour party, and the man opposing him is likely to be his elder brother David. The brother-versus-brother scenario was left untouched by the American election of 2008, and promises some diverting, if meaningless, entertainment in the near future.

The column can be accessed at Yahoo! here.


The Cydonian said...

Read your piece a while back on Yahoo with interest. Curious point, that Obama's trans-continental ascent-of-power story is the ultimate political narrative, overwhelmingly more appealing than colonial-era linkages.

Personally though, I found the whole Westminister-style wheeling-and-dealing a fair bit more accessible than America's baroque electoral-college system, a fact made even more immediate when I was told that Indian nationals legally resident in Britain can vote, and despite the fact that there's some much cultural creation generated by American politics, particularly exemplified, IMHO, by Tina Fey's Palin vaudeville and her later Dems-versus-repubs satire in her show, 30 Rock.

Indeed, there are clear lessons for India if Britain manages to go beyond the First Past The Post system, or on moving towards those American-style televised debates, and in seeing how western nations will deal with managing debt in these post-meltdown times; it's easy to argue that these are more important for us Indians than, say, whether Americans finally could get healthcare.

[I hasten to add that unlike Charulata, my journalista gf luckily loved my little leaps into psephology, so there's that. :) ]

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think for a while now American elections have held more appeal than British ones for Indians who are interested in that sort of thing. Even Clinton and Bush got us more excited than Blair and Major. Obama, of course, took it to a different level.
It's weird to hear calls for a Presidential style system to be instituted in India. We might look to Pakistan for the problems that could follow from such a shift. A number of European nations have been faced with uneasy cohabitations between a President of one party and a parliament dominated by another. In India that kind of thing would lead to complete chaos. I don't believe proportional representation will do Britain much good, and will certainly not be right for India.

seana graham said...

I had to laugh when the column took a complete leap from Inglourious Basterds to British election politics. I did not see that coming.

It was interesting to see the Obama trajectory from your point of view. I think it was one of the most exciting and energized elections ever in American politics. However, I'm skeptical that it or Inglourious Basterds are the definitive final versions of anything--and while he may be right about Valkerie--haven't seen it--Brad Pitt sounded arrogant in this flat assertion.

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like in America, we did get more interested in the British election this time than we usually do. It was probably in a kind of self-referential way--we were interested that the Brits were holding debates (just like us!) and then when Clegg had his unexpected surge, it drew us into the drama of the story.

I haven't seen Charulata, and find the premise fascinating. The scenario is somewhat inconceivable here, I think. But I might be forgetting something similar.

Girish Shahane said...

Seana, Yahoo! changed the headline to 'Inglourious Basterds and the British Election'. So much for surprise.
The debates were so wannabe. But ultimately, they didn't change a thing, did they? That's one difference between Brits and Americans, I guess. If an American politician had been caught claling a voter 'bigoted' on a mike, his career would've been over. Well, Gordon Brown's career IS pretty much over, but his poll numbers didn't budge as a result of that gaffe.
And Clegg's ratings boost from the debates evaporated, and the Lib Dems ended up exactly where they always end up, as I had thought they would.

seana graham said...

I happened to be in England when Shirley Williams was running as a Liberal Democrat. I had a soft spot in my heart for her and thus for the party itself because she was the daughter of Vera Brittain, who, through her work was basically my tour guide through England that first trip. I know I was much more aware of the war monuments of the fallen dead of World War I because I happened to be reading Testament of Youth at the time.

Is it significant or not that Clegg has managed to become Deputy Prime Minister? From outside, it does seem very strange bedfellows, but maybe there's some way it works that I'm not seeing.

avataram said...

Barack Obama Sr was a kenyan goatherd? He went to Hawaii and Harvard, and was an economist in Kenya for many years.