Home >Opinion >Views >An apocalyptic year that should give way to a wellspring of hope

They came riding from the night bringing woe,

The four horsemen of the apocalypse,

One horseman to each continent doth go,

As the sun below the horizon dips.

Hate they sow, tested institutions tear,

Liberties they trample, the poor they tease,

Mankind’s darkest impulses they unbare,

As enemies they find to break the peace.

Seductive words from their mouths seem to spring,

People they divide, and science they deride,

Self-absorbed, no hopeful vision they bring,

As the innocent have nowhere to hide.

All arrayed against the enlightenment,

Forces of counter revolution dark,

On reversing human progress intent,

As tentacles of mis’ry spread their arc.

Mounted on a white steed in garments red,

He rides out with the flaming Sun at dawn

With eyes on fire and crowns on his head,

Truth, Justice, righteousness are soon reborn;

Four continental horsemen fall apart,

Freedom, love and reason also abide,

Deep and eternal in the human heart,

Men have been lost darkly before at night.

The year 2020 was a long awaited marker of the 21st century. When it finally came, it saw the post-War order based on globalization, liberal democracy and multilateralism, which had paid rich dividends in peace and prosperity, falling prey to demagogues. It appeared that Plato’s worst fears about how democracies end were coming true.

Worse was to follow. The world was hit by the most devastating pandemic since the Spanish Flu a century ago. Extreme policy reactions have meant the world is staring at the worst global recession since the Great Depression. The International Monetary Fund expects the global economy to shrink by 4.4% in 2020, compared to less than 1% during the global financial crisis of 2008-09. With the winter bringing a dreaded second wave of covid infections, recovery is by no means assured in 2021. Multilateral cooperation is in disarray in the face of competitive nationalism, and, unlike a decade ago, there is little expectation that member countries of the G20 will rescue the global economy this time around.

The New Year of 2021 will nevertheless open on a tone of renewed hope. The institutions of the world’s oldest democracy, designed to keep Plato’s demagogue at bay, have clawed back from the brink to bring down an apocalyptic horseman capable of the greatest damage. There is light at the end of the tunnel in the form of tested vaccines. An impressive lot of women leaders around the globe, good at what it takes to effectively handle the covid outbreak and ensuing crisis, seem to have broken a glass ceiling to restore a sense of sanity amidst competitive populism and muscular nationalism.

There is little room for complacency, however, as the threat of dystopia is by no means vanquished.

First, while Joe Biden’s victory in the US has raised hopes of a return to normalcy and the revival of multilateralism, the conditions that underlay Trumpism have not been attenuated. Liberal democracy in the West is yet to find a way out of low growth, rising inequality, stagnant real wages, rising youth unemployment and falling labour participation rates. The West’s diminishing soft power is countervailed by illiberal China’s growing lustre, as it is perceived to have managed both the economy and pandemic better. With this growing schism, the revival of multilateral cooperation continues to hang in the balance.

Second, Trump clones of illiberal democracy remain rampant on other continents. The five BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, in particular, all the rage at the start of this millennium, seem largely in disarray, with many of them afflicted by collapsing growth, authoritarian nationalism and growing bigotry.

Third, there are fears surrounding rapid mutations of the coronavirus and the efficacy and safety of covid vaccines.

India, till recently the world’s fastest growing major economy, has had the steepest fall among large economies. Its national income at the end of 2021-22 is expected to be no higher than what it was in 2019-20, with the brunt of this suffering borne by informal workers, poor migrants, and small businesses. Unlike in rich countries, they have little income support to help them tide over the crisis.

Unlike the US, India’s democratic institutions have also so far shown little resilience in the face of rising populism. Populist executives riding on their oratorical skills have been the bane of democratic societies since their very inception in classical antiquity. The founding fathers of America were more alert to securing democracy than to ensuring social justice. The concerns of our own founding fathers were possibly the obverse. Without effective checks and balances, it is possible to undermine democracy within an intended democratic constitutional framework.

Like America, India is in need of healing and unity of purpose and thought. As Abraham Lincoln remarked at the Illinois Republican State Convention in 1858, a house divided against itself cannot stand. It is incumbent upon us to resolve to stand up for the values on which our founding fathers constituted the Republic. Patriotism lies in the more privileged of civil society lending a helping hand to their struggling poor countrymen in this time of crisis, and not in needlessly muscular nationalism.

That different religious and social groups need to live with each other on the basis of equality is manifest. That the unity of a diverse country like India is contingent on accepting diversity was clear from the very beginning. While different groups may harbour a sense of historical wrong, raking up the past to poison the present is not the way forward. This is the enduring lesson from the life and times of Nelson Mandela. The past may have led to the present. But the path to the future lies through the present, not the past.

May this festive season bring joy and the New Year renewed hope for a better world.

Alok Sheel is RBI chair professor of macroeconomics, ICRIER.

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