The Theatre of Politics

Justin Trudeau dancing

Slowly but surely, some of us think that something akin to a revolution is shaping politics around the world. I can already hear scornful, skeptical laughter greeting this tentative assertion. But hear me out.

From Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntala’, to Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, not to mention classical Greek tragedies, politics has always been theatre. Next Friday, in London’s Wembley Stadium, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to “play” to an audience expected to be around 60,000. So what’s new? Last weekend, on US TV’s ‘Saturday Night Live’, Donald Trump also performed to a TV audience, according to Nielsen ratings, of about 9 million viewers.

As a Canadian (of Indian origin), what makes me especially thrilled is our newly-elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, dancing the bhangra.

Alas! If only the ‘bhangra’ could really win elections, there would be bhangra studios popping up in the world’s capitals, and students with names like Assad, Putin, Merkel, Berlusconi, and Lallu Prasad lining up to enroll. Needless to say, these studios would provide unwelcome competition to another ‘import’ from India, Bikram Yoga studios, and place limousines like those of Bikram Choudhury on the auction block. (Something similar actually happened to Rajneesh’s Rolls Royces after the dissolution of his Oregon ashram in Rajneeshpuram).

But back to the theatre. What seems to be affecting the Theatre of Politics is not so much the performers, but the audience. The audience is changing, and with it the art of politics. Seared in our recent collective memory is the image of a lone protester confronting Chinese tanks in Tiannemen Square. While, on the one hand, it was the theatre of repressive power playing out in Beijing, the audience’s reaction was not one of fear, but of defiance and utter skepticism of the government’s policies. One of the most remarkable acts of defiance is that of the artist, Ai Weiwei, considered by many to be the greatest artist of this century. Weiwei has turned art into a political weapon. If you’re in London for Modi, don’t miss the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. That should be more enlightening.

While we wait to see if Donald Trump’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ theatricals are treated as serious theatre or vaudeville, it would appear that Mr. Modi’s performance in Bihar didn’t attract the rave reviews the BJP had predicted. To be honest, few politicians in the world can match Lallu Prasad’s talent for theatricals and eloquence that sometimes bordered on the poetic. We’ll wait to see how Mr. Modi fares in Wembley.

In Canada, the recently discredited Conservative government of Stephen Harper pulled out all the stops, even to the point of Harper’s TV appearances with the former crack cocaine addict, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Whether it endeared him to any segment of the population we do not know. With the Conservative’s publicity apparatus aided by Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist credited with helping Cameron win a majority government, Mr. Harper’s party tried to exploit the Muslim ‘niqab’ issue as a wedge to polarize Canadians, and also promised a 1-800 phone line for callers to snitch on their neighbors and report “barbaric Muslim practices.” It just didn’t work in Canada, as we hope the BJP’s exploitation of the cow and beef doesn’t work in India, projected to be the world’s largest exporter of beef in 2015, after Brazil and Australia..

Could it be that a younger generation of the world’s population – both India and China currently have over 600 million in the 15-44 year age group – are tired of waiting to find jobs, tired of the old political clichés, tired of aging politicians fattening themselves as in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. Could it be that the new demographics of the world’s youth and middle-aged population is altering conventional political truisms. As the old saying goes: You can’t fool all the people all the time!

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