Kurukshetra meets Westminster

Madhavan Narayanan
Indians can be proud that a record 67% of the 900 million voters turned up at polling booths but slander, at the highest levels, tell a different story

It is not for nothing that they say that for everything you say about India, the opposite is also true.

It is easy to paint a picture of India as peace-loving, non-violent and wise when you talk of Mahavira, the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and the grand traditions of Yoga and meditation. On the other hand, you could talk of the ugliness in the Mahabharata that climaxes in a bloody war. You could also speak of the Ramayana, whose god-like central figure, Rama, is accused of dubious tricks in slaying Vali, or putting his devoted wife Sita through an agnipariksha to prove her purity.

Truth be told, violence and controversy have never been far from the Indian consciousness, and democracy has turned argumentative Indians, now empowered with smartphones and shrill TV news channels, into a tribe of loudmouths.

After the grandest democratic exercise in history, Indians can be proud that a record 67% of the 900 million voters turned up at polling booths in a largely peaceful election.

However, scuffles, arson, injuries and above all, slander, practised at the highest levels, tell you a different story. Violence of the mind has never been so visible.

By saying chowkidar chor hai and slandering Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Rahul Gandhi lowered the bar and raised the pitch. The target of his attack, in turn, called his opponent's dead father Rajiv Gandhi "Bhrashtachari Number 1".  Like in India's Hindu epics, you could trace the origins of such slander to the past. Was it not Rahul's mother Sonia who called Modi "maut ka saudagar"? Was it not Modi who described the now-dead wife of Congress leader Shashi Tharoor a 50-crore girlfriend?

Precisely at what point did political civility began a race to the bottom? Truth will depend on which side of Ayodhya one is on. Like in the Mahabharata, rules have been bent or worse. There are triggers that you cannot quite pinpoint. In the Mahabharata, Dronacharya was weakened by a reference to the death of Ashwathama, the name of his son, but the one who was actually killed was an elephant by the same name.  The sound of conch shells drowned out the truth in the ancient tale.

BJP president Amit Shah stormed into Kolkata, invoking Rama's name in a land where a woman ruler invoked Ma Kali. Who broke the bust of Hindu reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in a college named after him? Images showed saffron-clad men coming out of the building. The BJP accused West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool of a deliberate act to tarnish its reputation. You could call it the Ashwathama moment of an electoral Kurukshetra.

The reasons behind such a tapestry of libel, accusations and clashes can be traced to the high political stakes.

Left-wing intellectuals called the election a war for the "Soul of India"€"a reference to the modern, liberal constitutional order in place since 1950, when West-inspired intellectuals such as the Cambridge-educated Jawaharlal Nehru and the Columbia-bred BR Ambedkar introduced the Westminster system.

Ask the right-wingers, and they do not care for such imported fancies. The final image of the election process was Modi meditating in a Himalayan cave.

Folktales and myths now rule 900 million minds, and the top-down foisting of British-style democracy is showing visible cracks. Modi presidentialised the election, and his cadres raised his stature to that of an ancient king who can do no wrong. It is as if in letter the game was the same, but the rules changed.

Refinement is now a sign of elitism and snobbery. Cricket is now a stroke-filled T20, and so is democracy. Heroes are not the ones who walk to the pavilion when they feel they are out but those who argue with umpires. No wonder politicians argue with or argue about the Election Commission. It is not cricket in the old sense of the term.

Since epics are sacred, raising questions on Hinduism or Hindu texts is risky, as communist leader Sitaram Yechury and actor-politician Kamal Haasan found out. Yechury cited epics to claim Hindus were violent, while the Tamil thespian described Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse as a Hindu who was independent India's first terrorist. These were red rags to saffron bulls. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur immediately called Godse a patriot, walking into an ideological trap and embarrassing her leader Modi.

A BJP activist shouted amid Twitter din that the great Hindu wars were to uphold Dharma. That is precisely the problem. India's history and epics are full of debates on what constitutes Dharma. Are we supposed to reinvent a lost era of glory or take a modern country constitutionally forward? Views seem to differ all of a sudden, as myths meet rumours and slander land up in courts. The quest for power can get ugly when hundreds of millions in various states of confusion, illiteracy and vague ideas of history have to be wooed by those desperate for power.

A war between the constitutional dharma of independent India and the posturings of the ruggedly ancient is the stuff of a modern epic. The millennial might call it 'A Game of Thrones' but who wants a Netflix wannabe in the land of the Mahabharata.

 

Also See: Modi’s political yatra from Gujarat to Delhi

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