Suchet’s portrayal was more than the sum of the character’s distinctive props.
Historiography needs to go beyond Eurocentrism and saffronisation.
Producers of highbrow art never quite shake off a need for what’s further down.
Don’t say he didn’t warn us. Read his scary little manifesto, in which it all starts with a king, a courtesan and their gram sabha.
It’s the season for us, of the older vintage in the media — starting with Arun Shourie, teacher to many of us — to complain endlessly about the juvenility and narrow short-termism in our public discourse. This harms public interest and is also unfair to those targeted in such arguments. My sympathies must, therefore, go out to Arvind Kejriwal on this count. He put together his revolutionary thoughts on what is wrong with India and how to fix it, in a tiny book of no more than 35,000 words or so, called Swaraj, published by HarperCollins in 2012. To make it more affordable, Kejriwal even waived his royalties most graciously, so it costs all of Rs 135, in English. It’s been printed in large type-size with plenty of spacing to make it even easier to read.
Here is an exciting political debutante who does the one thing no Indian politician has done perhaps since Nehru wrote his Discovery of India over hundreds of intellectually challenging pages, or since Guru Golwalkar of the RSS wrote his somewhat more simple-minded Bunch of Thoughts. But what has been in discussion and debate lately? Not Kejriwal’s thoughts, but a Noida-based writer’s doubtful claim that Kejriwal plagiarised his book. Now you know what we are complaining about: this horrible trivialisation of all public discourse. Because what matters is the thoughts contained in the book, as long as Kejriwal does not deny they are his.
This columnist is as guilty as those he is blaming for this intellectual bankruptcy. I too had not bothered to read Swaraj, in keeping with the current, post-Google trend of not looking at any primary source for data or wisdom. It is much safer, and so much more fun, just to join the melee of charge and counter-charge: I know I am right, and your argument sucks and please do not try and confuse me with facts. That is why this week’s National Interest is a confession, as well as a lament and a raising of the red flag. And the choice of colour here is not merely a convenient cliche but carefully intended.
I picked up Swaraj at the Bangalore airport bookshop. I had no work to do and needed something to read through a two-and-a-half hour flight. Swaraj recommended itself both for its size and political relevance. As also for the fact that everything else was such juvenile fiction on the alleged lives of our gods, particularly hapless Shiva, and allegedly ancient but recently invented mythologies. Swaraj was worth every paisa of the Rs 135 I spent on it. The only letdown was it did not last the flight. I started reading as we belted up, and was done by the time we were a little over halfway to Delhi, or just about approaching Bhopal. It is a quick, exciting, clear, and if I may add, impressive as well as scary read. Particularly if you are not a revolutionary.
The impressive thing about the most definite thoughts (there is nothing stray or tentative here, he has seen the truth) of Kejriwal is how brilliantly he has diagnosed India’s problems. He states with masterful clarity what makes us citizens so angry, and justifiably so. Our governance is now rotten. Our rulers are corrupt and arrogant. The entire delivery system of government services, from policing to education to healthcare to anti-poverty schemes, is non-functional and putrefied. So a change is needed. You can also be persuaded to go with his larger argument that it would no longer do to just reform this system. It is now broken beyond redemption. Then you come to his solutions. And the problems begin.
Philosophically, Kejriwal draws inspiration from “ancient” India. Where everything was as perfect as Hindutva texts would tell you. His history is all anecdotal — once upon a time, there was a king in Vaishali, which is the “world’s oldest democracy”, obviously. Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, because his knowledge of ancient Vedic history is supposedly even better than that of physics, which he taught at Allahabad University, would agree. The Vaishali king’s son always became king but had no powers. He only did what his gram sabhas told him to do. Once, his “people” pointed at a girl and wanted her to become a courtesan. The girl said she had no problem, but only if the king gave his castle to her as a gift. People said, fine, and the king had no choice. People said the castle is not yours, it was built with our taxes. So the king was forced to give away the castle. Of course, he built himself another one, evidently by levying fresh taxes on the people of his omnipotent gram sabha. Which goes to show how our rulers’ glorious tradition of splurging our taxes goes as far back as ancient Vaishali. Kejriwal underlines, in all sincerity, that it is a bad custom to ask a woman to become a courtesan. Nevertheless, he says, the larger message of this “story” is what matters. That ancient India had real democracy, people had all the power, the sovereign was naam-ke-vaaste, and the gram sabha was the institution of governance. It could make a pretty girl a courtesan and render a king homeless. He doesn’t merely rest his case but goes on to explain it as an agenda for modern India.
He makes no pretence of being a historian. But learning ancient Indian history from Chandamama or Amar Chitra Katha (Swaraj even has sketches) is even more perilous than knowing Mughal history from watching Jodha Akbar. Particularly for grown-ups. I tried a quick check with some prominent historians and their texts. The “story” Kejriwal is referring to is probably the legend of Amrapali, immortalised in Acharya Chatursen’s Hindi classic Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu (literally, the city’s bride, as the chief royal courtesan was then called). Kejriwal may even have seen the Bollywood version of it, Amrapali. It is a bit old for him, having been released more than two years before his birth. But Vyjayanthimala as the royal courtesan was delectable in her apparently strapless cholis and low-hung sarongs (not saris) and Lata Mangeshkar sang some of her best songs ever for it (YouTube them, please). So it is likely that those of younger generations like Kejriwal may have seen it too. But it was just a legend, no reality. And by the way, it was the king who wanted the courtesan for himself, and giving away anything his subjects had paid for was a small price to pay for the king’s pleasure. Of course, Amrapali was the mythical Indian version of Helen of Troy who apparently caused the annihilation of Vaishali by her other suitor, Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha. But more on this later. We shouldn’t digress when the future of
India is at stake.
THE important thing is not Chandamama history but the fact that the entire Kejriwal Manifesto is inspired by it. His grand idea is supremely virtuous gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas governing our villages and cities, respectively. They will receive direct, untied funds. What it means is that the “government” will just deposit money into their accounts without specifying any purpose or instituting supervision, oversight or accountability. Of course, with this, most of the bureaucracy will be rendered irrelevant, definitely the CAG and its offspring in state capitals. The MPs and MLAs will no longer make laws. They will bring the draft of each law to gram sabhas, take their views and then convey these in their respective Houses and laws will thus be passed directly by the “people”. The elected representatives will merely be honest correspondents and note-takers. They deserve no better, says Kejriwal, because in the current system, they blindly follow their party line and if they defy the high command, they are thrown out. I’m not sure if Vinod Kumar Binny read out this passage from Swaraj in his defence at his inquisition.
Gram sabhas will have the power to hire, fire, reward and punish all government employees, from policemen to doctors to teachers. I am obviously exaggerating, but not too much, when I say that the word “punish” or some equivalent is seen in almost every para of the book. Quick and exemplary punishment is the fundamental philosophy of this new “system”. And you think these gram sabhas could become like khap panchayats? What is wrong with khap panchayats? That they give out orders that lead to the killing of lovers, etc? This, Kejriwal tells us, is still a matter of “contention”. In any case, his gram sabhas will not have the power to pronounce the death sentence or amputation. “If this is the case, a gram sabha may declare itself to be a separate state from India. Such powers will not rest with the sabha”. (Page 97). Bharat Mata should thank God, and Kejriwal, for that.
The instruments of governance, law enforcement, judiciary, executive, parliament, as we know them, shall cease to exist, or at least, to matter. The mob will be sovereign. The police will have to take orders from the mob. The mob, or the gram sabha or the mohalla sabha, will be able to levy and collect its own taxes. No decision will be taken unless the “people” decide. No wonder Prashant Bhushan wants a referendum in Kashmir on whether the army should stay there. He could have also called one in Ahmedabad in February 2002, when riots raged, on whether the army should be called out or not. Or in all of India, on whether Article 370 should continue. Or, we should have done a quick referendum, preferably through SMS and Facebook, on 26/11 and whether the “people” wanted us to go to war with Pakistan. Would you have? Swiss democracy is held up as an example of a perfect system. Just the other day, it banned the construction of Islamic minarets by referendum. And do you know when women got the right to vote in Switzerland? In 1971. Its parliament passed it in 1959, but it continued to be rejected by an all-male referendum.
The essence of modern governance, distilled over millennia, through the thoughts of Lords Rama and Krishna, Kautilya, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the Caliphs and Abraham Lincoln, to Gandhi, Ambedkar and Mandela, is responsible democracy. It includes checks and balances, stability and credibility, institutions that protect you from majoritarian excess, that give the rulers the strength and confidence to make the best decision for their people and nations in their best wisdom, even if it happens to be unpopular on that day. Then they get assessed by the people on their net success or failure after five years. Swaraj gives us an entirely new way of governance. It is also an agenda for utter anarchy. He says the beauty is, you can do all this without amending the Constitution. Of course, you don’t need to when you have thrown it already. In fact, two more promises of the Kejriwal manifesto are highly credible. One, that it will end Naxalism. It obviously will, because it is essentially the Naxal manifesto, even if inspired by saffron historians. Second, that it will end unemployment. It certainly will, as all of us, the people of India, in the endless meetings of our gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas, wards and clusters, will spend all our time governing ourselves and punishing others.
Go pick up a copy of Swaraj. Since Kejriwal has waived his royalties, I cannot at least be accused of soliciting commissions for him. Professor Stephen Cohen, teacher to two generations of South Asians (including this columnist) on strategic studies, has a theory on why the CIA failed to predict the 1998 Pokharan explosions. “Nobody at the CIA,” he said, “reads anything not marked classified. And the BJP’s manifesto in 1998 was not marked classified.” So they missed their commitment to the bomb altogether. Neither is the Kejriwal manifesto marked classified. But please do go read it.
Postscript: I found some references to the Vaishali of “those times” (probably 6th to 5th century BC) in eminent historian Dr Upinder Singh’s wonderfully erudite and authoritative A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century (Pearson, 2009). But none to the courtesan that Chandamama, Wikipedia and Kejriwal extol. There was indeed democracy of the kind Kejriwal mentions. Singh says Vaishali’s “greatest asset — governance through discussion — was also their greatest weakness. They were vulnerable to internal dissensions, especially when faced with aggressive monarchies”. There was also an invasion of Vaishali by Magadha’s Ajatashatru, but not because he was madly in love with the nagarvadhu, as Chandamama and Wiki tell us. He was cross because two cousins, who had stolen a wonderful 18-string pearl necklace, had been given refuge in Vaishali. He invaded Vaishali, laid it to waste and massacred all its people, except Amrapali. And why did Vaishali, the much stronger and richer state, lose? Its “people spent all their time arguing and fighting over how they should carry out their defence”! In fact, according to Buddhist texts quoted by Singh, so notorious was the Vaishali anarchy that even the bodhisattvas advised a contemplative Buddha in heaven not to be born in that kingdom as it followed no system or order, as everybody there went around saying “I am king, I am king.” I am not sure that is the ancient Vaishali Kejriwal has drawn inspiration from. I, at least, didn’t read this in Chandamama. Or maybe he is talking about the Vaishali next door to the Ghaziabad colony where he has lived. Further, the Wiki, Chandamama and Amrapali, the film, tell us that so ashamed was Amrapali at the destruction of her country because of her that she went to Buddha and became a nun. Kejriwal doesn’t tell us this, but then he surely reminds us that the ultimate objective of all mankind is attainment of “nirvana/ Buddhatva” and liberation from all worldly desire (Swaraj, page 107).