Time was, when south Indian monarchs built temples to commemorate their political victories, their changes of religious allegiance, their command of agrarian economies. Sometimes they were acts of piety as well. From the Gangas, Hoysalas and Chalukyas, down to principalities such as that of the Wodeyars, the temple was the monumental “gift of power,” as historian James Heitzman said about the Cholas. Into its fretted stone or towering gopuram was hewn the grandeur of triumph. Sometimes, when idols were the spoils of war, they took new life in distant homes: Chikkadevaraja in 1675, flushed with military successes to the north, south and east of Mysore, “removed” the idol of Shweta Varahaswamy from Srimushna to its new location in Srirangapatna; in 1809 it found a new home in Mysore.
The Karnataka people, in short, are spoilt for choice in monumental grandeur. Former chief minister Kengal Hanumanthaiah was mindful of this heritage in choosing Chalukyan motifs for Bengaluru’s Vidhana Soudha, that quintessential symbol of representative democracy.
Monarchical symbols of power have held an irresistible attraction for many in contemporary southern Indian politics. Given the special place occupied by cine-politics in exaggerating the power of southern matinee idols, there has been a doubling of these spectacles, both as cinema and as politics. Jayalalithaa learned, at great political cost, that such spectacles can be counter-productive when she lost the election following her sponsorship of the ostentatious wedding of her foster son and Shashikala’s son in 1995. Since then, she has taken to the more productive path of bestowing more durable gifts on citizens, and thus ensured lasting adoration. At a time of massive withdrawal by the state from social security programmes, these schemes serve as new redistributive mechanisms.
No such redistribution was envisaged when Janardhan Reddy staged the massive wedding of his daughter Brahmini. The obvious contrast with the sufferings of the hoi polloi following demonetisation has distracted from the event itself and its possible meanings for our public life. In the cacophonous clucking of tongues about this extravagance in the midst of obvious misery, we missed an important voice, that of Karnataka’s health minister, Ramesh Kumar, who called for a cap on wedding expenditure. In this, he paid, perhaps unwittingly, obeisance to another of Mysore’s — now much maligned — monarchs, Tipu Sultan, who, in his many efforts to redraw social life in his kingdom, also attempted to limit extravagant wedding expenses.
Kumar’s voice may sound like Rip van Winkle’s at a time when consumption is not only good, but a patriotic duty. But Kumar must be recalled for another more important remark that he made in passing, when he said that today, the private has become the public, and the public, private. For many people, a wedding is the most familial of all events. But it has periodically erupted into public view as a time to declare wealth, display power, flaunt political connections, and indulge in sheer fantasy. This pot-latch of Reddy, this symbolic burning of wealth, picked its symbols well in recreating Hampi’s Vittala temple, and Tirupati’s Tirumala Devasthana, one a UNESCO heritage site, and the other one of the most powerful corporations in southern India.
The setting itself was important. Bengaluru’s Palace Grounds have been, for some time, the site of ostentatious weddings. The “public” here has long become “private”, since these grounds, which have already been distributed between various Wodeyar heirs, despite the state’s legislative takeover of the space, epitomise the compromised nature of state power. The temporary theme park erected at the Palace Grounds included some of Ballari’s landmarks, haunted by memories of a better time. A new kind of heroism revels in the flagrant abuse of all standards of decency but also declares the divided sovereignty that is a feature of contemporary India. The ease with which public became private in Ballari since 1999 (and the state lost Rs 16,000 crore in revenue) was matched only by the devastation that Reddy wrought on the region. The simulacrum in Bengaluru was necessary not only because Reddy has been exiled from the region that he ravaged; it was his insouciant thumbing of the nose at those who ended his reign of terror at Ballari. The wedding reasserted Reddy as one who made the public into private, and now placed that illegitimately won private sphere on display. He demonstrated that he continues to straddle both licit and illicit forms of power.
In this sense, Reddy’s actions may be placed alongside other shows of extra-legal power from an assortment of actors ranging from Shahabuddin to the Shiv Sena. Reddy’s public assertion of financial power, at which the IT department, much like the police in the Hindi film, arrived too late, was not only his claim to continued relevance in the political realm. He also reclaimed the power of the neighbourhood tough in that forever reddened earth of Ballari.
The fake temple-building cannot be mistaken for even temporary piety. If he once placated his conscience by donating to Tirupati, Reddy thought nothing of blasting the Sugalamma temple at Ballari to recover the ore in the ground beneath. Nor did the strings of pearls that adorned the neck of Reddy recall the monarchs of Mysore/Karnataka. Coming at a time when the government has placed the entire Indian people under the shadow of criminality for wanting to access their own money, the robber-baron’s return to public life is a garish reminder of the continued importance that extra-legal power enjoys in our public life. It also personifies Raghuram Rajan’s observation at Davos, that the Indian state is getting the reputation of going after the small and the defenceless, while letting big fish get away. That has been the enduring legacy of colonialism, and for so long has been a staple of our democracy. It is perhaps this aspect of contemporary India that Ramesh Kumar was trying to warn us about.