“Good Governance Day” brings a sense of farce and foreboding. It is a farce because it smacks more of a Hallmark marketing gimmick than serious governance. Parliament was stalled because the government abdicated moral leadership. And there isn’t yet a single major governance reform that excites enthusiasm.
The idea that such a farcical notion should replace a day to meditate on the two central concepts of Christianity and most thinking traditions, agape (unconditional love) and caritas (the friendship of man for god and fellow creatures), suggests the crudest of sensibilities. Foreboding, because it was announced as an act of raw power, pure and simple — the attempt by the state to colonise a sacred holiday.
The sheer mendacity and clumsiness of the attempt could not detract from the ominous context that surrounded it. The RSS and the Sangh Parivar are vitiating the atmosphere against Christians. We wanted to make religion less relevant to politics; the RSS wants to make it the only thing relevant to politics. Many will, of course, have a sense of schadenfreude. What else did you expect from the Modi government? Was it not a delusion to think that the BJP could transcend its RSS roots?
“Good Governance Day” was declared in the name of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to distance the government from the RSS, though they could not quite explain the prime minister’s office’s ridiculous memos on “Good Governance Day”. For what it is worth, one can acknowledge that the RSS and VHP are intensifying their campaign because Modi’s success poses a challenge to them. This tension and conflict is real, and we will see a few more chapters in this drama. The schadenfreude over Modi is still too early, though the warning it contains is worth heeding. But even if we acknowledge this, the prime minister’s response has been woefully inadequate.
The invocation of Vajpayee on “Good Governance Day” brings memories of another day and a related concept. Vajpayee had evoked the evocative idea of “rajdharma” in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. The transition from rajdharma to good governance represents a double diminution. Rajdharma carries all the existential pathos of leadership; good governance has as much excitement as a bureaucratic memo. But invoking good governance has become an alibi: an abdication to an abstraction. We think there is something called governance apart from leaders, representatives, officials and citizens doing their duty. It actually depoliticises responsibility. Everyone blames governance rather than examining their own role. Manmohan Singh used to invoke governance abstractly in this way. And we rightly said to him: You are governance; get on with it. By making it a “day”, Modi has shades of the same trap.
But invoking Vajpayee on “Good Governance Day” raises another association. It is fashionable to contrast Vajpayee and Modi. And the contrasts in personality and outlook are real. Even in their poetry, Vajpayee is more wistful; Modi, more encompassing. But if the last two weeks are anything to go by, the contrast can be overstated in a crucial institutional sense. Vajpayee had a touch of greatness in his persona. But there is something about the alchemy of power that makes even the best intentioned and strongest leader very ambivalent at crucial times. In the video where Vajpayee gave Modi the exhortation to follow rajdharma, saying, “praja praja mein bhed nahin ho sakta (there can be no undue distinctions made between citizens)”, there was also a punchline. Modi whispers something, and Vajpayee says, Narendrabhai is following rajdharma. What started as an admonition ended in seeming approval, though the media picked only the former. And in that ambiguity, Vajpayee lost a lot of sheen.
Rajiv Gandhi was secular but unleashed deadly communal politics. To that extent, what is in a leader’s heart is irrelevant. Is Modi RSS with a governance face or does he want India now to transcend the baggage of narrow identity politics? But what is not irrelevant is the institutional ambiguity in the face of a gathering storm. Admonitions given only in private might as well be taken as approvals in public. No wonder so many unruly elements are feeling empowered.
Since the government is intent on colonising everything, let us, as an act of resistance, make our own private recollections. It is not inappropriate to recall another birthday that falls on December 25: that of Dharamvir Bharati, the great Hindi writer. His verse play, Andha Yug, written against the shadow of mid-century catastrophes, including Partition, has a powerful ethical and dramatic density. It plays on the idea that power cannot be the final arbiter of truth, and that any kingdom that thinks so will soon end in ruin. At a superficial level, the play is read as a rebuke to Krishna, who, in one view, could have stopped the war but did not.
But it also plays on one theme that almost any great poet using the Mahabharata, from Kunwar Narain to Arun Kolatkar, has deployed: the knowing silences, studied ambiguities and ultimate partisanship of those who know better lead to greater destruction than the naked evil of the Kauravas. Those in power will ultimately be judged not by their persona but by their institutional actions. They have to act honourably in a way that befits their office. We loved Vajpayee. But we also rejected him. The same was true of Narasimha Rao, in a different way. He had vision and political craft. But ultimately, he was done in by the communal poison that he failed to combat. Whether Modi is good or evil is besides the point. What matters is the degree to which he shows fidelity to the deepest constitutional values and institutional role for which he was elected. Andha Yug is a reminder of what a politics composed entirely of past resentment can lead to.
Andha Yug is also a poignant description of the death of a god. Krishna accepts Gandhari’s curse but with a sort of exhortation: He has taken on the burdens and guilt of humanity, redeeming both their good and bad deeds. But here on, humanity will have to be responsible for its own actions. He is still available. His redemptive power is still accessible. But humanity will have to overcome its own conceit to find him. At the risk of theological impurity, this is not a bad thought to ponder on the day we celebrate another son of god, who came to the world to redeem us. He, too, died for us on the cross. The least we can do is remember him unencumbered by the petty hubris of “Good Governance Days”. Vajpayee would have agreed.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’