How Modi is elbowing Sonia, Rahul, Congress from India's cultural memes

There is a famous Zen koan: “Why did Bodhidharma go East?” In the manner of Zen koans - a koan is a kind of paradoxical statement or question that enables a new insight - there is no (correct) answer, but you are expected to meditate on it to see the insights behind the obvious, superficial facts. The facts are that, indeed, a monk named Bodhidharma (some say a Pallava prince from Kanchipuram, who he trained in Kalari Payat, and who had embarked from Kodungalloor/Muziris, circa 400 CE) did go East, and taught Han monks at Shaolin in China unarmed combat (whence kung-fu).

But that’s not the point. What was behind Bodhidharma’s trip? He not only took Kalari Payat and its science of pressure points, but he also later invented Zen Buddhism itself in Japan, where he is respected as Daruma - the preceptor. So you could say, on some level, that he was a grand ambassador for Indic heritage, including Buddhism and Kalari (and some say the tea plant as well).

Yoga enthusiasts perform at Rajpath, New Delhi on International Yoga Day. PTI

Yoga enthusiasts perform at Rajpath, New Delhi on International Yoga Day. PTI


I was struck by the irony in that on #InternationalYogaDay, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi were all out of India. I heard they were abroad for a family function. So, following on the Zen koan, I ask: “Why did Sonia Gandhi go West”? Unlike Bodhidharma, I don’t think she went to take the message of Indic heritage to the West, although I may be mistaken. Her family has a business dealing in Indian antiques in Turino, I am told.

So what was the point of the trip? The obvious answer is that they would feel uncomfortable in India when the Yoga Day hoopla would be running 24x7 on TV, because the Congress party was officially semi-boycotting it. It was a great marketing event, and propaganda, and soft power, for India, and also, let’s face it, for the BJP and PM Narendra Modi himself. And the Nehru dynasty people, after having made the decision to boycott Yoga Day, would have felt awkward to hang around in India. They have shown themselves to be graceless and churlish on occasion, but we’ll let that pass.

This dichotomy extends to other @IncIndia people too. Poor Shashi Tharoor appears to be on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand, he does believe yoga is a good thing, but I suspect he has been ordered by his party to ignore it. I started a thread saying that he was hurting his personal standing by ignoring #YogaDay, and he responded to Mohandas Pai, who chided him, with this tweet: “With respect, I’ve been citing yoga in my “soft- power” speeches for more than a decade.”

Basically Shashi is saying something that’s as plain as day to most of us: yoga gives India soft power. But with his party’s ‘High Command’ taking the stand that #YogaDay was inappropriate, Shashi is essentially admitting that he’s torn between two pressures - in other words under two flags.

Under Two Flags. That was the name of a rather forgettable Victorian romance novel from the 1860s, but a lot of us suffer from those conflicting loyalties. Jews have famously used passports as flags of convenience, always swearing, through their troubled times, that they would meet “next year in Jerusalem”, their imagined homeland. I think a lot of Indians in the diaspora carry other passports, but in their hearts, they feel very Indian.

I wonder if Sonia Gandhi, similarly, feels subject to two different pulls: one from the Italian past of her formative years, and the other acquired via marriage. Most of us are prisoners of childhood experiences, because what we experienced then takes on a roseate glow in our memories. I have read a couple of absolutely stunning books by adults looking back at their childhood. The first by Marcel Pagnol, a French writer and filmmaker: “The days were too short”, from which he made two beautiful films too: “My mother’s castle” and “My father’s glory”, about his childhood summers spent in rural France.


The other is SK Pottekkat’s autobiographical novel “Oru desathinte katha” (The story of a land). Pottekkat won the Jnanpith and this book was cited, though he was known for his travelogues. This portrait of his youth in Kozhikode, including his gang of friends, “the supper circuit sangham”, and the beautiful but doomed Narayani, remains fresh in my memory although I read it as a teenager myself years ago.

These tales affect you in an emotive way because we are sentimental about our childhoods, and so I would not blame Sonia Gandhi for being attached to her Italian-ness; and perhaps she has conveyed a bit of that to her children as well. But that is no reason why pucca desi Congresswallahs should pine for “cooler climes”, as Hari Kumar does in “The Raj Quartet”, unless it’s an acquired second-hand taste.

In a sense, Narendra Modi is presenting Sonia Gandhi and the Congress with an “unbearable lightness of being” (apologies to Milan Kundera). He is, one by one, plucking away the stalwarts of the Congress and making them his own – Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar - and he’s also appropriating the cultural memes – ayurveda, now yoga. In the end, the Congress will be left with nothing to call its own. The essential hollowness of the Congress is being exposed ruthlessly: their empty sloganeering about socialism (which nobody cares about any more) and secularism (which is another word for apartheid against Hindus) are now putting in doubt the very existence of the party. Like the Communists, who are facing oblivion, the Congress is facing irrelevance in 21st century India.

Most companies have a shelf life of a few years as their raison d’etre disappears: we see this in the relentless Schumpeterian turmoil in Silicon Valley. The Congress has been around for some 125 years. The flight of the Gandhi family suggests it’s now reached obsolescence, only it doesn’t know it yet. Microsoft, struggling with an old business model, can sympathize.


Published Date: Jun 22, 2015 02:32 pm | Updated Date: Jun 22, 2015 02:34 pm


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