Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
Riots broke out on the streets of Delhi on Monday, while images of US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi praising one another to the skies in between trumpeting their own achievements in making America and India great again were playing out on television. Pictures of a different reality began to appear in social media feeds, of mobs of young men marching through otherwise deserted streets as dark smoke billowed ominously from behind ugly buildings.
The situation had been building up for a long while. It had escalated in that particular area of Delhi because of the repeated instigations of former Member of the Legislative Assembly, Kapil Mishra of the Bhartiya Janata Party, who had in recent days threatened to evict by mob violence a group of people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, and the National Population Register.
Mishra is a former Aam Aadmi Party MLA and minister. He is also, according to a profile on him by The Wire, a former employee of Amnesty International and Greenpeace. In other words, he has so far been a woke Left-Liberal activist, a “secular” AAP activist, and a Right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP activist. He was the one who in a tweet characterised the latest Delhi assembly elections as a contest between India and Pakistan, implying that his AAP rivals represented Pakistan. Mishra himself had no issues with being a minister from the same party earlier. So long as he was minister, the AAP, which had not yet made its public show of Hanuman bhakti, was not the party of Pakistan.
Indian politics in every state is full of similar examples. In Maharashtra, former chief minister Narayan Rane was a hard-line “Marathi manoos” Shiv Sainik during Bal Thackeray’s time. He became a secular and presumably liberal Congressman after quitting the party, and is now a Hindu nationalist in the BJP. Mukul Roy in West Bengal went from Congress to Trinamool to BJP. Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam went from being an All Assam Students Union activist fighting for Assamese sub-nationalism to a secular Congress minister to being the Hindu nationalist who has helped plot BJP’s expansion in Northeast India. In order to do this, he has had to sing endless praises of not just Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah but also of the Citizenship Amendment Act against which the first protests had exploded violently in Assam.
In some cases, the changes of heart and ideology are accomplished even without changing parties. The most celebrated example of the flexibility of ideology in Indian politics is reputed to be Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who has served as a minister under VP Singh, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. That span and range of prime ministers covers most of the spectrum of national electoral politics in India. He beats the somersaults of his colleague and rival from Bihar, Nitish Kumar, a former socialist, who has managed to hold office in alliance at different times with Congress, BJP and Rashtriya Janata Dal of his arch-rival Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Ideology is and was a minor issue for many career politicians, whose interest is in winning elections, becoming minister, and generally in gaining and holding power. The issues they espouse and the personas they adopt are disposable. So too are the fools who die in their cause.
And yet, why do people continue to support such leaders? I suspect that the feudal nature of Indian politics has something to do with it. Democracy in India is actually a thin topping on a largely feudal society. The leader is a feudal lord. Party leaders lower in the hierarchy bow and scrape before him or her. Remember the Tamil Nadu ministers lying flat on the ground at Jayalalitha’s feet? That was only an expression of the nature of Indian politics.
The obsequious underling of the top leader is a smaller king or queen in his or her own right. This person similarly expects and receives feudal lord treatment from his or her underlings. The entire pyramid at whose apex the supreme leader sits is therefore one of little feudal lords and ladies, each with their own smaller feudatories and tributaries below them. It is just like old times, of India before independence when the new-fangled notions of equality, secularism and democracy arrived suddenly. In that pre-1947 India, there were 545-odd princely kingdoms, each with its own king or nawab, its nobles and its court. There are 545 seats in the Lok Sabha now.
Even today, when any leader of note anywhere in mainland India goes to his constituency, even to ask for votes, it is customary for his voters, in the manner of subjects – not citizens – to greet him by touching his feet. Only equals in status may hug him, which is why the hug is such a big deal. Those below him, but above the peasantry, may greet him with a namaste, or, if they are sufficiently wealthy and powerful, with a handshake. The only exceptions to this culture that I am aware of are in parts of the hills of Northeast India.
The nature of relationships in a feudal hierarchy does not depend on ideology. They depend on the personality of the leader and his or her personal relationships with tributary leaders and subjects. These relationships are maintained by networks of patronage rather than ideology. The real battle down the line is over official positions, contracts and awards. It is over ministerships, governorships, plum postings, financially lucrative contracts, prestigious honours. At lower levels, it is over relatively minor jobs and benefits, but the principle is largely maintained.
Ideology is the fig leaf behind which this real business of politics is conducted. Sometimes a leader is obliged to shed a fig leaf due to some intrigue of power, but he can always adopt another. Yesterday’s Amnesty and Greenpeace activist can thus become today’s Hindu nationalist if it helps his career. After all, for the professional neta – and his devoted acolytes — a flag is only as good as the power and money it brings.
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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2020 16:04:18 IST