Power, Pelf, Politics
Buoyed by sharp adverse reactions (publicity above all!) against being honoured on the silver jubilee of her party with a snake-garland made of Rs 1,000 currency notes on March 15, 2010, UP Chief Minister, BSP supremo, and above all, the first post-independence mass dalit leader outside the prevalent party system, Mayawati, thumbed-nosed her critics by a repeat performance two days later. Reacting to the furor and demands for Income Tax and CBI probes into two garlands costing estimated over Rs 7 crores, she released pictures of Sonia Gandhi in a currency garland and with a silver crown, also BJP leader LK Advani wearing a silver crown and of self-styled samajwadi ‘wrestler’ Mulayam Singh Yadav holding a silver mace. His former deputy Amar Singh, in search of a new martial (i.e. Rajput) identity and of a party, too appeared with silver maces in a meeting on March 28. Silver or iron, display of arms swords, maces, even guns; remember 101 gun salute in Shivpuri to Narendra Singh Tomar, BJP MP from Morena in Madhya Pradesh on March 20 in the presence of police, injuring a person in public meetings from public platforms by leaders across party lines has become a regular affair.
It indeed presents a picture perfect of the Indian political hammam with each party and leader in bare elements of pelf and power; how does it matter that such displays defy democratic logic; perhaps democracy in India is not all about logic! Social and political commentaries subsequently appearing on the Mayawati affair, however, have swung from one end of the public opinion pendulum (i.e., condemnations of this disregard for nicety) to another (i.e., guarded approvals of an attempted redefinition of norms of Indian politics by a party and a leader representing the “wretched of the Indian earth”). That without questioning the larger malaise of such acts, even if symbolic, most commentators have restricted themselves to alluding to similar acts by other parties and leaders; willy nilly justifying it because other parties and leaders before have been doing it. The arguments have been similar to “my corruption is better than yours” or “my riot is better than yours”.
This necessitates a holistic analysis of symbols of Indian politics from a democratic perspective in the second decade of the new millennium that is redefining the
societal and political norms in India. First, the need for leaders to indulge in aggressive symbolism of power and pelf needs interrogation. Second, its various manifestations in political and public lives of India have to be highlighted. Third, since political parties and leaders are committed to, and those in office are under oath to, protect the Constitution of India, whether such displays are violative of any constitutional norm needs examination. Fourth, since most such public symbolisms are meant for political mobilisation, their efficacy in meeting such objectives merits attention. Last, but not the least, this phenomenon has to be placed in the context of citizenship, particularly from the perspective as to how citizens manifest or seek to manifest their rights, obligations and duties as a citizen. For, not only leaders owe their position to being citizens of the country, whether this characteristics manifests, if at all, from leaders to citizens, or it is an expression of an inherent character of the Indian citizenship that manifests in the leadership behaviour, is an intriguing question begging for an answer.
Symbols and icons are significant tools of political action as they draw popular attention and mobilise people around social and political causes and platforms, they motivate (even incite) people into political action. However, it is difficult to surmise how a display of weapons as a sign of political strength, though visibly a sign of brute power, helps political mobilisation. Similarly, though the use of currency-note in garlands in personal functions such as weddings are common in certain parts of the country, perhaps as a display of wealth and prestige, whose prestige does it add to if used for and by leaders in public functions? And, used in such a brazen, if not vulgar, fashion as by the BSP to felicitate Mayawati may symbolise her rise to power and prestige, but how does it add to the esteem of the constituency she represents? Since the rise of Mayawati and Bahujan Samaj Party in Indian politics is rooted in the emergence of India’s “alternative politics”, hailed as the rise of the oppressed and the marginalised autonomously of the established party structures, resorting to the prevalent symbols, modes and methods (including corruption, violence and vandalising institutions) by them with a greater vengeance is questionable.
The display of weapons of ancient and medieval power in a democratic context as a symbol by democratic players is anomalous to say the least. In no democratically advanced country any leader indulges in such a practice. Obviously, this legitimises display and use of symbols of violence. We should not forget that the use of tridents by the Sangh Parivar during the heydays of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement during the second half of the 1980s has had a disastrously violent impact on politics and society. Similarly, the use of a symbol of pelf arising out of accounted money too has a legitimsing impact on corruption.
The Constitution of India is more than explicit about life and liberty of the people of the country and creates a defensive wall of ‘justice, liberty, equality and fraternity’ around any violation of this principle. Articles 21 and 22 in Part III (Fundamental Rights) have been carefully sculpted to provide the citizens protection against any violation by the state. In fact, debates in the Constituent Assembly on draft articles that finally took shape as the Articles 21 and 22 is enlightening to see the concerns of the framers of the Constitution for protecting life and liberty of citizens while providing them with security in personal and public lives. Firearms can be possessed only under license under the Arms Act and possession and carrying of sharp weapons more than six inches in length is prohibited. Only the Sikhs are permitted to carry their traditional kripans of similar length. Obviously, the display, for whatever purpose or perceived advantage, of firearms, or maces and swords goes against constitutional propriety and violates laws that emanate from it. It is surprising that without exception parties and leaders indulge in such inanities with dangerous consequences.
It is necessary to ask if such a display mobilises people in the country in any way or if it adds to the prestige of the leader. Beginning from Mayawati, who particularly has shown the tendency to display symbols of wealth diamonds, jewellery and now currency note garlands; it is difficult to argue that she has succeeded in garnering the political support she and her party have due to this display. Apparently, the argument that her amassing wealth and its public display gives
the dalits satisfaction that someone from amongst them (ek dalit ki beti i.e., a dalit’s daughter), or their own leader from amongst them (not from the elite class) has acquired wealth and power, does resonate once in a while. However, there is no indication that if in the long run it offers any solace to one suffering poverty and humiliation. How many more supporters has Mayawati gained because of such display and how has it added to greater political moblisation for her, or for any leader of any other party for that matter, has not ever been measured with any social science tools. By all indications Mayawati’s rise has been due to a variety of other factors; her 2007 victory was due to sarvajan mobilisation and her 2009 Lok Sabha setback was a combination of disenchantment with her and a targeted electoral mobilisation under Rahul Gandhi. The display of money in any form was a subsidiary factor, if at all. I am making a distinction here between use and display of money. The use of money in Indian elections undoubtedly remains a factor.
Finally, it is significant to put this phenomenon and tendency face to face with the concept of citizenship. In a recent study of citizenship based on a sample survey of 8,000 citizens in India, University of Heidelberg based political scientist Subrata Mitra has highlighted that aside from legal entitlements of citizenship, rights, capacity, sentiments, and moral obligations enhance a sense of citizenship (see Subrata Mitra, ‘Citizenship in India: Some Preliminary Results of a National Survey’, Economic and Political Weekly, XIV (9), March 5, 2010, pp. 46-53). Each one of the above qualities, more particularly moral obligations, has to be emphasised from the perspective leadership and how they decide to create public manifestation of their political power. Whether personal might, as reflected in their show of weapons and money, should be taken as a sign of political power in a democracy is the question that India needs to debate. I will use some of Mitra’s findings, conclusions and observations to reflect upon the tendency of the Indian political leadership to display power and pelf from public fora.
Mitra has rightly underlined the ‘Indian record of successfully turning subjects into citizens’, which he attributes to institutional arrangements. Viewing the leadership tendency under discussion here in the light of these arguments suggests two things. First, this transformation does not appear complete looking at manifestations of citizenship amongst the leaders. They apparently attribute certain regal position to their class vis-à-vis citizens which manifests in such displays. Second, by implication they also attribute subject-like qualities vis-à-vis themselves to the target citizens for displaying larger than life image in terms of possession of power and strength and acquisition of wealth. There is indeed a degree of patrimonialism visible and at work which makes a double strike at the principle of citizenship. Thus, from the leadership perspective his dynamic neo-institutional model that mentions structural changes, ethnic identity mobilisation and elite strategy among the crucial in transformation to citizenship, has taken only a historical view of the mobilisation and elite strategy. A more current view of it would give a different picture from the leadership perspective.
Two significant attributes in construction of citizenship and duties of citizens emerges as promoting harmonious relationship between all religions and safeguard of public property. Alluding these two attributes to this discussion gives an interesting perspective on the political leadership in India. In fact, promoting harmony can be further stretched beyond religions to communities and communitarian life and we would find the leadership wanting in this basic role of citizenship. Social wedges, existing or perceived, become the basis of political mobilisation. The social coalitions that the larger parties form in order to get the winning numbers are from both pre-defined and redesigned identities. The show of a leader’s personal power and pelf to these segmented identities is in a way a reassertion of two points i) I have done well for you, you will do well under me and, ii) I have personal power to protect myself from others, will protect you too. This underlying message, however, does not particularly help either the cause of citizenship, or leadership in the country.
Social and political violence caused by the accentuation of social wedges has invariably led to destruction of public property. If several cases of communal and caste violence across the country since independence is an example of incidents in which life and public property has been lost, in recent decades, the Hindutva mobilisation of the BJP, anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the 1992-93 Mumbai riots following serial blasts in the city by Dawood Ibrahim gang, 2002 Gujarat riots and several cases of violence on a whole range of parochial issues by Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena and a number of fringe organisations claiming their allegiance to the Hindutva fold have caused enormous damage to personal life as well as private and public property. Neither the parties organisationally, nor the leaders who have led these tirades have ever publicly expressed any regret over the grievous losses their aggressive politics has caused. Obviously, they fail the basic test of citizenship measured by the standards set by the Indian citizens. This naturally puts to test their claims of leadership.
By Ajay K Mehra