Indian politics: The lotus and the robots

With each passing day the countdown to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is getting, in the words of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, “curiouser and curiouser.” There are Narendra Modi and Amit Shah on one side looking through the glass at a Mad Hatter who is running from pillar to post searching for an Indian factory where he can manufacture non-Chinese mobile phones. Why he wants to make these in India when Chinese versions are available at throwaway prices is perhaps safely tucked under his hat. There’s also the Red Queen, probably from Javier Moro’s proscribed book, whipping the Mad Hatter into frenzy whenever she looks at the ruins of the Kingdom she had conquered with no effort. Then there are various other characters coming together and separating like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while performing their American style Ballroom dances.

These, like the Elephant Queen, or the Bicycle Thieves, separate faster and more often than they come together. The Elephant Queen has an ego the same size as her symbol; while the Bicycle Thieves think they are smarter than the Mad Hatter having donned a red cap thinking its colour will compete favourably with Moro’s draped-in-red Queen. Then, there is the buffalo-feed robber, searching with a lantern a way up from the dungeon where he is presently lodged. There are disgruntled ex-Ministers within the BJP, once part of Lutyen’s cocktail circuit, and now made to cool their heels in anterooms waiting for a call to serve the nation. Their methods of showing their displeasure confirm the wisdom of Modi and Shah in keeping them out of the inner circle. Being part of the IAS or a World Bank economist-cum-journalist, or a successful Bollywood villain, does not guarantee an automatic place at the table with Modi. He had found these people out even before he was chosen by the party to lead it in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

When Narendra Modi was elevated to the BJP’s Parliamentary Board, it sent shock ways through the political firmament and brought about a virulent reaction from the Congress and the secular brigade; the first casualty of which came from within the NDA. Nitish Kumar’s departure from it, and the sulking of the senior leaders in the BJP, reminded me then of a book of essays by Arthur Koestler, that the Hungarian-British author and journalist wrote after his travels to India and Japan in 1959. The book titled “The Lotus and the Robot” primarily explored Eastern mysticism, through the practices of Yoga and Zen. The book was promptly banned in India by the Nehruvian establishment, as was the propensity with the Supreme Leader who brooked no dissent.

Koestler was a political activist, having lived through perhaps the most turbulent period of European history. He was thirteen years of age when the First World War ended in 1918 that saw the end of the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, and the Tsarist Russian empires. As a German-speaking Jew in Europe, the period between the First and the Second World Wars was perhaps the most stifling time for a writer of his talents. Educated in Austria, he joined the German Communist Party, but was soon disillusioned by the state of terror unleashed by Stalin. He resigned from the Party in 1938, having closely witnessed another facet of totalitarianism in Franco’s Spain, and immigrated to England. In 1940, he published “Darkness at Noon,” a novel that is as strong an indictment of totalitarianism as George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Koestler’s terrific sense of phraseology has resulted in some very catchy titles that adorn his writings. Apart from the two titles mentioned above, he also wrote: “The Yogi and the Commissar,” “The Ghost in the Machine,” “Thieves in the Night,”Arrival and Departure,” and “The Age of Longing,” besides several other works of fiction and non-fiction.

But, as is my wont, the reference to Koestler’s writings in this essay, is actually not any critique or an appreciation of his craft. It is just my way of writing. When I read a book I tend to pick out words, sentences, and sometimes whole passages that can be used to expand a particular idea that I may be developing in my mind. My indulgent readers would have noticed that I write opinion pieces on current politics as it is shaping up in India, and I usually build these pieces around a phrase, or a word from a known work of literature. My last piece was constructed from the writings of Manohar Malgonkar and John Spencer Hill, two writers, poles apart in their styles and themes. But, the response from my readers has been encouraging enough to allow me to indulge in my favourite method once again. The inspiration I draw from these intellects is enough to make my two-bit opinions a bit more weighty and sound scholastic.

Now, coming to the crux of this piece:

In 1975 Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency to save herself from political oblivion. When the Emergency was lifted in 1977 it brought about a whole new experiment in Indian politics. For the first time since Independence, a right of the centre party, that Nehru and the Congress publicly reviled, had found common cause with the socialists, and a new dispensation called the Janata Party replaced the Congress at the centre. But the experiment did not last even two years. The socialists within the Janata Party took objection to the Jana Sangha members retaining their membership of the RSS, and brought about the collapse of the experiment. The break-up of the Janata Party led to the formation of small, left-leaning, sectarian, regional, parties that became the private fiefdoms of political warlords whose sole purpose was to amass huge personal fortunes that would be used for buying elections in the future.

The political landscape of the country had completely changed from the days of Nehru in the first flush of Independence, when people voted for the Congress, as it had no worthwhile opposition anywhere in the national or regional arenas. Vote-bank politics, that was largely absent till 1979, raised its ugly head, as political parties vied for power on narrow regional, sectarian, class and caste calculations. The Jana Sangha, which was a major constituent of the Janata Party, also morphed into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), replacing its symbol of a lighted lamp with a lotus flower in bloom.

In disgust, the people voted Indira Gandhi back into office, giving her and the Congress a new lease of life. But, by now the Congress had shed all those members who had made common cause with the Janata Party and challenged the leadership of Indira Gandhi. The new Congress that emerged was christened Congress (I), making it a political vehicle wholly dedicated to her persona. Indira Gandhi systematically dismantled the structure of the old Congress party by concentrating absolute power in her hands; forcing the state legislatures to (s)elect her nominees as their leaders. She nominated each Chief Minister, and the party had no say in the matter. Inner-party democracy disappeared and sycophants and flatterers quickly filled the spaces vacated by dedicated Congressmen.

Dissent was promptly suppressed and chosen commissars were unleashed upon those who dared to differ. They were heckled and hounded out of the party by being dubbed as “CIA agents” or simply “anti-nationals.” The “court jester” of a Congress President, Deb Kant Borooah completed the transformation of the once grand old party to a fascist dispensation when he said that “Indira is India, and India is Indira”. Indira Gandhi, at the top of the power structure, started the emasculation of the Congress party and gradually replaced the human elements with mechanical robots, trained to genuflect to the ruling Deity, and open their mouths only to stifle dissent and to sing paeans in praise of the First family.

Politics across the country became a fertile ground for violent conflict, unleashing vast fires of strife between castes, creeds, languages, and every other distinction among the people of the land. Punjab was the first state to burn in this conflagration.

The actions of the two Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi, in 1984, would have very far-reaching ramifications. Coincidentally, it was the year that George Orwell had chosen for his ‘futuristic’ depiction of a dystopic state at its peak of power and repression. The resultant retribution that the automatons and their mindless legions visited upon the hapless Sikh community has been recorded in great detail, and it is not my purpose here to revisit those terrible times. Within less than a generation after the dismemberment of the Indian subcontinent, India was once again descending into religious fratricide, dividing the nation into smaller constituents of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs etc., and into even smaller fragments along sect, caste, and class; each constituent ready to spring at the throat of the other at the slightest provocation.

But did these tragedies make any difference to the descendants of the Nehru-Gandhi’s? On the contrary, Rajiv Gandhi followed the same policies, which perhaps led to his own tragic assassination. If anything, his widow has perfected the art of Total Dictatorship and taken it to levels that were matched only by Mao or Stalin. This is the state of affairs that has continued from that fateful year in 1979 when the Robots and the Lotus first began their struggle for political control at the centre.

The automatons of the Congress have systematically hounded out all potential threats to the First Family, and have brought the party down to such farcical levels that the best it can field in the upcoming elections are, to my mind, mechanical robots programmed only to replay the inanities of the Mad Hatter. Not that these people were actually blessed with the ability to think independently! The reason they have stuck to the First Family like limpets is precisely that! They are unable to reason for themselves. As the poet said: it’s not for them to reason why, but just to do and die. Lord Tennyson’s Light Brigade had 600 brave soldiers who were ready to charge into the valley of Death, knowing they were fighting for a higher cause. But the Mad Hatter’s Robots are riding into the hereafter fighting for the basest cause. The tragedy is that they are not even aware of it!

The Red Queen and the Mad Hatter have no time for anyone who has even an iota of intelligence. It is appalling to listen to party apparatchiks like Surjewala, Manish Tiwari, Sanjay Jha, Rajeev Gowda, and others mechanically repeating the lies and inanities uttered by their Hatmaster. Here’s a Tweet that perfectly expresses how the so-called senior leaders of the Congress have become mere programmable automatons:

This collection of programmed and programmable Robots would do any puppet-master proud. The Robots have been unique in letting opprobrium upon opprobrium wash off their synthetic backs, day in and day out, and still continue “to crawl when asked only to bend.” They are the closest to Orwell’s Winston Smith after having been “treated” by O’Brien and his colleagues, in what is best described by Nandini Bahri-Danda as LYBB (Leave Your Brain Behind) chamber, where they are made to see the “light”.

Meanwhile, the Lotus, after the departure of Vajpayee from the scene, found it difficult to raise its head above the mud. L. K. Advani, with his penchant to go on Rath Yatras on makeshift automobiles, in search of a utopian Ram Rajya, looked more and more like Cervantes’ Knight of the Sour Countenance, tilting at imaginary windmills. After the unpleasant surprise of 2004 this Lord of Lost Causes kept losing one state after another, destroying any chances of the BJP becoming a serious contender for power at the centre. Until Narendra Modi came upon the national scene, it looked like the Congress would really have no worthwhile challenge from the opposition.

“The people who must never have power are the humourless.” This is what Christopher Hitchens wrote in June 2011, shortly before his untimely death. Can you imagine a more humourless bunch than Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and Mamata Banerjee? Add the visages of Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, A. K. Antony, Salman Khurshid, and the entire Congress leadership, and you will be seeing perhaps the most humourless faces in one group in history. To quote Hitchens once more: these are the kind of people who are “secretly hoping to prove that it is they themselves who are the pet of the universe…those who overcompensate for inferiority are possessed of titanic egos and regard other people as necessary but incidental.”

We must hope that the general public is no longer swayed by these interlopers and has learnt to use its vote with deliberate discretion and careful consideration. Those who wish to divorce the BJP and get married once more to the Congress must recall Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous quip: “A second marriage is a triumph of hope over experience.” 1979 and 2004 are enough indicators that the “triumph of hope” in these marriages is merely ephemeral while the tragedy of experience is permanent!

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