Reverse Swing: Shah-nama: One by One
As Amit Shah captures increasing floor space within the BJP architecture, he also seems to be perfecting along the way, this art of quickly lighting a few small fires to take attention away from the big ones.
Amit Shah is turning out to be the name of the fastest-growing political shell company of our times. From a shifty, shadowy outlier hardly six or seven years ago, who had even been judicially externed for two years from the state of Gujarat pending disposal of the serious cases against him, he has mercurially emerged as the man who calls the shots in PM Modi’s second innings.
Particularly noteworthy is how he seems to have internalised the cynical tenets of the almost 2,000 years old treatise on state-craft called Chanakya-niti, which the Hindutva flank swears by – along with the equally feudal and regressive Manusmriti. One of the devious suggestions in it for being successful as a ruler is to periodically toss up frivolous, if provocative, propositions to divert attention from more serious problems. It is the very specific art of ‘skittling’. It is like when a crow lands into a quarrel of sparrows and sends them flurrying hither and thither. It then takes some time for the sparrows to gather their wits and regroup, before they are skittled once again. As Amit Shah captures increasing floor space within the BJP architecture, he also seems to be perfecting along the way, this art of quickly lighting a few small fires to take attention away from the big ones. Perhaps, the only other Indian politician who played this game with spontaneous finesse to constantly wrong-foot her opponents was the late Tamil Nadu CM, J. Jayalalithaa. Her paternalistic views (couched as maternalism – the ‘Amma’ cult) too, were not inconsiderable.
In Shah’s case, it is also his hardly disguised ambition to be seen on par with his compatriot Gujarati Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, as a great unifier of the nation. In the Centre, it is almost like a right-hand/left-hand combination at the crease now; while one hops about on long flights, embracing any international leader passing by at arm’s length, the other works hard embarrassing you at home with daily homilies on the cult of ‘one’. After playing on the emotive issue of ‘one’ nation, even as he nonchalantly jack-booted into Kashmir 54 days ago – with collateral evocation of one land, one people, one law – he has been spinning up chimera after chimera of one nation, one language, one civil code, one card and, soon quite likely, one party and one union for many territories.
It is quite another matter that with every such evocation, he merely ends up proving the opposite – that it is hardly one nation, one people or one language. In fact, it might not even be desirable. Shah may be a fan-boy of Sardar Patel and the manner in which he stitched together a collage called the map of India, but he will have to admit that it is still a work-in-progress and that there has been no period since Independence when almost 30% of India has not wanted to be out.
Sub-nationalism and secessionism are inherent to the DNA of the idea of India. Political scientists will, of course, point out that every sub-nationalist tendency and flare-up in the past seven decades has only contributed to the progressive strengthening and consolidation of the Centre. Every centrifugal struggle for a Khalistan or Dravidsthan or Chattisgarh or Jharkhand has only contributed centripetally to making endemic the reality of a strong Centre. While essentially different in nature, the ‘Azadi’ movement in Kashmir and the ‘liberation’ movements in the smaller states in the North-East, seem to be historically fulfilling a similar process. So much so, that today the Centre looks poised to formally disrupt the federal structure of the Republic and graft a dominantly Unitary frame on it.
But it is undeniable that the idea of India as ‘one’ – a consistent and impeccable integer – needs to be understood differently. Otherwise, it is as facile as saying the sky or cosmos or horizon is ‘one’. The trouble starts when the political opportunist begins to semantically misrepresent the nation as a single physical object – something to be owned, possessed and, even, consumed. Such a conceptualisation of India, for example, has no use for the suppleness and flexibility of a national geography, daily redrawn, as coastlines and sand dunes and glaciers re-imagine the map on an hourly basis. Such opportunists cannot conceive of the country as a chain of multiple links over time and space which are neither congruent nor uniform. Somewhat like Kalidasa’s ‘Meghadoot’, who experiences and exults in an intensely dense sub-continental diversity as it takes the aerial route northward, from Ramagiri to Alakapuri on Mount Kailasha. It is a land to be delighted in precisely because of its uninterrupted, carnivalesque difference rather than some exaggerated, anaemic unity.
The universal unitary in contemporary culture is a complex myth. At the level of a cult, it is dangerous. It is at the root of reductionist thoughts and philosophies. And, as a political ideology, it is lethal.
One nation, one party, one leader, one religion, one book. The philosophy of one is both elegant and potent – as experienced in schools of ‘advaita’ or ‘eliaticism’ or ‘radical monism’ – and helps in reducing and flattening disturbing thoughts of diversity, multiplicity, plurality. The difference is dismissed as ‘maya’. However, when the subject/object distance is, thus, collapsed or converged, it contributes to ambiguities in the moral field. Politically, it constructs a tunnel vision which has played havoc with history. One origin or one ancestor is, in fact, a seductive idea which has manifested itself in the political space as assertions of primogeniture and cultural uniqueness and has given rise to contemporary ideas of racial and cultural supremacy.
The problem with the Shah-nama, as it unfolds before us day-by-day and idea-by-idea, is the sheer poverty of this particular expression of the cult of the ‘one’ as the panacea for all that is being projected as our historic fault-lines. Yet, it seems to invoke and recruit history, only to deny it. It is a simplistic understanding of social formations and its capacious numerality. However, even simple Shah, methinks, will hesitate to venture into more challenging ideas like ‘one nation, one salary’, ‘one nation, one caste’ or ‘one nation, one food’.
But, then, it is early days yet. There are five years to go and there’s no knowing what this Begada Badshah will do – one by one.