Yathaa Modi, Tathaa Praja: It is the King who determines how good the 'age' will be
Anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise because their perpetrators have an ideological sanction from the prime minister, writes Sudheendra Kulkarni
Sanskrit is a language of wisdom. It is a storehouse of subhashitas (maxims) that succinctly convey profound lessons about diverse aspects of life and society, including politics and governance. Two such proverbs are pertinent to the subject of this article — namely, the recent ominous surge in anti-Muslim hate speeches and crimes in India.
Here is the first proverb — “Raja kaalasya kaaranam”. In Shanti Parva of the epic Mahabharat, Guru Bhishma explains the meaning of ‘Raja Dharma’ (the dharmic duty of a king) to Yudhishthir, the eldest among the five Pandavas.
Kaalo va Kaaranam Rajno, Raja va Kaala Kaaranam Iti te Sanshayo Ma Bhood – Raja Kaalasya Kaaranam!
(Is it the age or the era that determines how the king will be? Or is it the king who determines how good the age will be?
Have no doubt about this. It is indeed the king who is the cause for good or bad times)
A righteous king, one who knows his Raja Dharma and treats his people equally without any discrimination, brings prosperity and happiness to all, whereas a bad king brings ruin on himself and his kingdom.
Here is a second proverb — “Yathaa Raja Tathaa Praja”, which too explains the meaning of Raja Dharma. In Arthashasthra, Chanakya says:
Raagye Dharmani Dharmishthaah Paape Paapaah Same Samaah, Rajanamanuvartante Yathaa Raja Tathaa Praja!
(People follow their king. They are unethical if the king be irreligious and immoral. They are sinners if the king be a sinner. They are normal if their king be normal. As is the king, so are the people).
Today’s India is not under the rule of kings and monarchs. It is a democracy, in which people choose their ruler or the head of their government. Yet, ours is an imperfect democracy, one in which people’s sentiments and thoughts can be easily manipulated by the ruler or the head of the political party that wins a majority of seats in Parliament.
In order to gain and retain power, a scheming and crafty politician, using his charisma and misusing the levers of power available to him, can influence how his supporters think and behave. If he is divisive and a bigot, his supporters get the hint and unabashedly exhibit divisiveness and bigotry in their speech and conduct. If, on the contrary, the ruler scrupulously follows his Raj Dharma, and uses the tools of power available to him to protect the righteous people and punish the wrong-doers, he can mould the society in his own nature.
In this sense, the two adages — “Raja kaalasya kaaranam” and“Yathaa Raja Tathaa Praja” — are still relevant in a democracy. And their relevance can be easily understood if we look at the contrasting eras of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi.
When India gained independence, we had a prime minister who, despite the trauma of Partition and the large-scale communal killings caused by it, steered the nation on a path of peace and unity. Nehru and other Congress leaders of that era, if they wanted, could have easily manipulated post-partition feelings among Hindus by whipping up anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim hysteria.
Citing the example of Pakistan, which chose to become an Islamic nation and reduced non-Muslims to a status of second-class citizens, they could have easily made India into a Hindu Rashtra. They could have played the religious card to get the Congress elected in parliamentary and state assembly polls. They did not.
Instead, Nehru and his colleagues piloted the creation of a Constitution that declared India to be a democratic and inclusive nation, in which all Indians, irrespective of whether they belonged to majority or minority communities, could feel they were equal citizens of a free India. They led the process of building institutions of parliamentary democracy, which were mandated to protect people’s constitutional rights without any discrimination.
Nehru put all the weight of his personality, and all the authority of the high office he occupied, behind a mission to heal the wounds of Partition and re-unite the nation. He was uncompromising in attacking both Hindu and Muslim communalism. He incessantly articulated and communicated his dream of a Modern India, which made a majority of common people as well as educated people aware that the newly independent nation could not progress without communal peace and harmony.
It is not that communal hatred and prejudices were completely absent in our society in the initial decades of independence. But were fake sadhus and sadhvis allowed in Nehru’s rule to make incendiary speeches calling for mass-killings of Muslims, as the world watched in horror in Haridwar recently? No.
Did any chief minister belonging to the ruling party in Nehru’s time dare to speak or act in a partisan manner targeting a particular community, as Yogi Adityanath has been routinely doing in Uttar Pradesh? No.
Did a large section of the media continuously spew communal poison then as it is doing now without any shame or fear of being punished under the laws of the land? No.
Could anyone then dare to abuse Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, and glorify Nathuram Godse for assassinating him? Certainly not.
All this was simply unthinkable in the Nehruvian era. That era was not perfect. Yet, it was a time of hope, idealism and patriotic unity primarily because of the person Nehru was. Chanakya was right: “As is the king, so are the people.”
Contrast this with the era of Modi. India is what it is today because the Prime Minister is what he is. Since 2014, he has been consciously attempting to recast India in his own ideological mould. His own unstated goal — and the stated goal of his ideological parivar — is to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra. The ideological weapon for achieving this goal is ‘Hindutva’, which entails political mobilisation of a sufficiently large Hindu vote-bank to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party in power perpetually.
This weapon can work only if democratic institutions are weakened and made subservient to the paramount leader’s egotistic ambitions. It can work only by cynically polarising Indian society on communal lines, so that Hindus are made to feel triumphant and proud, and Muslims are made to feel insecure, disempowered and submissive. This is precisely what Modi has been doing with his policies (example: CAA/NRC), speeches (example: “Those creating violence can be identified by their clothes”) and theatrics (example: his recent visit to Kashi).
The Hindutva weapon is used for another important purpose — to distract people’s attention, including that of his own staunch supporters, from his manifest failures of governance. From skyrocketing price rise, from mounting unemployment, from unprecedented wealth disparities, from mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, from the betrayal of his promise of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’, and from his reluctance to tell Indians the truth about the real happenings on the border with China.
Because Modi is a masterly practitioner of the politics of polarisation, his supporters feel emboldened to recklessly say and do things that rupture the social fabric of India. Because he does not condemn hate speech and hate crimes, the more aggressive among his ‘bhakts’ feel they have their supreme leader’s ideological sanction to indulge in the same.
In all his 84 ‘Mann Ki Baat’ broadcasts so far, and in all his seven Independence Day speeches from the ramparts of Red Fort, has Modi even once rebuked communal hatemongers? No. Has his No. 2, home minister Amit Shah, done so? No.
As a result, mob lynchings are rationalised, belittled and normalised. In communal riots like the one that took place in the national capital in February 2020, the police turn a blind eye — worse still, they aid and abet the rioters. Newer ways of humiliating Muslims, especially Muslim women, are being invented with stratagems like “SulliDeals” and “Bullibai”. This is happening because the inventors feel safe in the knowledge that the central government is on their side.
Thus, Chanakya is right in the Modi era, too: “As is the king, so are the people.” Yathaa Modi Tathaa Praja.
Nevertheless, there is one crucial difference between now and the times of Bhishma and Chanakya. True, our democracy is imperfect, but it is not dead. The praja can still change the raja by demonstrating their democratic power.
Power in a democracy lies in unity — both numerical unity and ideological unity. The supporters of Modi do not constitute a majority of Indian society. Even in 2019, when the BJP won the highest number of Lok Sabha seats since its inception, its vote share was only 37.36%. Modi’s strength lies in the fact that his supporters are united and vocal.
In contrast, the non-BJP parties’ weakness lies in the fact that, although their supporters constitute a numerical majority, they are disunited and their leaders speak in contradictory and conflicting voices.
The need of the hour is for all those who are ideologically opposed to Modi’s politics of polarisation to unite, speak in a common voice and assert their collective strength.
However, it is not enough for non-BJP political parties to unite in a broad front that is committed to safeguarding secularism, democracy and the basic ideals of the Constitution.
There is an even greater need for a new awakening and a new unity among the people, without which the devious politics of divisiveness cannot be defeated. India needs a new awakening among Hindus as well Muslims. This requires both communities — especially, the social, intellectual and religious leaders of the two communities — to do honest introspection leading to the purging of mutual prejudices and misconceptions.
This people’s unity will have to be built bottom-up by strengthening the bonds of mutual understanding, mutual respect and mutual cooperation, which are so essential for making every Indian develop a sense of belonging to a common national family. This is the only way to put India back again on the right path.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)