Semiotics of symbols and epic parallels in the 2014 elections
May 23, 2014
A version of this was posted at india facts at http://www.indiafacts.co.in/epic-parallels-symbols-2014-elections/
The semiotics of personal attacks, symbols and parallels in the election
Rajeev Srinivasan on the symbolic and epic/historical context
Even before Narendra Modi’s evocative Ganga arti and his prostration before the steps of Parliament, this election was replete with symbols. While all sides attempted to use them to their advantage, the BJP turned out to be better at it, quite possibly because they were not play-acting, but actually believed in some of the emotions they were trying to induce.
The revelations about Narendra Modi’s long-estranged wife, Jashodaben, caused a minor flutter, but it was a nine-days’wonder. For, it could be argued that in an Indian context, what Modi did in separating from his child-bride is not unusual. Of course, Modi’s rivals do not see it as such, and that is fair. But then, they need to be judged on their transparency, or more precisely, the lack of it, as well.
I have been thinking about the analogies with the epics for a while (Shashi Tharoor, in happier times, wrote a brilliant book, The Great Indian Novel transposing events from the Mahabharata to contemporary India, and I wish he would do it again, but he has his constraints now, of course). The most obvious example of the analog with the epics came with the attempted insult by Mani Shankar Aiyer, a Congress minister, who called Modi a “chaiwallah”.
This is reminiscent of the episode in the Mahabharata where the Pandavas insult Karna by calling him a mere sutaputra, son of a charioteer (technically correct, as the abandoned infant Karna, a prince, had been brought up by a charioteer and his wife); and Karna is the true hero of the epic. The objective of the Pandava statement is tejovadham, psychological warfare, to destroy Karna’s self-confidence. Indeed Karna is humiliated, transfixed, rooted to the spot, as he has to accept that he is not the equal of the Pandavas, who are princes.
Immediately, Duryodhana steps into the breach, and crowns Karna as the king of Anga, instantly transforming him into the Pandavas’ equal. And for that singular act of magnanimity (although it was not without an ulterior motive), Karna is indebted to Duryodhana for the rest of his life. (When I mentioned Karna on twitter, I found a range of opinions on him, possibly influenced by regional versions of the Mahabharata: in Malayalam, he’s an honest, wronged hero; in Tamil, someone told me there is some sexual transgression on his part; in Hindi, many felt he is the one who insulted Draupadi the most in the vastra-akshepam scene. Vive la difference!)
Well, no king came forward to save Modi’s honor, but the common man did. We adopted him, for we could see that a man of humble origin who has accomplished a great deal is admirable. And in a deft marketing move, Modi turned the tables on the Congress by embracing his identity as a chaiwallah, leading to the later chai pe charcha etc. It worked, as the electorate now has lots of ambitious young people who are confident that they too can make it on their own, without anybody’s charity or patronage. They see Modi as a role model.
Thus, what was meant to humiliate Modi boomeranged on the Congress. The class difference and contrast between the PG Wodehousian drone offspring of the idle rich and the thrusting, ambitious children of the lower middle class is quite startling, and the latter did vote. Round one to Modi.
But there are more analogs. In the Mahabharata, the malign Shakuni is the cause of much mischief, and he seems to positively revel in creating trouble. There is one such Svengali here, but I dare not name him: I shall only refer to him as He Who Must Not Be Named, but he has been in the middle of all the dubious things the Congress did for a decade.
There is the king rendered impotent by a curse, Pandu. The PM, impotent not by a curse, but by his own timidity, looks a lot like the luckless Pandu, cursed to expire if he ever touched a woman (or in the case of this PM, touched a file). So the PM didn’t do anything at all, afraid that the curse would befall him. Sanjay Baru, who spilled the beans on him (The Accidental Prime Minister), is like the faithful Sanjaya who narrates the whole epic to his boss, the blind king Dhritarashtra.
Then there are the bit players, minor irritants, such as Digvijay Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal et al. I can’t remember if there were any vidushakas in the Mahabharata but these people would play those roles: comic relief.
There are also historical parallels. There was Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. He abandoned his queen and their children and went forth into the world to follow his destiny. In Kerala, the great monk Sree Narayana Guru, also married as a child (which was in the 1870s the custom in OBC families), also left his wife and followed the path of brahmacharya and sanyasa.
There were innumerable others who, when they heard a calling, especially during the Independence Struggle, abandoned their normal lives and dedicated themselves to a cause larger than themselves. For instance, the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh left his family too. In the sadly forgotten past, Indians had the greatest respect for those who followed the path of renunciation: I am reminded of a wonderful story by Rudyard Kipling (not a big admirer of India) — The Miracle of Purun Bhagat, about a powerful prime minister who becomes a wandering mendicant.
Thus, Modi’s sacrifice of the life of a householder for his country – echoed by many other RSS members – is in many ways admirable, even appropriate.
Now let us compare this to India’s First Family, the Nehru dynasty. Jawaharlal himself was a chronic womanizer. Outlook magazine published a story (“If I weren’t a Sanyasin, he would have married me”, Feb 23, 2004), about a young and beautiful sanyasini, Shraddha Mata, who was apparently impregnated by Nehru. She delivered a stillborn baby in Bangalore and then disappeared. (Other sources claim it was a live baby boy).
The stories of Nehru’s craven fascination for Edwina Mountbatten, a British woman, are legion. He was apparently besotted with her to the extent of compromising India’s national security (although it’s hard to see what he saw in her, other than a desire by a brown man to gain some self-esteem with a trophy white woman: she was a standard-issue horse-faced upper-class Brit). He felt free to use the Indian military on her behalf: when she died, he sent an Indian warship to attend her funeral at sea.
There were also affairs with Padmaja Naidu and women of the Sarabhai clan, among others. Apparently Nehru was attractive to women: I guess power and money are powerful aphrodisiacs. He may also have had homosexual experiences: Stanley Wolpert, in his biography, implied strongly that he had been bullied and tormented at school in Harrow, where this sort of thing is common. I interviewed Wolpert some years ago, and he implied that he knew things that prudence suggested he be discreet about.
The stories continue with Indira Gandhi. Outlook (“Mrs. G’s string of beaus”, Mar 26, 2001) suggests that she was impregnated (and had an abortion) in a 12-year long relationship by M O Mathai, Nehru’s secretary. There are many others, such as her German teacher, and Dhirendra Brahmachari, that the article claims she had affairs with.
Moving on from sexual escapades, there are also the violent ends that befall many of the Nehru dynasty and friends: of course, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated. But, peculiarly, consider: Sanjay Gandhi. Died in a plane accident. Just as did others, especially would-be competitors of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, such as Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot and YS Reddy. The father, brother and sister of Robert Vadra, husband of Sonia Gandhi’s daughter, also died in accidents.
This also reminds one of a historical parallel – medieval popes who were often sexually debauched, and who went around murdering potential rivals. The Borgia family and their matriarch Lucrezia Borgia, especially adept at the black art of poisoning, come to mind. It was suicidal to either get too close to the Borgias, or to be their enemies. (Medieval sultans such as Aurangazeb were also prone to bumping off their rivals in gruesome manner. Just ask his brother Dara Shikoh.)
We also have been kept in the dark about Sonia’s and Rahul’s frequent trips abroad. There are widespread allegations about antiquities being smuggled out of India. There are rumors of ill-health, including cancer. Why aren’t the health rumors being discussed openly, as they have an impact on the country? The conclusion is that they are trying to hide something.
What about the educational qualifications that Sonia and Rahul submitted under oath to the Election Commission? Sonia’s educational background has transformed from “a degree from Cambridge” to “a certificate in English from Lennox College, Cambridge” under prodding in courts by Subramanian Swamy. There is a big difference. Lennox College (now closed) is some small, obscure setup, which has nothing to do with the imposing university. Similarly, it’s not clear that Rahul has a Harvard degree. These dissimulations may be punishable offences under election rules.
Incidentally, then PM Manmohan Singh also did not mention his wife in his 2009 affidavit. Why is that not a big issue if Modi’s case is? It appears the mention of the spouse was not mandatory until 2014.
Thus, both from an epic perspective and a historical perspective, there is no real merit to the loud noises that Modi committed an injustice by leaving his wife at the age of 17 and not providing full details about her. So far as I know, the said wife, Jashodaben, doesn’t think so. She, according to reports, was on pilgrimage, praying for Modi’s success. She had not complained about Modi, or the failure of their child marriage. Following in the footsteps of the Buddha and Sree Narayana Guru, Modi sacrificed the life of a householder for the cause he believed in. There is something sattvic, noble, in that.
As for the Nehru dynasty, in addition to presiding over wholesale theft of national resources and the evisceration of the nation’s defense capability, it appears that they, like the Borgias, have been practitioners of intrigue, self-aggrandizement, and the pursuit of power. There is nothing noble about this: it is fully tamasic.