A ruler stood on the battlefield surveying the wages of war. A personal choice was made or perhaps a politically strategic decision was taken that changed a country’s history forever. Ashoka turned his back on conflict, embraced Buddhism, and gave his kingdom efficient governance for four decades.
History books chronicle the roads, edicts and Ashoka’s philosophy of dhamma. The pre-transformation Ashoka, the apparently heartless warrior before the Kalinga war, does not get a mention in textbooks. History judges Ashoka by his post-Kalinga war transformation, and he remains one of history’s greatest examples of a genuine change of heart.
Ambedkar, Nehru and Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom movement looked to the past to re-interpret the future. For Ambedkar, Buddhism became the modern manifesto of the Dalit cause, he saw Dalits as the original Buddhists. An ancient faith became the modernising, egalitarian agenda for social justice in a new democracy.
Nehru’s Discovery Of India delves into India’s past to discover ways to fashion an ancient cultural unity to carry forward into a liberated India. Sometimes history bends to the present: Akbar in many textbooks is the modern Nehru, Hindu and Muslim combined in a single persona, upholder of a Nehruvian version of din-e-ilahi.
In 2004, the NDA lost the general elections in a shock defeat. The margins were narrow. The Congress won with 145, the BJP lost with 138. But for 10 years after that, the BJP was wiped out of urban India. Many interpreted this as the lingering effects of the Gujarat riots of 2002 — crucial allies like the TDP left the NDA.
Today, the BJP is back with a bang in urban India, riding on the image of the prime minister as an energetic action-man, the binary opposite of Manmohan Singh. If the invitation to Nawaz Sharif had included a personal phone call rather than an official invitation, the new PM’s image would have been even further enhanced.
After all, at the centre of the victory of the BJP, and its stunning re-capture of urban India, is the transformation of the persona of Narendra Modi and his long journey since 2002.
If the Kalinga war, described as the one of the bloodiest wars in human history, had been reported in 24x7 media its effects on Ashoka’s image would have been just as dramatic as his subsequent conversion to Buddhism, renouncing of war and commitment to victory by dhamma and not by military means.
Ashoka did not suffer a 2004-style defeat, but he experienced a cataclysmic personal epiphany. Ashoka did not have democratic rivals, nor did he face the need to get re-elected — his commitment to change grew from a personal choice.
Can Modi do a 21st century Ashoka? Can a massive transformation in the polity be pushed and sustained precisely because it emanates from an Ashoka-style personal re-invention, away from memories of conflict, towards a metaphorical embrace of the gods of peace?
Fringe groups and Right-wing apparatchiks are misinterpreting the 2014 mandate as a victory for the gods of rage.
The chilling brazen murder of 28-year-old Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh in Pune, allegedly by the Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS), the unconscionable detaining of naval engineer Devu Chodankar for a Facebook post, ‘book policeman’ Dinanath Batra’s campaign against a scholarly book on riots, all show a failure to understand the nature of a mandate given for hope, reconciliation and modern democracy. Reports that young Muslims are shaving their beards out of fear do not augur well for ‘achche din aane wale hain’.
Attacks on minorities, free speech and on books are totally out of place when the PM himself has bowed his head to the temple of democracy, has reached out to former rival Manmohan Singh and is now set to visit the United States, once the country that placed him on a blacklist.
But like Indira Gandhi and the Congress roughnecks who acted in her name, Modi faces a dilemma with groups like the HRS and others. They are ostensibly loyal to a majoritarian cause, some of them may even work as foot-soldiers in elections, yet they deeply damage the agenda Modi is trying to drive through the political centre, away from extremes of Left and Right.
When Modi stated “pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya”, radicals like Praveen Togadia stormed into protest mode but fell silent at the positive public response to that statement. Modi’s invitation to Nawaz Sharif was bold not only for Indo-Pak peace but also as a signal to domestic constituencies pushing for jingoistic wars. Those who have set themselves up as more loyal than the king fail to realise their actions go against the very purpose for which the nation’s heart was won.
Across his empire, Ashoka set up pillars announcing his edicts. The pillars both marked his territory and declared the stated aims of his rule.
War was a thing of the past, the empire was now ruled by one who believed in the power of transformation, of the self and of governance. A ruler cannot afford to offend traditional beliefs but he can proclaim his own personal ‘religious’ journey.
So far Modi’s government is working at a spanking pace. Yet a performance deadline to bureaucrats is one thing: It is another to unleash a revolution of personal transformation among those who are besmirching Mandate 2014.
From the heart of conflicts past, sometimes comes the most courageous attempt at peace, as Ashoka’s life proved. Economists urge Modi to emulate Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, but there is another home-grown role model: Ashoka harmonised a kingdom after a war and proclaimed a new dhamma of peace and development for every citizen to follow. That the PM has chosen Buddhist Bhutan as his first foreign tour is telling!
(Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN The views expressed by the author are personal.)