In the Valmiki Ramayana, the character Ahalya was transformed from a stone into a beautiful woman because Lord Rama merely stepped on her. In a similar way, Lord Rama has once again breathed new life into our normally stony politicians. Though immovable as rocks on issues such as floods and poverty, they have now been galvanised into new life by the mere touch of Lord Rama.
The sangh parivar is looking far busier than it has in months. A saffron fatwa has been issued by Ram Vilas Vedanti calling for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Karunanidhi to be killed. Praveen Togadia of the VHP has materialised from oblivion, yelling furiously that Hindus will be avenged if the Ram Setu is damaged by the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project.
Another sangh stalwart, MM Joshi, until recently grumbling on the sidelines about the perils of sex education, is blazing forth again; his tilak redder and more defiant than ever, he was even spearheading a resolution at the BJP national executive held last weekend in Bhopal. Narendra Modi has found new strength for his anti-Sonia campaign. Rama was not born in Italy, he shouts at his rallies nowadays.
Karunanidhi, normally silent on the graver issues of the day, such as the manner in which the DMK is able to destroy the constitutional integrity of the Union cabinet by reserving ministerial berths, is roaring like a bloodthirsty lion. He, too, has been transformed from stone to life by the touch of Lord Rama. His atheism and Dravida war cry were never more ostentatious, his anti-Rama, pro-Ravana ideology was never louder. Rama has transformed Karunanidhi into the God of Indian atheism. The Congress, heading into assembly polls in ‘hindutva’ Gujarat, is also doing a shashtang pranam at the feet of Lord Rama. Ambika Soni, by all accounts a fine minister of tourism who has travelled the world trying to bring in the tourists, finds herself confronted by asuras in her own cabinet, who want to slay her for not being devout enough.
What explains all this hectic political positioning over Rama? The answers lie in the 1991 Ayodhya movement that transformed the Hindus into a ‘vote-bank’. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement took the BJP from being a marginal force in Indian politics in the 1980s to the status of a dominant national party by the mid-1990s. For the first time, the Congress received an ideological as well as a political challenge and the BJP was successful, as Advani has often claimed, in at last creating “the second pole” in Indian politics. The NDA victory of 1999 was the triumph of this new political idea.
‘Jai Shri Ram’ was the new emotive slogan seen to yield rich political dividends. Undoubtedly, the Ramayana remains fundamental to India’s cultural identity. In times of globalisation, the dominant feeling is one of loss. The loss of our culture, values, languages, family systems, festivals — all of it being steamrolled by the seeming juggernaut of the shopping mall, the naked ladies, and the glossy mass media robbing us of everything we hold dear. The fears are perhaps not exaggerated. Large numbers of 21st century urban youth are not just semi-literate but growing up focused mostly on the nearest ATM machine and the candyfloss Bollywood film, with little knowledge of their own traditions. The thousands of smses, e-mails and blogs that are being sent and written on the need to defend the Ram setu shows that Rama, when posited as a symbol of an endangered identity, has found a ready echo in many hearts.
The point is, however, a little different: we all love and respect Rama, but will we necessarily vote for him? Therein lies a reality check. Rama as a political project is now subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Economic reforms are creating their own kind of politics. India’s voting preferences and the issues that drive people to cast their vote are radically different from what they were in the last century. The politics of emotion has given way to the politics of expectation and aspiration. The NDA defeat of 2004 showed that a Hindutva government was not able to retain the cultural passion. By the end of its term, it was the Vajpayee persona, standing for moderation and development, that had become the NDA’s trump card, not the Advani persona of ideological purity.
Let’s look at the elections this year. What explains Mayawati’s victory in UP? She was able to convey that the BSP is no longer just the party of ideology, but also the party of opportunity. A party where the sarvajan samaj — all castes — can find patronage, jobs, social mobility and a better life. A pure attachment to ideology may have thrilled the BSP cadres, but the public at large was attracted to Mayawati not because of ambedkarite slogans, but because of the promise of a better life.
Why did Captain Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab, lose the election? Whatever promises he held out, the raja was seen as far too remote, far too arrogant, far too distant from the people. “if he can’t even come for my daughter’s wedding, why should I vote for him?” was the question.
Today, the Indian voter demands a political manifesto that holds out opportunity and inclusion. Appeals to pure emotion or pure ideology may be interesting to talk about, but are not considered worth voting for.
In spite of the DMK’s agitations and the BJP’s protests, the streets of Tamil nadu are quiet. The VHP bandh in north India got a lukewarm response and was called off in a couple of hours. Why did the ‘national integration’ rath yatras of Advani and Rajnath Singh of 2006 fail, when the idea was to galvanise ‘Hindu rage against the UPA’s minorityism’? Simply because there are no takers for rath yatras anymore, there are no takers for ‘hindu rage’ anymore. Advani’s 1990 Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra occurred at a time when India was not as global as it is now, the Indian was not as aspirational and was still liable to be swayed by provincial passions.
It could also be argued that for many thousands of kar sevaks at that time, Rama was about finding a job or getting a business opportunity, not necessarily about ideology. Interestingly, Advani’s rath yatra took place before 24-hour TV news.
Today, the coming of the new economy, the new media, the smses, the bloggers, the mmses and the citizen journalists have created a voting public far more interested in immediate issues that directly impact them and directly affect their future.
Today, even Narendra Modi is shedding his hindutva tag and relying more on his development record. Modi’s preferred identity is of ‘vikas purush’, someone who harps on road construction, rural development and women and child welfare schemes.
It is time perhaps to recognise that, as the forces of the new economy sweep in, the notions of the big ideas that work and those that do not are rapidly changing. Rama as an idea and as a political project has run out of shelf-life. The Rama issue is similar to the Left’s attempt to whip up anti-imperialism ideology on the Indo-US nuclear deal to galvanise its cadres and hang on to survival. Ideology and the cultural war may be very sexy. But they will yield limited political returns at a time when Indians are more worried about their life on earth rather than their place in heaven or in the socialist utopia.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN