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The end of Empire

The battle for President is a throwback to the Mughal decline, a reminder that Delhi is losing its sway over India. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jun 20, 2012 20:38 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

The sudden drama, ample din, fake fury and quick settlement of the political battle that precedes the anointment of India’s new president reminds me of two observations made by travellers to the Mughal empire.

In his 1655 book Voyage to the East-Indies, English clergyman Edward Terry notes how foresight appeared lacking in Indian battles. “The armies on both sides,” says Terry, “usually beginne with most furious onsets, but in short time, for want of good discipline, one side is routed and the controversie, not without much slaughter, is decided.”

On May 29, 1658, Niccolao Manucci, an Italian traveller who worked in Mughal and Rajput courts, watched the Jang-e-Samugarh, the battle of Samugarh, a decisive clash for succession between Shah Jahan’s heir Dara Shikoh and his younger brothers Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh. He says: “Of those more to the rear, although holding their bared swords in their hands, the Moguls did nothing but shout, Ba-kush! Ba-kush!, and the Indians (primarily the Rajputs who made up large parts of the Mughals’ sword arm), Mar! mar!-Kill! Kill! If those in the front advanced, those behind followed the example, and if the former retired, the others fled, a custom of Hindustan...”

The writer Abraham Eraly narrates how the declining days of the Mughal empire were marked by soldiers putting personal benefit above king, God and country. During Aurangzeb’s Deccan campaign, says Eraly, Mughal officers at times took money from the Marathas not to act against them — or gave money to the Marathas, to stop the harassment. The generals bickered and worked at cross purposes, “hindering each other and frustrating campaigns”, he writes in his 1997 account of Mughal India, The Last Spring.

Do these observations still sound familiar? That is because something intrinsic to the Indian character has not changed over hundreds of years.

So it was the past week.

Regional satraps Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh joined forces overnight, made loud declarations of battle against the Congress, fulcrum of the ruling coalition, only to break up the next day. Mulayam, with an eye possibly on general elections in 2014 and realising his son needs federal support, then backed the UPA. The UPA’s so-called ally, Mamata, opened a new front on, er, Facebook. In the BJP, fulcrum of the Opposition, it was evident there was no candidate or plan, except to oppose anyone the UPA proposes (though not every BJP ally thinks so).

You could argue — rightly — that at the end of this stage show, India has a new president, this is how it has always been, and this is all that matters.

But the chaotic battle for India’s new president also appears to indicate a cusp, a transition, a changeover for Indian politics, reminiscent of the declining days of the Mughal empire, when imperial power receded and the Marathas, Sikhs and British struggled for ascendancy over Delhi. As in those days, today’s political alliances are tenuous, based on short-term self-interest and economic gain.

The decline of Delhi in the modern era has been gradually evident. The difference in vote-share percentage between the Congress and the second-largest party declined from 65.7% in 1952 to 4.5% in 2004, according to data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Over the same 52 years, the percentage of seats held by state and other parties soared from 6.95% to 32%.

The biggest change came in the 1990s, a period that overlapped India’s economic explosion. It is a reflection of India’s ever-rising, impatient tide of aspiration.

The Congress and BJP, hostage still to the old Delhi-centred politics of patronage and divisiveness, have yet to come to terms with what voters want — visible progress, any which way.

This means corruption will never be as big an issue as the mass media and the urban middle-class believe it is. This is why Jaganmohan Reddy, in custody, facing charges of corruption, is poised to wrest Andhra Pradesh from the Congress. In seven years, Jagan’s assets grew from R36 lakh to R365 crore in 2011, making him India’s richest Member of Parliament.

Jagan’s party, the YSR Congress, rides the developmental legacy of his late father, YSR Reddy, who addressed his people’s aspirations by running some of India’s most progressive and technologically accomplished pension, jobs-for-work and other social-security schemes.If the UPA is losing its hold over the states in its control, the NDA is dominated by strong chief ministers running reasonably efficient administrations in Gujarat, Bihar and Chhattisgarh.

As the India growth story falters, global rating agencies and sundry experts forget that Delhi’s job now is mainly to plant the signposts; the roads to release aspirations must come from the states. This is how Gujarat has reformed its electricity distribution, Chhattisgarh its subsidised-food network, Andhra Pradesh its pension payments.Acquiring political power can never again be about power alone, a lesson also rooted in the eclipse of the Mughals.When their domain started to disintegrate, many sought to rule India.

The Maratha confederacy, for instance, gained enough power to occupy Delhi, but its chieftains, never empire builders, yielded quickly to the British. The Mughals somehow clung to power, until Bahadur Shah Zafar’s dominion ended at the gates of Delhi. His poetry reflected their eclipse. Those who rule Delhi today — and aspire to tomorrow — would do well to heed India’s last emperor:Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon, na kisi ke dil ka qaraar hoonJo kisi ke kaam na aa sake main vho ek musht-e-ghubaar hoon(I am neither the light in any eye, nor the solace to any heartI am no use to anyone, a handful of dust).

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jun 20, 2012 20:35 IST