Mastering the drill of democracy

The human mind connects the seemingly unconnected but, as one invariably discovers, tellingly.

When I saw and read reports of our Prime Minister heading the great >Yoga Day assemblage on what used to be called King’s Way, now Rajpath, in our national capital, I thought of two ‘unconnected’ persons. The first was Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855). And the second was Indira Gandhi. Both were ‘strong’ personalities credited with ‘an iron will’, exemplars of dogged determination, single-minded purpose. But the similarities did not end there. Both disliked dissent and suppressed it.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

But why did the yoga procedures of that day remind me of them? Tsar Nicholas had faced a revolt the very day he ascended the throne. He crushed it ruthlessly but also set up, reflexively, the largest and most insidious system of spies and informers Russia had known. He also developed another very particular fascination. This was for things martial, for watching and enjoying drills. “It was specially at large-scale military reviews,” says his biographer Riasanovsky, “that Nicholas I experienced rapture, almost ecstasy.” Nicholas I is said to have been a handsome man, attentive to physical fitness and to how he appeared, in terms of looks and attire, to others. Quite logically for him, the Tsar regularly, almost compulsively, arranged for parades by uniformed men standing in chessboard order, moving and marching in brassy orchestration. Tsar Nicholas came, in fact, to be called ‘drill-master’. The size of his empire grew with the shape of his army, though he suffered serious reverses, and economic stagnation. This did not trouble him, for he could get in the drills he saw, his ‘ecstasy’.

A power machine

Indira, as a child, loved organising ‘armies’ which grew from a home-game to serious proportions when, still an adolescent, she ‘founded’ the Bal Charkha Sangh and the Vanar Sena to ‘help’ the Congress’s campaigns in Allahabad. Decades later, in 1962, when her noble father — too noble, some may say — as Prime Minister was still coming to terms with the Chinese action, she was at embattled Tezpur, right among Indian jawans, offering them and the people of the area, solidarity and practical help — a semi-military initiative of compelling significance. She was being a ‘drill-master’ too. The moment was epiphanic. But the ‘drill-master’ in her had another dimension. She believed in bringing whatever she had control over into a certain ‘order’, her order. Almost from the day she became Prime Minister, she sensed dissent among senior Congressmen which she proceeded to crush, systematically. She set up an intricate web of informers, political and professional, who helped her retain and tighten her order, her control. The government of India under her became much more than a constitutional entity; it turned into a power-machine, with all its ramifications, particularly the military, the para military set-ups, the police and her network of informants and spies functioning like well-oiled, well-keyed, robots. A great rise took place in the eminence of ‘pure’ and applied science accompanied by a somewhat hush-hush mutuality between the government’s science laboratories and its defence strategists. The spectacular military intervention in East Pakistan leading to the birth of Bangladesh and Pokhran I leading to India’s nuclear weaponisation, had to happen under Indira, the drill-master.

As also, 40 years ago this day, the National Emergency. Paranoia has an ally in megalomania.

But to return, for a moment, to yoga and to last week’s drill-mastering of that ancient science of self-healing.

I do not wish to go as far back as Vivekananda but we do know that Gandhi practised the shavasana and Nehru the sirsasana. Both spoke of the efficacy of the two methods but neither made a shibboleth of it, much less expound it for mass adoption. Baba Ramdev’s public and televised dissemination of yoga turned what was essentially a personal health regime practised by millions in the privacy of their homes or learning institutions into a commodity for mega-consumption, with actual ‘yoga’ products for sale on the sides. The Yoga Day exposition on Rajpath has taken the Baba’s commercial potting of it beyond commodification to what can be called a political massification. Why ‘political’?

Retrieving Bharat

The question takes us back to Nicholas I and Indira Gandhi. Like those two historical figures, Prime Minister Modi has a sense of ‘order’. He backs that up with an attentiveness to his own fitness, punctuality, ‘turnout’. By personally leading, like an adept instructor, the phalanx gathered on the Rajpath lawns, he has choreographed yoga into an opera of mass power. But not just of power as in wholesome personal strength. Rather, power as in a collective mission, a mass drill that goes beyond personal well-being into a national nostrum, a national mission that bears an unmistakable family resemblance to the drills by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. And what is the mission’s message?

Quite simply, this: ‘We have been a weak nation, a nation of do-gooders and pacifists, of men who are afraid of the noise of crackers, the smell of smoke. Men of withered wills and sunken chests. It is time we built up our sinews, physical and mental, time we toned up our tissues, tightened our tendons. We must retrieve Bharat from the shambles that our so-called liberal leaders of the last six decades have left us…They were not leaders but mis-leaders who tell us that being muscled-up is mean, being belligerent is bullying. In fact such peacemakers and liberals are dangerous anarchists. Let us march, not saunter, stand and sit in neat rows, not haphazardly, observe mauna rather than chatter away and if we have to speak, let us speak on the glory of Bharat Mata…’

Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Periyar, Jayaprakash Narayan would have recoiled from the message. They would have seen it as macho, aggressive. And because of the unmistakable Hindutva rhetoric concealed in it, deeply divisive. But Indira Gandhi, I suspect, would have seen it as clever. He is tapping India’s sentiments, tapping them into action, hand it to the man!

Emergency’s script

Forty years ago, the Emergency spoke the same script. Jayaprakash Narayan, campaigning against despotism and corruption, was vilified as an anarchist. His movement was dubbed as anti-national, anti-progress. Dissent became treason, opposition became heresy. And overnight, posters came up: ‘ Batein kum, kam ziyadah’ (Speak less, work more). And an old Sanskrit word was set flying on a new political string: Anushasan, discipline. The ‘call of the hour’ was anushasan, with Acharya Vinoba Bhave getting roped into the act to describe the period as ‘Anushasan Parva’, the Discipline Moment. Inevitably, newspapers fell silent, All India Radio became a trumpet. Spies crept out of woodrot to belittle, walls acquired hi-fi ears to betray truth-tellers, corners found whispering tongues. A kind of ‘yoga’ was unleashed — bhayayoga, the yoga of multiple fears in which mauna (silence), sushupti (willed stupor), and savata (immobility) featured strong. And a divinity was ideationally superimposed on pictorial blitzes of the nation’s ‘saviour’, Indira Gandhi.

There were no Yoga Day type drills organised at the time but ‘spontaneous’ rallies were called to hail the proclamation, hail the Emancipator. Even as mass leaders were jailed, sections of the middle class welcomed a sudden improvement in the punctuality of train movements, attendance in government offices, the check on profiteering that followed. ‘Honesty’ at shopfloors and workplaces became visible. But all ‘for the present’, because it was imposed by fiat, monitored by fiat, by fear, by bhayayoga.

Audi alteram partem (Hear The Other Side) is ever a good principle. So, be it said that the Emergency saw a set of wholesome developments, all for reasons of Realpolitik. It made poverty eradication central to our national discourse. It made good governance seem actually realisable. It reset certain governmental priorities. Of which protection of the natural environment was significant. And it made national security a matter of everyone’s, not just the military’s, concern.

But its real legacy has been wholly unintended. It has made India conscious, as never before, of civil liberties, of the right to freedom of expression. The Emergency, by robbing India awhile of the soul of Republicanism, has made it a truer Republic than it was before 1975.

If today we can talk about the Emergency in the past tense, it is because the nation’s collective spine did not go into a forward-bending dhanurasana (bow-position) and because the ‘media vertebra’ , despite censorship, stayed particularly unbent. And because the judiciary, despite the demoralising judgment in ADM Jabalpur v/s S S Shukla retained its core independence, thanks to the conscience-keeping Justice H.R. Khanna.

A person who has recovered from a stroke values the faculties of motor ability, mental comprehension and speech more than one who never lost it.

The Constitution as amended in 1978 has made a proclamation of the 1975 type National Emergency impossible. What we have to be wary of is something as bad — the robotisation of our minds into a ‘yogic’ acceptance of one drill — majoritarianism — and its masterful drill-master.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is Distinguished Professor of History and Politics, Ashoka University.)

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 4:38:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/mastering-the-drill-of-democracy/article7350794.ece

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