Giving the emperor new clothes

The BJP distorted Ashoka’s image and message in its Bihar campaign. That the tactic backfired has important lessons for politicians

November 10, 2015 12:45 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:31 pm IST

Ashoka poster in Patna

Ashoka poster in Patna

The voters of Bihar, after witnessing a bitterly waged campaign, have delivered a resounding verdict against the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led alliance. Hopefully, there will be an attempt made at the highest political level to eschew polarisation and regenerate a genuine dialogue that is socially and economically inclusive at an all-India level. Hopefully, there is also a history >lesson here for the BJP . Among the many mistakes it made was getting the history of Bihar wrong. As it must ruefully now acknowledge, peddling a wrong reading of history has not resulted in >getting its own electoral arithmetic right .

Nayanjot Lahiri

Poster image Ahead of the >Bihar Assembly elections , the BJP relentlessly presented Emperor Ashoka as someone whose caste identity was worth glorifying above everything else. The posters painted across Patna in May, for instance, of a moustachioed, macho Ashoka, with many worthies of the Kushwaha caste and the BJP’s Sushil Modi, was unabashedly clear in its political message. Imaging Ashoka as a Kushwaha was part of the political strategy of the BJP for winning the Kushwaha vote-share in Bihar.

For those who have knowledge of the life of Ashoka, it was evident that this image of the Emperor was not based on what he himself had put in the public domain. Ashoka’s caste credentials are not mentioned in any accounts contemporary with his life. Actually, during his life time, the only texts in which Ashoka figured were the epigraphs that he himself got inscribed in scores of places across India and beyond. In those epigraphs, he chose to speak about himself to his subjects. Candour and emotion, death and decimation, honest admissions and imperious orders were all to be found in the Ashokan edicts. What Ashoka recounted to his subjects, in fact, concerned not matters of caste but how he himself cast his life – after he converted to Buddhism. The posters in Patna during this election not only concocted history, they even got the visual atmospherics around Ashoka’s image wrong. Rather than a moustachioed, aggressive figure, Ashoka in ancient sculptural reliefs appears with women, looking either tender or grief-stricken.

To me, at that point in time, it was odd and appalling that of all that was thought worthy of representation about Ashoka, it was his caste identity, over everything else, which was built up in the run-up to the elections. I asked myself why the BJP did not draw on the many messages that Ashoka’s unique voice of benevolent governance communicated to his subjects.

Plea for tolerance

Personally speaking, the BJP could have got its history right by looking at his edicts, which make an impassioned plea for the practice of religious tolerance. It is the Emperor’s wish, the seventh rock edict says, that everywhere in his dominion all religious sects should live. He returns to this theme of proto-secularism in his twelfth edict, a supreme proclamation of respect for all religious and philosophical sects. Its core feature is the belief that there should be a public culture in which every sect honours every other (they “should learn and respect one another’s Dharma”).

And how is this to be practised?

“Restraint in regard to speech, (which means) that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions and that it should be moderate in every case even on appropriate occasions.

“On the contrary, other sects should be duly honoured in every way (on all occasions).

“If (a person) acted in this way, (he) not only promotes his own sect but also benefits other sects.

“But if (a person) acts otherwise, he not only injures his own sect but also harms other sects.

“Truly, if (a person) extols his own sect and disparages other sects with a view to glorifying his own sect owing merely to his attachment (to it, he) injures his own sect very severely by acting in that way.

“Therefore, concord is commendable.”

These edicts are inscribed near Girnar in Gujarat (and elsewhere in India and Pakistan), and one imagines that there is a lesson here for the Prime Minister, who happens to be from Gujarat —of tolerance that is not a passive virtue of cordial disregard of the Other, but rather a positive effort at a concord, recognised as mutually beneficial.

Now, having witnessed the Bihar campaign, I have no illusions about why the proto-secularist imaging of Ashoka was ignored in the polarising political message, which has just seen a mighty fall. Perhaps these were politicians who believed that the election could only be won by the cold arithmetic of caste and religious calculations. The concoction of a caste identity for the greatest ancient emperor of antiquity who happened to have been born and brought up in Bihar was perhaps thought more useful than understanding what he actually propagated. The contrast between Ashoka and the archetypically self-serving politicians is so stark that his historical image of a morally credible monarch, speaking in the same voice to all, was not thought of as an iconic image capable of capturing votes. Instead, he was squeezed into the grid of caste and identity politics.

One lesson of the election surely is this: however much the manipulation of history may please politicians, it is unlikely to yield a political harvest.

(Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi, and the author of Ashoka in Ancient India )

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.