Apart from those active in the Arts, the only class of people who fully appreciate the enormous power of symbolism are those in politics. Politicians are true artists in that sense. While artists create and/or use symbolism merely as an aid and/or device, politicians practice it. Indeed, a politician endowed with genius is, so to say, better than the artist because the effectiveness of an artist’s symbolism is typically limited to one or a few works. Beyond that it descends into the realm of the cliché. However, a genius politician perpetuates his/her ideas across generations through the practice of the principles of symbolism with minimal or zero loss of effectiveness. And when this symbolism is challenged in any form at any time—even after the said genius-politician’s death, the ones currently in control of perpetuating it know what actually is at stake.
Mamata Banerjee’s recent decision to rename Indira Bhawan as Nazrul Bhawan is a measure of her political acumen. The way the outraged Congress party people instantly took to the streets simply proves that her decision was bang on the target. Here it is from the mouths of the angry Congress stray horses:
How can you rename a building which has historic importance? It is just like renaming Taj Mahal as Rabindra Mahal," state congress leader Arunavo Ghosh said…."Congress activists are emotional about that building as it is the same building where Indira Gandhi had stayed for a few days. This is a strategy to erase everything associated with the Congress tradition," said Congress MP Deepa Dasmunshi.
The implicit assumption with these two worthies, like everybody else in that party, is that Congress party’s tradition=India’s political tradition. This is how symbolism works and it works relentlessly. Immediately after coming to power in 2004, this selfsame party did what it now accuses Mamata of doing: dismantling the legacy of its political opponents. It doesn’t matter whether the said legacy is good or bad. A telling example is the Golden Quadrilateral.
When the Congress party came to power in 2004, the Golden Quadrilateral was almost complete. One of the first things it did was to inaugurate the just-completed Delhi-Jaipur expressway and prominently affix Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh’s names to the ceremony. What that symbolizes, what message it sends out is anybody’s guess. And then there was the question of the incomplete highways. What did the Congress party, now firmly in power, do? Nothing. That’s right. Nothing. It simply let them remain incomplete. For instance, the 124 KM-long stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral from Chitradurga to Haveri remained incomplete. Mounds of excavated earth remained heaped up by the wayside with no signboards indicating that you needed to take a detour. This entire stretch was a virtual deathtrap at night for about 7 long years. It was completed sometime last year or so. Perhaps the worthies in the party reckoned that 7 years was sufficient time for people to forget that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the original architect of networking all of India by laying world-class highways. It makes sense because now when you travel on that highway all you see are massive hoardings of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi extolling the virtues of safe driving and the other heartwarming things excluding extortionate toll fees. The same symbolism at work again.
Like in art, symbolism cannot work in a vacuum. In the context of politics, it needs a well-carved out ecosystem to germinate, grow, and thrive. For the Congress party, this ecosystem was created by Jawaharlal Nehru. Despite his all-pervasive cluelessness pretty much about everything, Nehru was an extremely wily politician. He was clueless only in the matters that mattered. He was certainly not creative or original (gasp!) enough to coin any sort of symbolism on his own. However, he compensated these defects with sheer craftiness. This vile quality helped him create a vast ecosystem centered around himself. He kept weak and subservient men around him and had nary an alternate power center both within the party and government. He not only appropriated Gandhi but refashioned the Freedom Struggle to mean that his Congress party was the one that liberated India from the British. He placated the influential lobby of the incurable Gandhi-fetishists by creating places for them in the government and academia. In return, that lobby of lambs was only happy to proclaim him as Bapu’s Chosen Inheritor.
Nehru used his 17 uninterrupted years in power to carefully nurture this ecosystem. It reaped a harvest beyond anybody’s wildest imagination. The first of the symbolisms slowly began to emerge. Roads, parks, airports, bus terminals, and awards were named after him. People who wrote Nehrunamahs were rewarded according to their merit and ability—this in turn spawned a micro-specialization branch in the genre of biographical literature. The Red Rose was the flavour of several seasons. The “Nehru coat” brought extra income to roadside tailors. And then somebody’s brainwave decided to anoint him as the chacha of the teeming millions of Mother India’s little sons and daughters. As Providence would have it, the stars immediately conspired to make November 14 a particularly auspicious day—lo! Children’s Day was thus born on the same day as Nehru was born. Bollywood movie lyrics called him “veer” Jawahar even as the veer spent much of his Prime Ministership trying to project himself as the Emissary of World Peace. The walls of police stations and government offices were adorned with his pictures. His daughter took this template to newer and eviler heights. Apart from getting roads and buildings and parks and hospitals named after her, it was during her tenure that the Jawaharlal Nehru University was set up for the advancement of…I really don’t know what but it has Nehru’s name so I guess it works. The walls of government offices and police stations now had an extra photo. Scenes in movies involving police stations showed her picture on the walls. And her son tops the list of having roads, airports, ports, national parks, sports festivals, hospitals, foundations, research institutions, state-funded projects, awards, scholarships, and fellowships named after him. Here’s the full list.
Every single instance that I’ve cited so far is symbolism in one or the other form. What this symbolism achieves is this: look anywhere in India, you simply cannot escape the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s presence. The fact that this monumental, 60-plus years of continuing deceit perpetuated by one family on the entire nation’s psyche is nothing but the work of sheer genius. The fact that it was done right under our noses and seemingly with our consent is the icing. Look around in your own families, you’ll find at least that one uncle who sighs with nostalgic pleasure about those “glorious days of Nehru.”
It is this ecosystem that continually creates and sustains small-scale industries and gigantic corporations of every hue and persuasion devoted to manufacturing praise, support, and defence of the Dynasty. For instance, the media didn’t become Congress-friendly after 2004. It was an organic and logical growth and fruition made possible by this ecosystem. The beauty and power of such an ecosystem is that the ones at the top don’t really need to seek out people to support and/or defend it. A Sanjiv Bhatt will volunteer his services risking everything he has. Let’s hear this in Ram Jethmalani’s words:
The month of May kept Sanjeev Bhatt busy trying to get his cronies to influence P. Chidambaram and cook up false evidence and cobble pressure groups. On 18 May he sends a mail to Nasir Chhipa, who is supposed to be close to the Congress party, telling him, "I was told by Ms. Shabnam Hashmi that Home Minister P. Chidambaram can be influenced by pressure groups in the US. All appeals for the safety of witnesses, including myself, have not received the desired response from PC. You may have to work a little on this aspect…."
In other words, Chidambaram doesn’t care what happens to Bhatt. Which is why smart hagiographers like Ramachandra Guha put their mouth where the money is: right in the Halls of the Queen’s Palace. That still doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be sacrificed when the occasion demands it. And it works simply because the reward-punishment-sacrifice system is so unpredictable and whimsical and remote-controlled that everybody is forced be on their guard at all times.
Yet, when something seemingly insignificant as the renaming of the Indira Bhawan occurs, alarm bells sound in the Palace and foot soldiers are immediately activated. In an ecosystem such as this, it is these things that matter the most, not people. What is at stake is not the renaming itself but the symbolism that it embodies. It causes a frisson in the foundations of the aforementioned all-pervasiveness of the Dynasty. And that frisson must be quelled immediately lest another symbolism be dismantled.
And it is this ecosystem, which sets the tone of political discourse. Every non-Congress political party has always played the game by the rules the Congress party has set. The political base of the Congress might have substantially eroded but it still sets the tone of political discourse. Broadly speaking, this tone constitutes exactly two terms: “divide and rule” and “appeasement.” In polite language, it’s known as secularism and reservations. Now show me exactly one non-Congress party that doesn’t play the game by this rule. Small wonder then that none of these guys—not even the BJP when it was in power—could manage to even dent at least one aspect of the Congress party’s symbolism.
Mamata Banerjee has, for the time being, done something that hits the Congress party where it hurts quite a bit and the Congress party has responded predictably but it’s a long shot that she’ll be able to do serious damage. Her reach is severely limited outside West Bengal and the common perception is that she’s a troublemaker. But she has at least shown a way for other parties by talking to the Congress party in the language it understands. India cannot afford to grant a third term to the Dynasty. And for that to occur, the tone of political discourse must change. And It’s still not too late. Is the BJP listening?