Hollow Performance

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | 11 June 2024
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Theatery is more like a national characteristic. Arvind Kejriwal’s “If Bhagat Singh was hanged, I am also ready to be hanged” may have reminded readers that Indira Gandhi did it in style

Narendra Modi had barely begun his victory speech on Tuesday night when my son texted me from Singapore where he was watching the ceremony live on YouTube to say, “Modi said ‘Jai Jagannath, Jai Jagannath’. Ram needs to wait in line now!” Not just Rama. His long-suffering wife must also wait for the grand temple in eponymous Sitamahri that the saffron lobby had promised her.

Amit Shah also announced the additional bonus of a ban on cow slaughter and cattle smugglers being hanged “upside down” if the National Democratic Alliance was re-elected. Strangely, he made no mention of purging the language of terms like ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’. Surely those who spent Rs 1,800 crore on the Ayodhya temple believe that when Rama occupies that magnificent abode, he will do so for good and preside over the Hindu utopia of Ram rajya? A fly-by-night visit would make a mockery of ‘achhe din’. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “You’ve never had it so good” expressed a similar hope in the 1959 general election which was the first I covered. People feared then that if Macmillan reneged on the pledge, another 200 impoverished protesters might descend on London demanding jobs as in the famous Jarrow March of 1936.

Whether or not Mamata Banerjee produces the 10 lakh jobs she claims to have 'earmarked for the people of the state', the announcement itself prioritised a public need and recognised the importance of electing politicians who can be trusted to deliver in a country in dire straits. Only two months ago, 48 lakh aspirants were desperately scrabbling for fewer than 67,000 jobs as police constables amidst scandalous charges of cheating, impersonation, bribery and leaked question papers in the key state of Uttar Pradesh. No wonder the National Democratic Alliance lost Ayodhya, was humbled in Varanasi with a reduced margin, and saw the number of constituencies that it had won in 2019 nearly halved.

UP has now added another potential layer to existing layers of corruption. The need for mandatory dowry affidavits with marriage certificates reminds me of Rajmohan Gandhi’s story (matching my own later experience) of an official of Mussoorie’s Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration telling him that youthful romance didn’t flourish on the campus because the male entrants were too conscious of their value in the marriage mart to squander their prospects. Will they obey the law and deny themselves now?

the former chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, told a New York audience that “We have a problem with unemployment, inflation, education, and health. No one talks about these things. But everyone talks about Ram, Hanuman, and mandir.” He then warned that “temples are not going to create jobs.” I was relieved to read that Rahul Gandhi, who was present, didn’t protest that a beneficent temple deity would shower jobs and prosperity on the faithful. Not being within earshot of Rae Bareli, he didn’t need to burnish his credentials as a self-proclaimed ‘janeudhari Hindu’. For thanks to the climate that has been created, those who seek public endorsement must bow to the superstitions of the multitude. As a Frontier magazine report warned recently, India breeds “Too Many Babas” who would have overwhelmed medicine too but for the Supreme Court.

No British politician would dare to be as disdainful of the public’s true interests. The thousands of farmers who are regrouping in this supposed ‘Mother of Democracy’ to remind the government of the unfulfilled pledges that persuaded them to call off their protest two years ago may not know that 600 years before Jarrow, an archbishop of Canterbury warned a dictatorial king of "voxpopuli, vox Dei", that "the voice of the people is the voice of God".

That can happen when electoral contests debate issues. Despite the feverish competition between pollsters (confirming analyses as a branch of astrology) and now the no less feverish haggling over the loaves and fishes of office, the tediously drawn-out process confirms that Indians can be suckers for what used to be called ‘theatery’ in colloquial Bengali. It’s not a word I have heard in recent years. But time was when elderly relatives, especially females, would dismiss as theatery the posturing and affectations of those who seemed to believe that flamboyant displays of mock humility (‘I am a fakir’) in the gaze of cameras would best reward their craving for attention.

Oliver, the young Englishman who takes sanyas in Christopher Isherwood’s A Meeting by the River, describes a fine instance of such posing when Patrick, his worldly, even supercilious, brother who is visiting Calcutta after clinching a major deal in Hollywood “suddenly without any warning he dropped to his knees and took the dust of my feet and bowed down before me!” Certain that Patrick “must have been rehearsing this, he did it so smoothly and neatly,” Oliver muses, “In the midst of my astonishment, I was aware of a strong favourable reaction from the [Indian] audience. Once again, Patrick’s instinct had been absolutely correct, he had done the dramatically perfect thing! So then I hastily grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him to his feet and hugged him. I did this to cover an uncontrollable attack of giggles — I was shaking with it, and as I held him I felt him beginning to laugh, too.” The encounter gains a certain verisimilitude from the watching Bengalis with, in the background, the Hooghly river and what is probably the Belur Math.

Not that theatery is the prerogative of any one group. It’s more like a national characteristic. Arvind Kejriwal’s “If Bhagat Singh was hanged, I am also ready to be hanged” may have reminded readers that Indira Gandhi did it in style, throwing a tantrum when the Janata government issued a warrant for her arrest, exclaiming, “Where are the handcuffs? I am not going without handcuffs!” Delving into history, one remembers Rajendra Prasad piously denying any ambition for any post, leave alone that of the first president of the Indian republic, while also strongly resisting any move by Jawaharlal Nehru to bestow that honour on Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. But as the results showed, changed robes, barefoot walks, smeared foreheads, varied libations and yogic salutations need not decisively change the verdict.

However, by exposing the limits of theatery, the outcome did widen the composition of the government, thereby encouraging the possibility of consensual decisions, including fresh thinking on the Agnipath scheme, the Uniform Civil Code, the 'one nation, one election' concept, citizenship and minority rights, reconciling the basis of the original promise to Jammu and Kashmir with contemporary political needs, China, and other issues. Official credibility demands an end to allegations of motivated arrests, gubernatorial activism and suspicious initiatives by institutions like the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation. Perhaps the NDA’s storm troopers will be less pugnacious now about fads like ‘love jihad’. But for all the crowing, a market that gains 12 lakh crore of rupees one day and loses 31 lakh crore the next won’t create too many jobs even if it does breed more billionaires.

Not that all boasting about the diaspora and remittances need to come to an end. Canada isn’t cutting its nose over Indian immigrants to spite its face. Australia is even more generously launching the Mobility Arrangement for Talented Early-professionals Scheme for Indians. The acronym, MATES, is the word Australians use for friends. Jobs might continue to be as scarce in India’s stagnant economy for even the best qualified and most gifted young Indians but openings and opportunities beckon in lands less given to ostentatious but empty theatery.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

This article was originally published on The Telegraph.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.