Although the BJP likes to appropriate our ancient wisdoms, it is becoming increasingly clear that the government does not follow their injunctions.
“Oriental despotism” was the label that misinformed and biased historians often dismissively used for politics in ancient India. The truth is that political science was a sophisticated discipline then. The most important texts on this subject are, of course, Kautilya’s Arthashastra and the Shanti Parva passage in the Mahabharata. Apart from these, there are important sections in the Ramayana, the Dharmashastras, Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, and later during the Gupta period, the Nitisara (Essence of Politics) of Kamandaka, and the Nitivakyamrita of the Jain scholar, Somadeva Suri. Kautilya mentions that there were at least four schools of political science that predated his work, and names as many as 13 authors prior to him that contributed to them.
Ancient political theory focuses extensively on the responsibilities of a ruler. Matsya Nyaya, where big fish eat the small at will, was a prescription for anarchy. The institution of kingship was essential to prevent this state of anarchy. The philosophical sanction for a ruler was thus quite akin to Locke’s Social Contract, wherein people themselves, in their own self-interest, concur in one of them assuming the power of a ruler. In today’s context, such a ruler, elected democratically, is the Prime Minister.
All our ancient texts categorically state that the ruler is duty bound to work for the welfare of the people, and discuss the qualities needed for this purpose. The Arthashastra says: “The king’s pious vow is readiness in action, his sacrifice, the discharge of his duty. In the happiness of his subjects lies the king’s happiness, in the welfare of his subjects, yogakshema, his welfare. The king’s good is not that which pleases him, but that which pleases his subjects.” The Shanti Parva admits of no double standards. “Let the king first discipline himself. Only then must he discipline his subordinates and subjects, for that is the proper order of discipline. The king who tries to discipline his subjects without first disciplining himself becomes an object of ridicule in not being able to see his own defects.”
These explicit injunctions have been much too often breached before too. But, in the current context, we see just how flagrantly they were violated in the preparation for and handling of the pandemic’s vicious second wave. The intention here is not to politicise a tragedy, but to understand the gulf between what the BJP professes to believe in, and what those in power actually do.
Firstly, it is clear that the PM did not discipline himself first while instructing his subjects to do so. There is little point in coining the slogan, do gaz ki doori, mask hai zaroori, when this was the first rule thrown to the winds in the dozens of political rallies addressed by him.
True, other political parties were equally guilty. But there is an important difference. They were not the ruling party at the centre, nor did they coin this catchy slogan. According to the Mahabharata, the leader must serve by example, or else he will become an object of ridicule.
The permission given to hold the shahi snans in the Kumbh Mela is a classic example of doing what pleases oneself but is not for the good of the people. The sanction to such a “super-spreader” event, just because it catered to what the BJP perceives to be its vote bank, was decidedly against the interests of the vast number of Hindus, and Indians as a whole. Lakhs of people in such mask-less proximity made a mockery of the public posturing to the contrary of the leader.
We have also seen how “readiness in action”, was missing. A spectacular lack of preparation in anticipation of the inevitability of a second wave was evident. There was a delay of eight months in inviting bids for oxygen plants after India declared the pandemic to be a disaster on March 14, 2020. And, out of the 162 oxygen plants planned for, only 33, as per the health ministry, have been installed. The position of oxygen supply has somewhat improved now, but when the crisis was fully upon us, there was gross lack of coordination too in the distribution of available oxygen. The number of hospital beds and ventilators remained stagnant in the mistaken hubris that we have “conquered” the virus.
Our vaccine policy is in shambles. The Centre announced that those in the 18-44 age group could be vaccinated from May 1, even when they knew that vaccines are just not available for this purpose. Earlier, millions of vaccines were exported or gifted abroad, and no planned steps were taken to timely boost production or increase stocks. The current policy, where each state is independently floating global tenders, often from the same producer, is anarchic, impractical and a blatant abdication of responsibility by the Centre. Indeed, there is a verifiable attempt to pass the buck to the states when the responsibility in such matters is clearly that of the central government. Under the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) 2005, the primary responsibility for “prevention of disaster, or the mitigation or preparedness and capacity building for dealing with threatening disaster situations”, is that of the Centre.
Our ancient seers were repositories of much wisdom. The BJP swears by them, and invokes them with smug proprietorship, but the practices they adopt tell an entirely different story. Chanakya must be wondering how those of his descendants, who proudly — even exclusively — claim him as their own, have drifted so far away from his precepts....