Power Politics

Published on 20th February, 2017, an Editorial for The Speaking Tree

Book Five of the Mahabharata, the Udyoga Parva (Book of Effort), deals with negotiations between the Kauravas and Pandavas. After thirteen years of exile, it is time for the Kauravas to return Indraprastha to the Pandavas, as per the terms of the agreement during the gambling match. Krishna knows that the Kauravas will use every trick in the book not to part with the land. Still, efforts are made for a peaceful transition of power. As we know from the epic, these efforts fail to bear fruit. First, Drupada’s messenger makes the request to the Kauravas.Then the Kauravas send Sanjaya.The Pandavas then send Krishna, who even tries compromise for the sake of peace. Finally, the Kauravas send Uluka to insult the Pandavas.During the exchange of messages and negotiations, Dhritarashtra consults with wise men like Vidura and Sanatasujata. The elders Bhisma and Drona want peace.Duryodhana, with Karna by his side,wants war.

Krishna tries to get Karna to the Pandava side to avoid war but Karna chooses his integrity to peace. Satyaki speaks of how negotiations never work from a position of weakness.

Sizing Them Up

Each side measures the strengths and weaknesses of the other. Some warlords like Balarama do not fight for any side.Those like Krishna help both sides. Others like Shalya, though related to the Pandavas, are tricked into helping the Kauravas. Still others like Yuyutsu change sides and prefer to fight on the side of the Kauravas.There are long conversations on what is right, what should matter to kings,on the value of peace, and the importance of digging heels and not submitting. Only then, after these long discussions, is war finally declared. As we witness the electoral process in various state elections of India,we realise how much Udyoga Parva happens in democracy.No, there is no war. But there is continuous negotiation for getting allies in order to grab power. In a democracy, the party with the largest number of seats in the state assembly becomes the ruling party, for a stipulated period of time. Which means, every few years, we see a civilised, non-violent warfare called elections at the level of the country, state, city and village. In other words, democracy creates a continuous low-grade Mahabharata where politicians are constantly fighting for power, striving to grab maximum number of seats. Theoretically, it is the will of the people manifesting. However, everyone knows that votes can be bought. In case of the very poor, this is done by giving them gifts like television sets, or sewing machines, that they cannot afford to buy. Obligated, they repay their debt by voting for the gift-giver.

In the case of the not-so-poor, the vote can be bought by indulging their emotions, whipping up emotions, and pointing to an ‘enemy’. Others can be influenced by promising to solve a long, unresolved issue.Thus advertising and marketing play a key role in garnering votes. Is it all about manipulation? For the sake of efficiency, people are seen not as individuals but as belonging to communities: religious, caste-based or linguistic groups. And so during Udyoga Parva, different needs of different groups are satisfied. In the process, the nation, state, city and village are torn between various divisive thoughts. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth;yet,we are told this is good for governance. The most complex Udyoga Parva does not involve voters but parties, as pre-electoral alliances are made to ensure victory. So at one time,BJP would support local parties to defeat Congress. Now,Congress is taking support of local parties to defeat BJP. Everyone claims to be the wounded Pandava. The fight continues within the party when a leader dies and a new leader has to be elected. Much as they would deny it, most Indian political parties are feudal and prefer dynastic succession. Many leaders in India are seen as legitimate because they are sons and daughters of leaders, just as in Bollywood (or in any other profession) many actors get their foot in the door as their parents are superstars. Things get complicated when a leader dies with no children or a pre-determined legitimate heir. Then there is a scramble for power, as MPs and MLAs are asked to select a leader. Loyalty ensures a ministerial seat in the government and a ticket in the future election.

Welfare State

But is this Raj Dharma? When the Pandavas and Kauravas are negotiating, Krishna wonders how many of them are interested in the welfare of those who live in Indraprastha and Hastinapur.Are they fighting for property or for serving the people? The cousins in the Mahabharata are so unlike Rama (in the Ramayana) whose decision always involved the welfare of Ayodhya. In fact,governance of Ayodhya ends up taking a toll on his personal happiness.That’s why Rama Rajya is hailed as the ideal state, not Pandava Rajya. Questions must be asked: How many politicians are willing to sacrifice their political careers for the benefit of the people? What comes first, their career or the country; their party or the country? How much of democracy is about beating the rival to power and how much is about governing the country? The maha-rathis, or commanders in the electoral battle, seem to have lost sight of the larger picture of serving the people as public servants.When the sva-jiva, self, becomes more important than parajiva, the other,we walk the path of matsya- nyaya, jungle law, which is essentially adharma.