Opinion

Politics as mythology: Does Modi's comparison of himself as Lord Krishna really ring true?

At a rally in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday, the prime minister talked of gods and mortals.

The ancients believed that there were limits to the range of human behavior, and if someone had the ahamkar (hubris) to transgress those limits, he would be struck down by fate. Some politicians seem oblivious to that warning especially during elections as is evident in a recent reference by the prime minister to adoption of the kind the god Krishna went through.

When no less a person than Narendra Modi says that, like Krishna, he was adopted by the state of Uttar Pradesh, which he now considers to be his mai-baap (mother and father) and he now wishes to serve it like a true son, this hack’s thoughts swiftly turned to finding a proper samskari Hindu definition of adoption.

Alas, according to the Sanskrit texts, Dharmshastras, Modi erred in identifying himself thus. Strictly speaking, Krishna, a most fascinating god-statesman, was not an adopted son in the proper sense of the term. Of the 12 types of Hindu sons that the Vasishtha Dharma Sutra (17, 36-37) meticulously describes, Krishna best qualifies for the title of an apaviddha putra: a son disowned by parents (for whatever reason) and then accepted by another set of parents.

The other confusion in drawing such a parallel stems from the fact that Krishna was not by birth from the Yadava clan (now categorised under the Other Backward Classes), but a Kshatriya from the Vrishni clan, hence Varshneya, one of Krishna’s names.

Krishna’s biological parents, a royal Kshatriya couple – Vasudev and Devaki – were incarcerated by Devaki’s wicked brother, King Kansa, after astrologers warned him that he faced a threat to his life from his sister’s unborn child. Krishna was thus not formally adopted by his surrogate parents, Nand and Yashoda, but smuggled out of jail and surreptitiously planted in the house of Nand, a prosperous cowherd of Gokul, whose newborn daughter Vasudev carried back to the jail.

Though Krishna was a loving, cheerful and mischievous son who won many hearts, he was quintessentially a warrior and a statesman, and therefore set up base neither in Mathura nor in Gokul in present-day Uttar Pradesh. He built his own wondrous capital in Dwarika, in present-day Gujarat, from where he ruled as Dwarikadheesh until a tsunami came, the Yadavas killed each other in a fratricidal war, and Krishna died when a hunter shot an arrow at his feet, mistaking it for a deer.

Politicians’ tricks

Smart politicians have a traditional trick by which they obscure real history and narrate stories that match a fabricated reality to suit their purposes. This is how the myth of Krishna as the archetypal Other Backward Classes leader from the community of cattle-loving tribes emerged, and gained currency, soon after the Mandal report changed the composition of India’s assemblies and Parliament from 1990.

Many major political leaders and their sons have regaled audiences during election campaigns with their stories since. Some have even worn a peacock feather in their headgear, and played a flute – both articles are closely identified with Krishna. These leaders liquidated the line between fact and fiction whenever it suited them, and announced familial ties to any region about to go to the polls. So it is no wonder that they act hostile towards the sections of the media who question their unverified history and peek into their caste and clan baskets.

Ace orator

It is worth watching how the crowds listen to Modi, the latest in a long line of such politicians. One needs strength to endure the chants of “Modi, Modi!” the crowd shouts as the great orator rises to speak.

Modi has perhaps realised that slow-to-awaken Uttar Pradesh needs a great name as a symbol, as cement, as compensation for having been a BIMARU (an acronym coined in the 1980s to denote severely underperforming states in India) state for so long.

Modi seems to have rightly judged that Krishna is an apt god to invoke here. A dark-skinned warrior who was born in jail, who grew up as a rural boy grazing cows, who exterminated bullies and demons that bothered the tribes, and went on to advise the Pandavas, presided over the debacle of the Kurus and ruled from the glamorous port of Dwarika.

If the legendary Krishna travelled from Mathura and Vrindavan, where he was born and grew up (and which now lie in day Uttar Pradesh), to Dwarika, in present-day Gujarat, this latter-day Krishna talked of a making a reverse journey from Dwarika to Uttar Pradesh as his speech warmed up on Thursday. He spoke of the desire to repay the kindness of a state that adopted him so lovingly in 2014 – when his Bharatiya Janata Party won an unprecedented 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats – of serving his adoptive state till his last breath.

Unlike Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose spindly legs were always draped in a simple homespun dhoti, Prime Minister Modi is always luxuriously elegant. His kurtas and churidaars are crisp and spotless, and the colour of his jackets always complement the expensive shawls draped strategically to showcase his legendary 56-inch chest. He sips mineral water from plastic water bottles and walks briskly ahead of others, answering all the namaskars and salutations offered to him by doubled over followers with an absent-minded nod. This is not the popular touch. This is more like the evolving style of a Europhile.

True, as he begins to speak, Modi is an inspired orator. He begins in a casually conversational tone. Then stops and begins to ask sharp rhetorical questions about the incumbent government and its affiliates.

“Your mothers and daughters can’t stir out after dark is it true or not?” he thundered on Thursday, his voice cracking in outrage. This is not life. This isn’t democracy, he said. Then he clapped his hands and informed his audience of how easily he smashed the stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhi family over India. How he made the rich into figures of pity.

Restless and chaotic, now a sentimental poet, now an ambitious politician, he then came up with promises: “Brothers and sisters, you vote for me and I will bring in development into this state that has adopted me with such great love! I will repay you. I will bring back the jobs and throw behind bars all the thieves that have been robbing you of your money!”

Bharat mata ki jai!

This is when the television anchors start their piece to cameras.

This is when the tape flies off the wheel.

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