BJP's bipolar strategy

The BJP unleashed Venkaiah Naidu, who cultivated O Paneerselvam, while Subramanian Swamy batted for Sasikala.

Many wonder if what has played out in the recent weeks in Tamil Nadu politics could happen elsewhere in India.

As though ‘wonder’ is alien to the gamble called politics, understood as the art of the possible. Reality, German philosopher Hegel would tell you, is different. Life and history are replete with surprises.

In almost any other country, the public charisma of a political leader would have suffered irreparable damage at being convicted, as Sasikala was, by the apex court of the land. In her case, it had a contrary effect. It made her a greater force to reckon with. Imagine, the nerve centre of Tamil politics shifting to a prison cell in Bengaluru. That’s how wry history can get.

The BJP did, from the perspective of realpolitik, the smartest move by what is being referred to as ‘fishing in the troubled waters’ of Tamil politics. Standing by and seeing the waters eddy and muddy is not politics. Call it academics, if you will. Tamil politics sent me scurrying back to Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History (Berlin, 1822-1830). It appears to me that BJP is playing the Russian roulette in Tamil Nadu by this book.

History, Hegel says, is shaped by the ‘cunning of reason’. Prima facie, history is a domain of heroes and passions. The lineaments of history seem disconcertingly irrational. But it is ‘reason’ that guides the march of history. But reason does not work, on the surface, in a reasonable way at this level. In fact, it is to the contrary.

The major players seek only their own interests. They are not hamstrung by the dictates of reason in their choices and actions. The masses too are swayed by emotions and sentiments, and not by reason. So, the leaders and the led act irrationally. Yet, history is the outworking of the ‘Idea of Reason’. Reason has the skill, or the ‘cunning,’ to use the wares of human irrationality to serve its over-arching purposes.

How does this happen? That’s where cunning comes in. We pull the given sliver of history in this direction, which is all that we are aware of. But history uses the energy of the very same pull to take us in a direction set by its own designs which are irreducibly rational. People and leaders act in history according to their passions, or their ‘all-consuming emotions’. They are driven by self-interests; often irrational and self-seeking. Reason and passions thus comprise the warp and woof of world history.

I remember a sage saying the same thing somewhat differently: “History is the art of reducing boisterous heroes into silent footnotes.” History will have the last laugh. So, have we seen the end of Amma-Chinnamma politics? No, if Hegel is right. Something other than what all of us are obsessed with, or being fed with, is working itself out. Towers of human artefact are awash in cosmic laughter.

This awareness could breed humility. Now, I may turn Hegelian and argue that humility need not parade itself in humble ways. Nay, I’d even maintain that historical humility could conduct itself in idioms of arrogance and self-aggrandisement; if only to keep pace with the Hegelian ‘Cunning of Reason’. Or, let me put it this way: history is a strange realm in which arrogance could further the cause of humility and perversity be the handmaiden of morality. In the short-run, we call this hypocrisy.

Those who realise this adopt ambidextrous political strategies; or, strategies that work on the left and the right at the same time. We call this ‘win-win’ strategies. Put simply, a win-win strategy is one which guarantees your win or gain not only when this side gains the upper hand in the on-going struggle, but also if the opposite side emerges victorious.

Token of humility

Why is this a token of humility? Because the very crafting of such a bipolar strategy implies a renunciation of omniscience and omnipotence. It implies the admission that you are not in complete control and that you do not know which way it is going to turn. That was why the BJP unleashed a Venkaiah Naidu and a Subramanian Swamy at the same time. Venkaiah cultivated O Panneerselvam; Swamy batted for Sasikala. Both flanks were covered.

It is like what an army general did in Japan in olden days. When the outcome of the campaign was hanging in the balance and the morale of the troops was low, he got a brilliant idea. Why presume on the outcome of the war? Leave that to gods. So, he assembled his officers in the nearest Shinto temple to decide by tossing a coin if they should press on or retreat. “Head, we fight. Tail, we retreat.” The coin was tossed. It fell head-up. They won the war.

Much later it was found out that the coin used by the General had head on both sides. It is pretty much the same thing: two heads. This side, it is Swamy. That side, it’s Venkaiah. But in history, unlike in politics, there is a third side, much like the third eye of Lord Shiva. The tossed coin could fall neither on this side nor on that; but stand on its rim, as though ordered by the Cunning of Reason.

So, on which side has the tossed coin of Tamil politics fallen? Ask not poor Pannerselvam. He was launched on the stage of history not as a hero, like Alexander the Great or Napoleon. Not even like Modi. But like a toddler, holding on to Amma’s apron-hems. Blind loyalty is kindergarten stuff at the level of the “World-Spirit” that guides the Idea of History.

Even so, there is hope yet, even for Pannerselvam. If ‘Cunning of Reason’ is still patent in politics, may be his primeval loyalty could afford history its last laugh at the next turn of Tamil Nadu’s political screw. Who knows?

(The writer is former principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi)

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