Where is Rajdharma?

Modern Politics

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses after receiving the Seoul Peace Prize, at the award ceremony in Seoul, on February 22, 2019. PIB/PTI

The 2002 Gujarat riots had publicly posited the two distinct strains, schools and sensibilities of right-wing politics that saw the subsequent ascendancy of the more assertive version, as opposed to the more pacifist and ‘inclusive’ style propounded by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The poignant moment that captured the pivotal transformation of political styles and substance was in the press conference called by Vajpayee in the immediate aftermath of the riots, with the then chief minister of Gujarat in attendance. The philosophical giant of Indian ethos, civilisational history and profundity, on being asked for his advice to the chief minister in the wake of the riots, had gently but presciently suggested that Narendra Modi should “follow Rajdharma”.

Vajpayee’s loaded, controlled but deliberate expansion of the concept of Rajdharma to imply that the ruler should never discriminate amongst his subjects on account of birth, caste or religion, was the sort of lofty statesmanship that put Vajpayee’s politics beyond mere electoral calculus. At the inter-faith dialogue on Ayodhya, just over a week after the Gujarat riots, Vajpayee expounded the contours of his own Rajdharma when he stated his idea of India, “If India is not secular, then India is not India at all.”

Recently, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu had also questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Rajdharma, stating that the Centre’s failure to bestow the promised ‘Special Status’ on Andhra Pradesh was tantamount to the diminishment of Rajdharma. While specifically invoking Vajpayee’s conceptual lodestar of governance, Naidu further contextualised the
purported failure of Rajdharma to dishonouring of the ‘word’ amongst allies.

Flashback to the previous UPA government, which also faced a piquant situation concerning its Rajdharma – or ‘coalition dharma’, as former PM Manmohan Singh felt called upon to observe -- when he had to re-induct, less than enthusiastically, a cabinet colleague from a coalition party (though he later clarified that coalition compulsions did not imply short-selling constitutionality in any form). Perhaps Naidu’s recent accusations were similarly couched in the missing spirit of ‘accommodation’ amongst allies, especially in the backdrop of a previously given commitment.

However, it is important to dissect the word ‘Dharma’ and the vastly changed meaning when the prefix ‘Raj’ is added to it and it becomes Rajdharma. No one word in the English language can translate Dharma, as it is suggestive of a complex behavioural ‘way of living’ that is in accordance with ‘Rta’, the order that makes life and universe possible.

Dharma has an intrinsic link with individual spirituality and insistence on tenets of nobility that is true to the spirit of rights, laws, conduct, virtues, duties and responsibilities — the accompanying morality and righteousness has no space for any ‘grey’ consideration or compromise. Its antonym is Adharma.

However, the great Indian philosopher and thinker Chanakya recognised that statecraft is not a simple choice between Dharma or Adharma, but in Rajdharma — a space that is certainly closer to Dharma than Adharma, yet recognising the compulsions, choices and decisions that are needed to temper asymmetric and non-linear challenges for the overall benefit of the people and the State.

Rajdharma, by construct, makes provisions for the spirit of ‘inclusivity’ and accommodation even when one can realistically, do without the same. A portent of Rajdharma was visible in the composition of the first cabinet of independent India, when Jawaharlal Nehru’s 14 member cabinet included five non-Congress members, including Syama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha and the staunch Nehru critic but brilliant B R Ambedkar of the Republican Party of India.

Modern politics is essentially bereft of any overarching conscience of restraint, equity or civility as ordained under Rajdharma. Today, the ends justify the political means deployed. This leads to the extremely minute and detailed algebra of cause-and-effect in politics for electoral considerations, to achieve the very short-term agenda of majoritarianism that is oblivious to its larger societal impact or to the long-term stability of the country. The recent spate of ‘unnatural’ coalitions with uncommon underpinnings, conflicting agendas and even bloody history is reflective of the convenient politics.

Conversely, subliminal tensions and perennial suspicion abound within political parties of the same ideological fount who openly spar and drive a hard bargain to defend their own political space whilst not even paying lip service to their supposedly aligned ideologies. At an individual level, such a transactional air of politics breeds the uniquely Indian phenomenon of ‘horse-trading’ where elected lawmakers can suddenly switch political allegiance, without a care for conscience or public backlash.

Across political parties, there have been heroes and villains who have practiced Rajdharma and dangerous shades of Adharma, and therefore no one party can claim to hold the higher ground than the other. The voter must exercise her or his vote not out of any sense of blind loyalty to a party or even ideology (as that can be readily sacrificed by lawmakers), but towards those candidates that stand for probity, transparency and ‘inclusivity’. Unfortunately, the political market for hyperbole, misplaced muscularity and disdain for any specific section of citizenry is a potent combination in cobbling together the requisite number of votes, and that instinctively works contrary to the edifice of Rajdharma.

The trick is to ascertain the position of candidates and parties on strengthening the various institutions like judiciary, media, investigative agencies and ensuring the independence of the same from the executive. A hawk-eye must be trained on their positions on laws and institutions that enable transparency, like RTI Act, the national statistical bodies, Lokpal, etc. Last, but not the least, is to evaluate the personal decency, culture and gravitas of political leadership that ought to behove a 5,000-year-old civilisation — this is where a Nehru or a Vajpayee exemplified the politics of Rajdharma, when most today struggle to measure up, even if they wanted to practice Rajdharma.

(The writer is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)

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