One of Akira Kurosawa’s best films is Kagemusha, set in 16th-century Japan. In it, a thief, who is a dead ringer for the assassinated warlord Shingen, is trained to impersonate the chieftain to keep up the spirits of his army and to strike fear in the enemy troops. Interspersed between bravura set-piece battle scenes are the sequences where the poor, cringing petty criminal is trained (the word kagemusha itself means ‘political decoy’) to assume the visage and dignity of the terrifying Shingen. Tatsuya Nakadai, in a fantastic double role, gradually takes on the dead general’s persona, managing for a while to fool even those who were closest to the great lord.
These days, Indian ‘democracy’ reminds me of Kurosawa’s kagemusha, a bumbling, know-nothing burglar who has to be coached and prodded into acting out the characteristics of nobility, authority and grace.
Take for example the situation when two African women are sitting in a car in a south Delhi neighbourhood at night. A mob of vigilantes surrounds the car led by the newly elected law minister from the AAP. Without any evidence the women are deemed to be prostitutes who are pushing drugs. Why? Because they are Africans and this is what all Africans do. So vicious and unlawful is this assault that even the Delhi police come out looking good when they tell the AAP chap they can’t just barge into someone’s house to search it without a warrant. Suddenly, there are questions about this party, the supposedly great new hope of democracy: we know a bit about their top leadership but who else has joined this party and with what ethics, which agendas? Are we to accept that the ordinary Indian is inherently racist? Is power-corruption the only response to money-corruption? People are within their rights to point out suspicious behaviour to the police, but, after that, the ethics that criticizes the old political behaviour demands that you back off and let the police do their job without instruction or interference; why didn’t this happen that night in Malviya Nagar? Is there any genuine democratic process happening in Delhi or is the city riven with impostors wearing masks?
Take another very different example — our own chief minister’s penchant for ordering gun salutes whenever an important cultural figure passes away. It could be argued that gun salutes, a military honour, should be reserved for soldiers, for generals and for leaders who had some charge of the army, people such as prime ministers and presidents. At a stretch you could defend a gun salute for someone like Jyoti Basu who served this state (for better or worse) for so many years. But a gun salute for a writer or an actor? How bizarre is that? Can we imagine any other civilized country or region giving a martial honour as a send-off to an artist? If a pacifist like Tagore or a humanist (who satirized the military) such as Satyajit Ray were to pass away today would you salute either man with the boom of cannon? Well, if you were this chief minister, still unsure whether you were actually in power or just acting it, you probably would.
Talking about the military, the other day I found myself in a TV debate, one of those tele-linked cluster-shouts where everybody yells over each other to create news-like noise. The issue was the attack by a Hindutva front-gang on the Aam Aadmi Party’s office and the question was ‘are we becoming intolerant as a nation?’ The ostensible reason for the attack was that the AAP leader, Prashant Bhushan, had called for a people’s referendum on the military’s presence in Kashmir. Even as some of us tried to address the nature and history of this intolerance, the BJP’s spokesperson, Meenakshi Lekhi, came up with a show-stopper: the violence was to be condemned, of course, but what Bhushan had said on this sensitive issue was also a kind of violence and, therefore, a reaction was understandable. In other words, no political leader is allowed to question, in any way whatsoever, the political decision taken by the Congress — and enthusiastically adhered to by the BJP — of deploying the army and the para-military in the non-border areas of Kashmir. And to question the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Kashmir and the Northeast was tantamount to being irresponsible and even treasonous. To suggest that we look for alternatives to this huge and brutal military presence was being anti-national, it was also, in fact, a kind of ‘verbal violence’ for which you could expect physical violence in return. As if Lekhi’s definition of violence wasn’t surreal enough, she was joined at her wingtip by that other kestrel of sober nationalism, Kiran Bedi. Between them, these two learned ladies agreed that they could ignore whatever fringe intellectuals might say on the issue but the moment you were elected to power in this democratic India you lost the licence to criticize the government’s use of the army, just as you lost the licence to interrogate the army and paramilitary’s misdemeanours. Listening to them I found myself wondering whether I was in India or in some kagemusha of India which was actually just a larger version of Pakistan.
Recently, I’ve been meeting a lot of people who are totally in love with Narendra Modi. Though many of them are, indeed, Gujarati, and many of them industrialists or businessmen of some sort, there are also others, non-Gujju, not particularly rich, who share this adoration. Their argument is frighteningly simple: a) the Congress is corrupt to the core and needs to go, taking its clueless princeling with it; b) Modi has done great things in Gujarat and needs to be given a shot at righting this country; c) in any case, there is no viable third alternative that could lead to a stable government.
I actually don’t have a problem with a), with a few exceptions, the Cong-I leadership is corrupt, inept, arrogant and out of touch with reality, and they need to be ejected. I have huge problems with b) which I’ve laid out before and will do again; but briefly, at the core of my problem is the slaughter, rape and uprooting of mostly poor Gujaratis in 2002 and the aftermath of that slaughter; either Modi was terminally incompetent in allowing the slaughter to carry on or he was directly responsible for designing and directing it, his defenders are going to have to tick one of those two boxes, there is no third box; the fact that Congress leaders killed Sikhs in 1984 doesn’t absolve the BJP for the mass murders in Gujarat in 2002; the people responsible for not stopping that mass killing should not even be in charge of a gram panchayat, much less this country.
Which brings me to c) and the so far invisible third front. If we accept that our democracy is a work in progress, that ‘progress’ necessarily can’t be linear or steady, then there’s no reason we should be so terrified of a possibly unstable coalition government ruling India for a couple of years. An honest instability might serve us far better than some evil new order or the continuation of the discredited old one.
If, as the cliché goes, a week is a long time in politics, then three months is an eon. No matter what happens, we are in for a rough ride over the next 90 days: politicians of every colour will do their damndest to hang on to power or to regain it, damaging populist measures will cascade from all directions, communal riots will be planted and triggered like explosives to provide their dividend of divisiveness, personalities will be attacked, the press will be pressurized by all parties, there will be an orgy of shifting alliances. We should be wary and careful of all this but perhaps we should not really be afraid — in one of our traditions there is the concept of manthan, of mythic, cosmic churning, and while this churning brings up toxins it also extracts from its depths the potions that will sustain us. At the moment we may not be able to imagine what a third front government might look like. But if both Congress and BJP are unpalatable — as they are for many, many Indians — this seemingly blundering populace might be able to force into place some interesting Indian jugaad, a working contraption of a government that at least keeps out those who most need to be kept out of power. And through this process perhaps this decoy of a democracy might continue filling out its role from the inside.