Elections 2019: Battle for the Soul of India

On 10 March 2019, India’s Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora announced the much awaited poll dates for elections to the 17th Lok Sabha, in seven phases from 11 April to 19 May. With this, the model code of conduct came into force and the biggest democratic exercise of the world was set in motion. Over the next few weeks, India will see the setting up of over one million polling stations, to enable over 800 million voters to cast their vote to elect the next government. Electronic voting machines will be used in all the polling booths, each of which will have a voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) to obviate charges of rigging. More than 8,000 contestants will fight for 543 seats. An estimated 1,841 political parties recognised by the Election Commission will contest the polls, which are estimated to cost an unprecedented Rs 500 billion (approx. USD 7 billion, as per estimates of the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi). Democracy, obviously, does not come cheap.

But this election is more than a matter of mere statistics. In many ways, Election 2019 will be the most defining election for India since the country achieved Independence in 1947. This is an election which will set the course for what India chooses to be. Will the ancient wounded civilisation, colonised and vandalised for over a millennia, seek to rediscover itself and embrace its heritage? After all, India is perhaps the only civilisation that has survived the ravages of time. Or will India continue to be in a state of denial about its true potential, and remain unmindful of its rich heritage, ethos and culture? Election 2019 will determine that too. It is therefore, more than a matter of merely electing its representatives. It is a battle for the Soul of India.

To understand this stream of thought, let us go back in time, first to the early years of the 19th Century and then further back to Indian history dating back 1300 years. It would be interesting to first course through the account of Lt Col James Todd, an officer in the East India Company and the celebrated author of ‘Annals of Rajasthan’. James Todd was born on 20 March 1782 in Islington, London, and died aged 53 on 18 November 1835. When he returned to England, his main job was to advise the Board of Directors of the East India Company on matters concerning India. At that point of time, there was a group of very influential people, including the Governor General of India, Lord William Bentinck who wanted to wipe out all traces of Indian civilisation, which they considered as barbaric. This group was opposed by Col Todd and his friend William Jones Prinseps and also by others at the Asiatic Society who were not only aware of India’s civilisational heritage but were also strong promoters of it. They considered India to be the original source of all knowledge, languages and philosophy of all Europe, and preserving of such a  heritage to be in the best interests of not just India, but also for the rest of the world.

The British Parliament consequently held hearings to determine the future course of action by the British Government and the British East India Company. Todd gave sage advice about the wisdom of preserving Indian heritage and allowing local rulers to govern their kingdoms with minimal interference. On the other hand, James Mills, author of History of British India, espoused the cause of proselytisation, and pitched for the whole of India to be taken over by the East India Company, the population converted and put to work as semi-slaves for England and John Company. In his arguments he said: “The entire population should be subdued and cowed. Their role was to be passive and obedient…we take all military power in our hands. Now it is considered what military power implies; that is, in truth, the whole power; the company must get rid of the abomination of indirect rule…” Mills further urged that panopticons be established all over the country. Panopticon is a modern prison system where people are kept under surveillance and control! Finally he said that he found all of Todd’s reasoning in favour of Indians absurd and irrational. “Nothing is more ridiculous” he told the Parliamentary Committee.

The British Parliament went with the arguments put forward by Mills, and that became the policy for the East India Company. It however led to disaffection amongst the Indian population, resulting in the First War of Independence in 1857. Fortuitously for the British, the Crimean War had just ended a year earlier and that enabled them to bring more troops to India to restore the situation, albeit with the help of some turncoats. But the British government had learned its lesson. The British Parliament withdrew the right of the British East India Company to rule India in November 1858 and India came directly under the Crown, through its representative called the Governor General. But the cultural invasion continued, albeit with a greater degree of sophistication and finesse, the impact of which is still seen, seven decades after Independence. The heirs of Macaulay and Mills tragically continue to live in our midst, and their narrative forms the dominant discourse in the country.

Now let us go back in time to the eighth century CE, when the Arab hordes began invading India. In 712 CE, Mohammed bin Qasim, invaded Sindh, defeating the local ruler Raja Dahir. The Raja died on the battlefield for his people, his daughters were taken as sex slaves for the Umayyad rulers and the land was pillaged and plundered. Despite that, it is Qasim who he is revered today in Pakistan as the first Pakistani and the Raja, who fought for the honour of his people lies forgotten. This is a classic example of one culture subsuming another. The Arab hordes, whenever they plundered the Indian land mass, desecrated the temples, killed the priests and destroyed all institutions of learning. Nalanda is witness to what such destruction entails as are the thousands of ransacked temples and monuments all across India.  That the Indian civilisational structure survived is testimony to its strength and vibrancy. But a thousand plus years of subjugation has dented the psyche of a proud people, many of whom now suffer from the Stockholm syndrome and seek to justify the acts of the perpetrators of violence, as being the customs of those times. India has shed its chains which physically kept the country under subjugation, but the mental chains still hold us captive. These need to be broken as the spirit of India seeks rejuvenation.

This is the battle which now confronts India, as the people go forth to cast their ballots. What is the India we want? And whose idea of India shall prevail. For the first time since Independence, there is a real choice available to the people, with two competing ideologies battling for the soul of India. The elections of 2014 were fought on the plank of rooting out corruption, which had taken a form so venomous and brazen that its perpetrators would openly boast of their misdeeds and flaunt their ill gotten gains. But 2019 is a different matter. The issues are not just about development, jobs and good governance, but also about how we look at ourselves and at our history. Should India be held hostage to ideologies that seek to demean our culture, our heritage and our very way of life? Or should we reclaim with pride the ethos and spirit of a proud people, whose land was pillaged for a thousand years but whose spirit could not be subjugated. The process of rejuvenating the Indian mind began in 2014 and has gone a short distance, but the journey is long and would require to be sustained if we truly wish to unshackle our minds. This too, is what election 2019 is about.

Election 2019 is thus a challenge to the ideologues who deny the very existence of Lord Rama and question his birthplace. The Ram Temple issue at Ayodhya is not just about building a temple, which in any case can be built anywhere. It is about respecting a long held and sacred belief, which transcends religious barriers and which rightly, should not have been disputed in the very first place. It is a challenge to the ideologues who had control of the education system and who used their time in power to corrupt and distort our history. It is a challenge to those who still occupy high positions in India and who with shameless abandon, slipped into the shoes of the British and continued the legacy of Macaulay and his ilk. It is a challenge to the corrupt who so easily looted the land and pillaged it at will. And as many of these ideologues still continue to occupy positions of power and pelf, whether in India’s bureaucracy, the media, the corporate sector, the social circles and even in the  political space, they will resist with all their might and all the cunningness at their disposal, the emergence of alternate ideas which can derail the gravy train that they have fed upon these last seven decades and who have desecrated this sacred land and impoverished its people.

Election 2019 is thus also about reclaiming our heritage, our culture, and our history. It is about acceptance of the good in our scriptures, our traditions and our way of life and embracing our heritage in full measure and with pride. That is why, Election 2019 is not just about electing the lawmakers to the 17th Lok Sabha. It is, in a very true sense, a battle for the soul of India.

(Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch is a Director of India Foundation. Views expresssssed are personal.)

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