I’m fond of the leader in Delhi (call him MS for short). Most Indians don’t like him because he’s seen as being soft and manipulated by the real power, S. Mind you, S is not popular either, being born a foreigner and of different faith.
Our finest historian has harsh words for MS: “Weak”, “puppet”, “timid”, “fickle”, “idle”. He admits MS is “free from insolent pride” and possesses “courage of a certain kind”, but adds that he has “no inborn capacity to rule”.
I find this judgement a little unfair. I’m fond of the historian too, but he doesn’t see one positive aspect to MS. Besides, the conditions were forced upon MS, and not of his doing.
History repeats: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh(Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times)
The dynasty was great 25 years ago, before he arrived. He stands on an ever-shrinking base of power. How can he sustain himself on past glory alone? His position is difficult.
Let’s survey and assess the situation as MS himself might see it.
Across India, power has drained away from Delhi. The peasant leaders have captured the Gangetic belt in collaboration with Muslims. Both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are lost. In Lucknow, power has passed from father to son. Delhi dispatched the heir to campaign there personally, but he could produce no result.
In Punjab, there is dependence on the scion of the royal family of Patiala. But the Sikhs are with the Akalis, and they have had little trouble in managing him.
Near Delhi and in Haryana, the Jats are a nuisance, let’s be honest. Primitive in their rules, horrible with women. There’s no chance of reforming them.
In Rajasthan, the Rajputs are martial only among themselves, and forever surrendering to the Marathas. See how shamelessly they prostrate before the Scindias.
Gujarat was lost long ago and there appears little chance of it coming back. The Gujarati wants two things: firm rule and and an environment for business. These he has, and so he doesn’t need Delhi.
Bengal says it is with the Centre but behaves petulantly and often nastily. The Bengali leader is strong and brave, true. But also untrustworthy, petty, quick to anger and immature. Because there is no trade in and little revenue from Bengal, it is unimportant as a state. Important only in the negative sense as a nuisance.
In Madhya Pradesh, another Scindia wants to instal the heir in Delhi. He’s mostly talk and little fight (blood will tell: The Scindias fled the field at Panipat).
The tribal belt in central India is not under Delhi’s control any longer. The state has entirely given up trying to enforce the rule of law there except for the occasional skirmish in which many claims of killing rebels are made (mostly untrue).
Karnataka is lost to MS, Tamil Nadu was never his. In Andhra Pradesh, the son of a dead satrap is certain to install himself over the wishes of Delhi. Resistance to this is futile, because much of Delhi’s power comes from the state. In slow motion that state is being lost.
In Maharashtra, the Maratha shows how shamelessly venal and corrupt he has become. Scandal relentlessly follows scandal, tarring a once-great society. The Chitpavan Brahmins continue to plot their fantasies of Hindu rule over Pakistan.
From across the border, the enemy sends its fighters to harass India. Afghan mercenaries are used as they have been for centuries. Afghanistan is in turmoil and the Pashtun leader is trying to hold the country together.
Such is the story of the time of our leader. I think our historian, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, was not entirely fair with MS, whose 310th birth anniversary is next month. MS was known to history as Muhammad Shah, the Mughal emperor who ruled from 1719-48.
The S whose thumb he ruled under was Safdarjung, the wazir from Iran who was Shia.
Chitpavans used to be Peshwas till 1818; after 1925, they became Sarsanghachalaks. The Scindias here were Dattaji and Mahadji, ancestors of Vasundhara Raje and Jyotiraditya, and the Patiala ruler Ala Singh, ancestor of Amarinder Singh and servant of Ahmed Shah Abdali. Many of the other characters are interchangeable from 250 years ago. Certainly the circumstances are much the same.
There’s a reason we saw familiarity in what was written. The Mughal empire was built around the emperor. When his power was weakened, the empire couldn’t function. The republic of India is also constitutionally designed for a strong centre. This came from a wide consensus which included B.R. Ambedkar and K.M. Munshi, as Ramachandra Guha shows in India After Gandhi : The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.
But a strong Centre assumes clean Lok Sabha majorities and at least one pan-India political party. Our tribal nature of voting has inflicted on India a federalism of the late Mughal variety. The Centre reigns but does not rule. As the Congress has declined in time, it is every caste for itself and every state for itself, squeezing Delhi for personal profit. We haven’t had a party with a majority for two decades and should be prepared to see this helplessness of Delhi as a permanent feature.
The position of Manmohan Singh is almost the same as that of Muhammad Shah, who called himself Rangeela—the colourful.
Not all of Rangeela’s rule was bad, and this was the positive aspect I referred to earlier. His patronage gave us Sadarang, composer of many popular Hindustani bandishes (Bhimsen Joshi said when he forgot the antara’s lyric in a song, he would wail “Sadarang!” to fill space).
Ending his four-volume Fall of the Mughal Empire, Sarkar stepped back to assess what he had studied for six decades.
“Corruption, inefficiency and treachery disgraced all branches of the public service. In the midst of this decay and confusion, our literature, art and even true religion had perished.”
The 86-year-old scholar concluded that our condition is the result of “the rottenness at the core of the Indian society”.
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist.
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