Thirty years before Christ, Julius Caesar’s heir Octavian got his revenge and ended Rome’s civil war. First, he killed all of Caesar’s Senate assassins. Then he crushed Mark Antony and his wife Cleopatra, who killed themselves.
Octavian returned from Egypt as master of Rome. What should he now do? He received advice on this from two associates. One was Marcus Agrippa, who had won Octavian’s most important naval battle at Actium. The other was Gaius Maecenas, the aristocrat whose patronage gave us the works of Virgil and Horace.
Agrippa, the soldier, counselled restraint. He said Octavian should give up thoughts of monarchy (“one-man rule”) and restore the Roman republic. Bad things inevitably came out of taking on such responsibility, Agrippa said in a great speech. It was only friends and chamchas who benefited from having their patron in power, he said. The monarch himself mainly suffered in silence, blamed for everything.
Maecenas gave the opposite advice. It was Octavian’s duty to himself to retain the power he had fought so hard to win. The people were a mob and needed herding. He advised Octavian to keep the republic’s organs—the Senate, the tribunes, the pleb assembly and so on—intact. But he should strip them of power. Octavian should control the direction of the state from behind. And he did not even need to announce his kingship. He should just get himself elected consul (of whom two were elected every year) to keep up the facade of democracy.
Now, the idea that democracy must be managed from behind has been around in the West from the time democracy was born 2,500 years ago. While they were working on the American constitution, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton both considered an aristocracy that would guide American democracy.
Last week, the Congress’ Digvijaya Singh told us that this controlling from behind doesn’t work for India. He was referring to the fact that Sonia Gandhi, leader of the largest party in the Lok Sabha, was not the prime minister. She had instead chosen Manmohan Singh, who cannot even get himself elected, to play that role, while she remained powerful, but in the background.
This strange system of two power centres has come because our constitution allows it. In India, as in the UK, executive power is vested in the president/monarch. This person “appoints” the prime minister, but is himself held in check by having no real power.
Sonia Gandhi’s entry in Indian politics has produced the unusual situation of making her the person who appoints the prime minister before the president does. She is and is not the real power in India.
To return to the Romans, what did Octavian do? He thanked both his friends for their advice, according to the historian Cassius Dio, and then rejected that of Agrippa.
He took the counsel of Maecenas, and did not crown himself king. He instead became emperor (in Latin, imperator, someone who gives orders), renaming himself Augustus.
Sonia Gandhi also rejected the Agrippan counsel of Congressmen. She did not take the proper republican position. Most in the Congress believe that, as Digvijaya Singh suggests, she should have become prime minister in 2004.
Instead, exactly like Augustus, she holds constitutional roles, like Lok Sabha member, which give us the impression that the republic is normal.
But it isn’t. The prime minister serves at the pleasure, not of the President of India, but of the president of the Indian National Congress.
Sonia Gandhi said, while rejecting prime ministership, that she never wanted office. Along with her conscience, blame must be portioned out to the Bharatiya Janata Party. In particular, the vulgar threat of Sushma Swaraj (who threatened to tonsure herself, a most unpleasant thought) which encouraged this rejection of the form of power but not its substance.
Maecenas turned out to be right for his time: Under its Italian emperor, Rome became the greatest power in history and Romans the wealthiest citizens of the world.
What our Italian empress will do from behind the scenes, time will tell.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns