The prince from Gujarat had a hard time. His achievements were great. His administrative record exemplary. His devotion to the empire unmatched. Yet, the establishment that presided over India would have none of it. He remained an outsider. His “secularism" was questionable to being non-existent. Religious men about the emperor’s successor muttered dire warnings if the usurper from Gujarat came near the throne.

You must be thinking Narendra Modi. Not really. The man in question was a country cousin of the chief minister of Gujarat. He went by the name Aurangzeb. Born in Dahod in Gujarat, the Mughal later governed the province and effectively at that. Physically and politically they could not have been more different but structurally both faced the same problem. The “establishment" in Delhi (or Agra then) refused to accept them. You see you have to be schooled in Shahjahanabad to be acceptable. It does not matter who controlled India—Mughals, anarchy or the British—the establishment has always had its way.

Why is the Indian establishment so insular? Why does it refuse to accept new ideas and personnel? But first a preliminary howl: Any conjoining or claim of continuity between the two immediately leads to protests from professional historians and intellectuals who support the current rulers. One objection is that because formal, instrumental, politics was missing in that age, political control took a winner-takes-it-all hue. And that this is no longer true. But stare harder and you will only see differences in form while the essence remains the same. Both believed in erecting monuments: Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal; our rulers have launched the food security Bill. Shah Jahan was, of course, innocent of any notion of Ricardian equivalence. But poor Aurangzeb did realize it by 1700, and with a vengeance. The seeds of destruction of the empire can be dated to that period. The United Progressive Alliance has a bevy of economists and courtiers who daily deny the dangerous consequences of elevated taxation. Then, Aurangzeb had the advantage of a battle-hardened army on his side; today the appalling lack of governance seen daily by millions of harried citizens is the analogue of a battled hardened army. Spears and swords then; posters and ballots now.

To return to the causes behind the insularity of the establishment. The behavioural pattern is not hard to discern: Short-sightedness in governance, vanity, overt reliance on coercive instruments and, of course, pernicious dependence on an ideological apparatus. There is not much of a difference between the assorted ranks of sufis, dervishes and courtiers hanging about Dara and the “secular" punditry today decrying and demonizing a would be usurper who, to be fair, does have a blemish or two. But otherwise he bears no resemblance—barring his administrative abilities—with the medieval tyrant. Yet, both men confronted an obdurate establishment that has scarcely changed. A simple description will be that there is an Indian way of doing things and that it has remained unchanged. But there are deeper microeconomic roots to this behaviour and over millennia these have changed into cultural traits. In a resource and output constrained economy, short-sightedness is rational. But once economic growth takes off, this is self-defeating. The secret of the establishment is that changes in economic conditions have not altered its way of looking at the world. This permanent gap between changes in economic conditions and constant political behaviour is the defining feature of the Delhi crowd. One can describe this in different ways: prevalence of heavy discounting of the future; inability to imagine a better tomorrow and group think. Any outsider with different ideas is bound to be perceived as a threat. Is it any surprising that those with different ideas come from that most enterprising of Indian states, Gujarat?

So strong is the resemblance between the two that it is tempting to map, visually, the establishment then with the one that presides over India’s fate now. Looking at the painting of Shah Jahan’s accession ceremonies in the Padshahnama one can discern a neat correlation with the high ceremonies conducted in the Durbar Hall in Rashtrapati Bhawan today. In that age, the arrangement of grandees of the empire was determined by mansab rank; currently a not very different device, the warrant of precedence, determines the seating arrangement. One key difference is the head of state has to stand today; then he had the choice of sitting on his throne. Such are the perils of democracy. Take a close look at the painting of that gathering in 1628 by the magnificent Bichitr (see here: http://bit.ly/180Im1d), who knows you may even find a familiar face or two.

Postscript: The Lok Sabha has just cleared the most destructive piece of legislation in India’s history so far. The occasion affords another opportunity to look at the timeless nature of the class system in India. Technically, the trading community is a member of the third varna. In Shah Jahan’s time, as now, they were despised. In that age, they were left alone; In the democracy that prevails today their status, politically, is worse and is no better than that of shudras. In the run-up to the vote on the food Bill, one business leader after another appealed to the powers that be to defer the Bill. To no avail. Their voice carries no weight in matters of state.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist

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