Imagine the courtroom of a medieval ruler. You may paint yourself an Emperor of the East or a Duke of a county. Further, imbue this character either with the decadence of hedonistic languor or the incisiveness of composed stratagem. The specifics of space, time, and culture remain suspended in your imagination; you focus instead on the mass of discursive cross-currents that accumulates in the middle of the room- arguments and their rebuttals ricocheting off the courtiers, each having no less merit than the last. Until the words of the philosopher slices through charged air with such rare profundity that they not only alleviate the tension from the ongoing exchange but also align themselves with the greater intentions of the king.
This philosopher figure has assumed various identities across civilisations and ages. He sometimes plays the advisor to the king, a fool for the court, or even the bard of the land. Plato argues, that instead of being an addition to the ruler’s entourage, the philosopher himself should be the ruler- a magistrate whose knowledge rather than power would enable him to be the ideal administrator. From Confucius to Tagore, the role of such a ruler has been defined in several treatises, where the schism between the political sovereign and the transcendental philosopher complementing him, dissolves to form a singular leader.
In India, this composite force can be optically located in The B(e)ard. For context, after announcing the first nationwide lockdown on 15th March, the length of the Prime Minister’s facial hair has been seen to increase at a rate inversely proportionate to the country’s GDP. Subsequently, Narendra Modi’s coiffure invited a lot of speculation with regards to the visual impact that it might have in the present political climate, especially at a time when images of him presiding over the Ram Mandir’s Bhoomipujan or visiting Rakabganj Gurudwara at the wake of the farmer’s protest are freshly imprinted in our memory.
This attempt to establish his public persona as a ‘sage-king’ is distinct from the explicit iconography appropriated by the likes of Yogi Adityanath or Pragya Thakur, who are perenially awash in saffron. Modi, on the other hand, plays with sub-tones. More than the sartorial, he subliminally manipulates the messaging of his overall aura to project a Hindu-ised ideal that India should aspire towards. Albeit half-baked, his philosophy brings together strands of Gandhian indigeneity, Tagore’s syncretism, and even Vivekananda’s Vedantic thought.
However, these ideas lack a sustainable matrix to be embedded upon. Modi’s rhetoric, be it in his formal speeches or the more ‘candid’ sessions of his radio talk show, Mann Ki Baat, are often insufferably evasive. He evokes lofty ideas such as ‘spiritual awakening’ and ‘nationalism’, as in his address to the students of Vishwa Bharati University, but abstractifies them with a shroud of mysticism. With this, even if he manages to tip a hat to Tagore, he fails to truly contextualise these concepts in today’s zeitgeist.
In the absence of the consistent articulation of well-defined principles and an environment for them to be practised in, Modi’s worldview falls victim to the polarised narratives peddled by religious zealots who are the first to be seduced by his sage-like avatar. As for the masses, they are more obfuscated than illumined by his moral prescriptions. To achieve the awe-inspiring effect he desires, Modi mystifies himself to the extent of irreparably distancing himself from the people he intends to influence.
Power in a democracy by definition cannot be monolithic, but the seat that the Prime Minister has envisioned for his philosopher-king persona is elevated and separate from the rest of the government. This apparent moral high ground is obviously contentious as Modi regularly shirks accountability from the hate-mongering that several of his party spokespersons indulge in.
Yet, the expectation of support that he has from the citizens, as he pleads for trust on television screens, is almost baffling. In Machiavellian fashion (The Prince), it seems that Modi relies more on the naivete of his subjects, rather than their trust in him, to retain power. The facade of righteousness might just as well be performative as long as he can flit in and out like an elusive figure, sporadically appearing to announce his injunctions, but never available to answer questions.
Recalling Tagore, as is now ‘trendy’ in light of the imminent Assembly Elections in Bengal, aspects of Modi bear similarities to the veiled king of Roktokorobi (Red Oleander), who was unreachable in his enclosure. To take the analogy a step further, one can even draw parallels between the BJP government’s controversial economic policies benefitting large corporations (most recently the three farm bills) and the commandments of the king in Tagore’s dance-drama, who insists on gold being relentlessly mined, usually at the expense of the workers.
Closer to what Modi wishes to emulate, is Tagore’s characterisation of Gobindamanikya in Rajarshi, that literally translates to ‘sage-king’. By dissociating himself from the material pleasures of life, the king arrives at a better understanding of governance and social welfare. The conversation around religious dogmatism, its tussle with the State, and the practice of animal sacrifice that was raised by the novella are just as relevant in our times. Except that the greatest irony lies in the convergence of all these social conflicts in the very personality who wishes to rise above them by preaching a higher philosophy.
Modi’s posturing at best approximates a ‘raj rishi’, that is a royal priest, as opposed to a Rajarshi. Moreover, his ‘transformation’ coincided with a political moment that displayed unforgivable apathy towards migrant workers, farmers, and the economically disadvantaged classes of society. As he celebrated the consecration of Ayodha in his curated costume, he enacted an erasure of a history of violence that he is closely associated with. Therefore, he chooses to be the king of the favoured, the ones who will thump their chests in praise of a legacy that is only sanitised, not saintly.
–Dibyangee Saha, a 23-year-old Master’s student of English literature. A published poet and French enthusiast, she is the happiest around music, stories, and red velvet cheesecakes.