India lives in the villages as the Mahatma said, and so does India’s sanyasin de jour Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, as the Prime Minister has explained. But, “Get thee to an ashram, go,” he didn’t say. That’s because Jyoti has become an icon for her political constituency for using the idiom of maximum India, and hence, is a valuable ambassador for the BJP in poll-bound Delhi’s rural outskirts. The new poster girl of Homespun Hindutva and the Surpanakha of Secularists, however, is not a novelty. The code of an eye for an eye or a life for a life is practised regularly in deceptively pastoral India where social mores, political loyalties and religious beliefs are closely intertwined. Balancing resurgent nationalism in India’s countryside and small towns with an inclusive contemporary agenda of governance is a growing challenge for the PM, who is emerging as a global leader with modern dreams. He realises the economic power and development potential of agrarian India, and the fact that public figures like Jyoti and Yogi Adityanath speak the language, never mind the vocabulary. The ‘Ramzade vs Haraamzade’ tune is hate rap, pure and simple, and all politicians working the country crowd move to its beat sometime or the other—Sonia Gandhi, Amit Shah, Akbaruddin Owaisi, Praveen Togadia, Azam Khan et al. Just like Jyoti.
As a young woman, the impecunious Bundelkhand boatman’s daughter was a walking-talking Amar Chitra Katha in the bucolic landscape of her native Uttar Pradesh. Villagers would listen to her ‘kathas’ about mythological heroes and villains as they had done with other storytellers for millennia. Such stories, which depend on pithy dramatic effect, have no greys, but only portray the black and white conflict between good and evil. To the uneducated rural Indian, mythology and history are consanguine, and the epics, being stories involving gods, are a simplified moral code, never to be broken. Ergo, an elopement could lead to a communal riot; a common road could spark a caste conflict. Retribution is usually determined by the political system propped up by populist ideology. Hence, when the little man sits under the village tree listening to the storyteller bring to life Ram’s slaying of Ravan or Eklavya being a better archer than Arjun in spite of losing his thumb, he believes justice exists. It redeems him and for a shining moment, he identifies himself with Ram or Bhim. The debate over Arjun’s moral churning on Kurukshetra and Ram’s quandary over Sita’s agnipareeksha is left to tormented philosophers and poets. The majority understands grand themes in simple terms—love and hate, revenge and honour, victory and defeat. They love a good Ram Leela over Swan Lake, anytime.
The victory of the new political class that has Jyoti among its members is marked by the passing of an age. The old system had gone soft, sunk in the memories of Macaulay and Mahatma, snoring in the afternoon sunshine of gentle Nehruvian and Lohiaite decay. The line between national leaders with cosmopolitan profiles and their rural lieutenants, who are encouraged to practise sectarian politics, is thinning. The simplification of India has begun, after its essential meaning was lost in the doublespeak of secularism and minority pandering. However, reimagining Bharat and reclaiming India through the Puranas would be meaningless if unaccompanied by the sophisticated mysteries of the Vedas and the limitless benevolence of the Upanishads.