From Shah Jahan to Narendra Modi is a long way. But we need to take note of it because it is a journey dictated by history and, like all such journeys, it opens a window to the making of the country. It brings out the contradictions that made India now a triumph of mankind, now a misadventure. In many ways, it is something of a wonder that Shah Jahan’s India and Narendra Modi’s India are one and the same. But are they?
Shah Jahan was no doubt a dictator, a military commander who always won because he had the most formidable army of his time: 9,11,400 infantry, musketeers and artillery men in addition to 1,85,000 cavalrymen commanded by princes and nobles who owed allegiance to him. This assembly of fighters helped him put down the revolts he faced. The Rajputs of Bundelkhand and the Deccan chieftains were among those who revolted. They were all forced to acknowledge Mughal supremacy and pay annual tribute to the Emperor.
An imaginative military innovator, Shah Jahan introduced the ‘Marwari horse’ in the battlefield. Various Mughal cannons were mass produced. “The empire became a huge military machine,” as chroniclers later put it.
But all that represented only one aspect of Shah Jahan, the less significant aspect as his career showed. His forefathers — Babur, Humayun, Akbar and Jehangir — were all rulers of distinction, making the Mughal period unequalled in the story of India. Distinguished as they all were, only Shah Jahan could love a woman the way he loved Mumtaz Mahal. Only Shah Jahan could moan the loss of a beloved the way he moaned the death of Mumtaz. Only Shah Jahan was a poet at heart. Only Shah Jahan could think of a mausoleum so magnificent, so emotionally rich that Rabindranath Tagore described it as “a teardrop of love”.
The Mughals represented a golden age. Their dreams defied limitations of time and resources. Who else could dream up the Peacock Throne, the bejewelled throne of emperors? The Mayur Simhasan was ascended by silver steps. Its golden feet were set with jewels. Two open peacock tails, gilded and enamelled and inset with diamonds and rubies and other stones formed the background. The vision (design in modern terminology) was entirely Shah Jahan’s. Imagine the modern rulers we know, anyone from Narendra Modi to Yogi Adityanath, having the imagination to visualise a design of the Peacock Throne’s distinction. The highest-level Modi’s design ideas could reach was the dark pinstripe suit repeatedly embroidered with the words “Narendra Damodardas Modi”. It became a public relations disaster for the Modi ego.
When national leaders have the full economic resources of the nation at their disposal, what they do with that wealth and that opportunity provides a commentary on their character and also the character of the country under their rule. Shah Jahan used the state’s resources to build several masterpieces. The Red Fort, Lal Quila, that symbolises Old Delhi was just one of them. The renovated Agra Fort, the Jama Masjid in Delhi and Agra are the best known among the others. The Peacock Throne was so enchanting that Iranian conqueror Nadir Shah took it with him back to Iran, only to lose it to the Kurds who dismantled it. Consider a mighty emperor spending his time and the talent of his craftsmen to create a throne that is both a work of art and a declaration of unequalled imagination.
Perennial masterpieces like the Peacock Throne and the Taj Mahal engaged the attention of those rulers because they had a vision that transcended their personal interests. Twenty-thousand workers laboured for 22 years to complete Shah Jahan’s memorial to his beloved Mumtaz. It was left to Tagore to immortalise that teardrop by saying: “Empires collapsed into dust, centuries faded away in shadow, but that marble still sighed upon the sky.”
A succession of noble-minded pioneers gave India a soul power that was extraordinary. That inner strength enabled India to sustain its greatness even under ordinary leaders. It is a truism that leadership matters in the growth of a nation. Whether it is Hitler or De Gaulle, Akbar or Narasimha Rao, the individual in the seat of power makes all the difference. The individual in India’s seat of power today is the single most effective force that matters in its growth. Democracy does not change this reality. So, the question remains: Is the individual in that seat good for our growth? What is his first priority — his country’s growth, or his own glory? People should ask. And people should remember the answer.