What Indian politicians can learn from Shakespeare’s play.
THE 400TH ANNIVERSARY of the death of William Shakespeare has come and gone and was dutifully registered in our media with a slew of articles about his continued relevance (‘Shakespeare@400’, Open, April 20th 2016). I must confess I wrote one myself in one of our more popular Yearbooks, under the title ‘Why Shakespeare Matters’. But all of us—myself included—did not actually pick up any of his great plays and try to relate it to India. That’s what I’d like to do.
I first read the play Julius Caesar as a required text in my English Literature class in the tenth standard at school, studied it intensively, and came to know it intimately. Even though Julius Caesar is little read outside Indian classrooms and rarely performed, many of the themes of the play resonate for me in the context of modern Indian political history.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not, of course, really about Julius Caesar. Its principal protagonist is the noble-minded and temporising Marcus Brutus, with an important supporting role for the charismatic but flawed Mark Antony, and, at the end, the looming shadow of Octavius, who will overthrow everything both men have strived for. But Julius Caesar is also about far more than the character and conduct of these individuals, however significant they may be. It is also profoundly about political themes that resonate deeply in a young and maturing democracy like ours.
The play, after all, is about power, its acquisition and exercise, its temptations and abuse, its dependence on public support and elite acquiescence, and the principles and values (honour, loyalty, fraternity, democracy itself) that undergird its place in free societies. It depicts the power acquired by Julius Caesar through military success and popular adulation; the fear amongst influential Senators and members of the Roman establishment that this power would turn into a dictatorship; the creation of a conspiracy motivated as much by jealousy and resentment as by democratic principle; the competing pulls (especially for Brutus) of personal loyalty and national duty; the manipulation of public opinion (first in favour of the conspirators, as Brutus explains ‘not that I loved Caesar less, but I loved Rome more’, and then against them); the skilful populism of Mark Antony (whose rhetorical prowess in swaying his audience is masterfully depicted by Shakespeare in the brilliant ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ speech); the fickleness and bloodlust of the mob (which in one searing scene kills the wrong Cinna, a poet, because he bears the name of the conspirator they have set out to kill: ‘It is no matter, his name’s Cinna’); and finally, since power abhors a vacuum, the ascent of Octavius, who will establish the very imperium that Julius Caesar was killed to prevent. There is no better play in Shakespeare’s magnificent oeuvre for a student of contemporary politics and human nature.
Three times in our nearly 70 years of Indian democracy, a national leader has become so popular as to threaten (in some critics’ opinion) the idea of democracy itself. Cassius’ observation on Caesar’s power—‘Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus, and we petty men/ Walk under his huge legs, and peep about/ To find ourselves dishonourable graves’—sounds like many similar comments made about India’s founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and the current leader, Narendra Modi.
Nehru was no threat to Indian democracy: on the contrary, it was he who instilled reverence for democratic institutions and practices in our country. He was a convinced democrat, who spent his 17-year prime ministership instilling the habits of democracy in his people; at the crest of his rise, he even authored an anonymous attack upon himself. ‘He must be checked,’ he wrote of himself. ‘We want no Caesars.’
When Nehru died, an earthquake rocked New Delhi on the day of his death, and many saw this as a portentous omen (the soothsayer in Julius Caesar saw omens too). Cynics—at home and abroad—waited for his survivors to fight over the spoils; few predicted the democracy Nehru had been so proud of would survive. But it did. There were no succession squabbles around Nehru’s funeral pyre. Lal Bahadur Shastri, a modest figure of unimpeachable integrity and considerable political and administrative acumen, was elected India’s second Prime Minister. The Indian people wept, and moved on.
Nehru never doubted that they would. He had spent a political lifetime trying to instil the habits of democracy in his people: a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. And indeed, his practice when challenged within his own party was to offer his resignation; he usually got his way, but it was hardly the instinct of a Caesar.
As Prime Minister—unlike Caesar—Nehru carefully nurtured the country’s infant democratic institutions. He paid deference to the country’s ceremonial presidency and even to its largely otiose vice-presidency; he never let the public forget that these notables outranked him in protocol terms. He wrote regular letters to the chief ministers of the states, explaining his policies and seeking their feedback. He subjected himself to cross-examination in Parliament by the small, fractious but undoubtedly talented opposition, allowing them an importance out of all proportion to their numerical strength, because he was convinced that a strong opposition was essential for a healthy democracy. (He obliged his ministers and civil servants to be just as respectful to Parliament.) If Julius Caesar had behaved like Nehru, he would never have come to an untimely demise at the hands of his own colleagues.
Nehru never forgot that he derived his authority from the people of India, as both Brutus and Antony sought legitimacy in the will of the Roman people. Not only was he astonishingly accessible for a person in his position, but he started the practice of offering a daily darshan at home for an hour each morning to anyone coming in off the street without an appointment, a practice that continued until the dictates of security finally overcame the populism of his successors.
During the 17 years of his prime ministry, Nehru got India accustomed to such attitudes and conduct. By his speeches, his exhortations, and above all by his own personal example, Jawaharlal imparted to the institutions and processes of democracy a dignity that placed it above challenge from would-be tyrants.
The central event of the play is, of course, an assassination. India has seen three assassinations of national political leaders. Unlike Caesar’s, though, none of these was aimed at the victim’s political power; each was linked to separatist sectarian strife, in pursuit of causes that were eclipsed or defeated not long after the assassinations. Mahatma Gandhi was killed in 1948, just five months after Independence, by a Hindu chauvinist who thought he was too friendly to Pakistan. Yet the Hindu chauvinism of the Mahatma’s assassin was tamed and subsumed into India’s secular polity. Similarly, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, enraged by her government’s military attack on terrorists holed up at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Once again, Sikh separatism was rubbed out through a combination of firm police action and political co-optation. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 was at the hands of Sri Lankan Tamil LTTE separatists, whose cause would be ruthlessly snuffed out two decades later by the Sri Lankan government’s victory in that country’s civil war.
Shakespeare seems to have anticipated such outcomes: Caesar’s assassination fails too, and the events it unleashes result in the triumph of a new Emperor who would go on to be even more powerful than the man assassinated in the name of liberty. In all three cases, as in Julius Caesar, the assassins succeeded in their immediate objective (the killing) and failed to achieve their bigger goals.
There are some more typically Indian moments in the play. The behaviour of the mob when Antony exposes Caesar’s mutilated corpse to their gaze—as they rush out seeking vengeance on whoever they can find, whether sinner or Cinna—will remind many in Delhi of the behaviour of Indian mobs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Innocent Sikhs, including many supporters of Mrs Gandhi, were attacked and even butchered in the mobs’ mindless thirst for revenge. Marc Antony’s revelation to the public that Caesar had left them everything in his last will and testament—that, in effect, he had died for them—spurred them on just as similar speeches about Mrs Gandhi’s devotion to the poor and the downtrodden incited Delhi’s frenzied rioters.
Indira Gandhi, however, did briefly seize untrammelled power by declaring a state of Emergency in 1975, and Caesar’s identification of himself with the nation echoed eerily in her party president’s slogan ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’. But she called a free election to vindicate herself, lost it, and surrendered office without cavil. Her instincts, too, were a democrat’s, not a Caesar’s.
In Julius Caesar the conspirators bring down a strong leader, plunge Rome into chaos, and are themselves supplanted by another strong leader. In India, a motley crowd of opposition parties combined to oust Indira Gandhi in the 1977 elections, only to dissolve into acrimony immediately afterwards, resulting in her return to power in 1980.
Narendra Modi has already begun to prompt comparisons to the Emergency-era Mrs Gandhi, but he lives in an era in which democracy is not only more entrenched; it is also buttressed by a panoply of institutions, from an independent judiciary to a free press and proliferating social media, which make authoritarianism considerably more difficult to impose.
Still, the echoes of Shakespeare’s play continue to sound in the ears of the Indian observer. His depiction of the Roman masses, in whose name power is wielded and whose support or disaffection can sway its foundations, is masterful, even cynical. The way in which the powerful rest their appeal on concern for the common man, for instance— Antony reminds the crowd that ‘When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.’ The tendency of leaders to identify their interests with those of the masses, which crops up repeatedly in the play, is a recurrent feature of India’s fractious democracy and populist political rhetoric.
Of course, some details of Shakespeare’s depiction would apply to any society.
There’s the inability of popular leaders to even contemplate the prospect of losing power, let alone being repudiated by their own supporters (when Mrs Gandhi called the elections of 1977, it was certainly not in the expectation of the resounding defeat that followed, and her surprise at the defection of some of her principal aides mirrored Caesar’s astonishment at seeing his closest friends stab him in the Senate).
Finally, there’s Shakespeare’s superb depiction of political rhetoric, especially in Mark Antony’s famous speech skewering Brutus (‘Was this ambition?/ But Brutus says he was ambitious;/ and Brutus is an honourable man.’) Indian democracy has thrown up a series of masterful orators adept at swaying the masses with their speeches; it is said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi owes his position today more to his oratory than to any other quality, let alone any actual accomplishment.
Caesar’s thrice refusing the crown is cynically cited by Antony as proof of his disinclination for power, even as his actions and overweening ego took Rome towards despotism. Today, Modi’s backers point to his respect for democratic procedures even as his government appoints sympathisers to head universities, taints opposition to his policies as ‘anti-national’, and charges even a student leader with sedition. Judge leaders by their actions, not by their words, Shakespeare seems to be telling us—advice that remains pertinent in today’s India.
Power always abhors a vacuum, and democracies, even when they turn against strong leaders, soon want them back. An era of weak coalitions in the mid-1990s similarly saw the election of a strong BJP leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 1998. Ten years of coalition governance under the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Manmohan Singh led the Indian electorate to the man-on-a-white horse option of Narendra Modi.
Democracy, Winston Churchill famously wrote, is the worst system of government in the world, except for all the others. One of its defining characteristics is its unpredictability, since democracy reflects the wishes of large numbers of people expressed in the quiet intimacy of the polling booth. The voters of India have repeatedly confounded all the pundits and pollsters—in 2004 by placing the country in the hands of a governing coalition led by the Congress party, and then most recently by granting an overwhelming majority to the BJP of Narendra Modi in 2014.
SHAKESPEARE’S PLAY POSITS a clash between liberty and order. The Indian voter has long since resolved the ‘bread versus freedom’ debate so beloved of intellectuals: the question of whether democracy can literally ‘deliver the goods’ in a country of poverty and scarcity, or whether its inbuilt inefficiencies only impede rapid growth. Some still ask if the instability of political contention (and of makeshift coalitions) is a luxury a developing country cannot afford, but they do so with diminishing conviction. No one seriously suggests any more—as they were prone to when three governments fell between 1996 and 1998—that, as today’s young concentrate on making their bread, they should consider democratic freedom a dispensable distraction. Not only is democracy not incompatible with economic growth and progress, it is the only guarantee that growth and progress will be stable and self-sustaining.
India is united not by a common ethnicity, language, or religion, but by the experience of a common history within a shared geographical space, reified in a liberal constitution and the repeated exercise of democratic self-governance in a pluralist polity. India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for this dream; we in India have given passports to their ideals. Instead of what is sometimes known to Freudians as the ‘narcissism of minor differences’, in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. To stand the famous phrase on its head, India is a land of belonging rather than of blood.
The fact is that the idea of India (a phrase coined by Rabindranath Tagore and minted by many others since) is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree— except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The reason India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for 70 years, and that led so many to predict its imminent disintegration, is that, unlike Caesar’s Rome, it maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus.
Again unlike the Rome of Shakespeare’s play, democracy is also about how to lose, and that is something Indians have repeatedly learnt, as multiple changes of governments have confirmed. Democracy is a process and not just an event; it is the product of the exchange of hopes and promises, commitments and compromises which underpins the sacred compact between governments and the governed.
Equally, democracy is vital for India’s future. The Senators and grandees discussing the fate of the Roman Republic in Julius Caesar represent the antithesis of the Indian political ethos today. What is encouraging for the future of democracy is that India is unusual in its reach; in India, democracy is not an elite preoccupation, but matters most strongly to ordinary people. Whereas in the United States a majority of the poor do not vote—in Harlem in the presidential election before Obama’s, the turnout did not exceed 23 per cent—in India the poor exercise their franchise in great numbers. It is not the privileged or even the middle-class who spend four hours in the hot sun to cast their vote, but the poor, because they know their votes make a difference.
India remains a land of many injustices and inequities; yet it offers— through its brave if flawed experiment in constitutional democracy, secularism, affirmative governmental action and change through the ballot-box—the prospect of overcoming these democratically. That may be how it ultimately separates itself from Shakespeare’s Rome, where change could only be engineered by assassination.
The American editor Norman Cousins once asked Jawaharlal Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be. “Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves,” Nehru replied. The numbers have grown, but 700 million voters have demonstrated yet again to the world how completely they have absorbed his legacy. Caesar could not have said this. Five decades after Nehru’s death, that offers our nation a reasonable cause for celebration.
This article was originally published in Open.