(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books, three volumes of poetry and a novel recently long-listed for the DSC Prize.)
Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' is a play about personal loyalty, political conspiracy and public anger. In it, a seer warns: 'Beware the Ides of March'. Well, that would be about now, mid-March - perhaps as good a time as any to take stock of the drama of political loyalties in India.
Loyalty, we know, is a prime value in the Indian political scenario. Caesars, first families and coteries around 'tall leaders' abound in almost every party and loyalty to them is accounted a major virtue. The Congress, for instance, has long gathered round the Gandhis. Likewise, loyalty to Arvind Kejriwal within AAP, if the recent violent dissension within this young party is any indication, marks a deep schism within it. The BJP is harder to read owing to the massive mandate that it received in the General Elections, but even here, rumours are rife concerning the centralization of power - and where there is any hint of concentrated power, there is always the possibility of 'conspirators' waiting in the wings who can easily turn from being friends to becoming foes.
Politics is about the irresistible forces of dissension meeting the immovable forces of loyalty. Awful damage can be caused during this process without any necessary benefits finally resulting. In India, we call it a 'manthan' (churning) from which the hope is that some drops of 'amrit' (divine nectar) will be produced. Shakespeare's vision seems bleaker. What is remarkable about his play is that it glamorises no one, conspirator, loyalist or even 'the public'.
Enter the conspirators
In a black-and-white moral universe, the conspirators, of course, should be the baddies. Led as they are by the honest senators, Brutus and Cassius, however, they turn out to be far from a gang of evil geniuses in Shakespeare's play. Brutus, indeed, is presented as a good man, a noble human being. Everyone, including Caesar himself, sees Brutus as Caesar's loyal friend. If, in the end Brutus 'betrays' Caesar, it is because he believes it is for the greater good of the Roman state. The play thus raises the hard, moral, question: Is Brutus and Cassius' 'conspiratorial' act really 'betrayal'? Or is it a deep commitment to 'saving democracy' from a charismatic leader's perceived will to absolute power?
These old Shakespearian questions certainly seem relevant let's say, for example, to the AAP party's present predicament. Few who has watched the drama play out in that party over the past couple of weeks with Yogendra Yadav (Brutus/Cassius?) and Prashant Bhushan (Cassius/Brutus?) apparently questioning Kejriwal's (Caesar's?) 'absolute power' can doubt this. "Hum chodenge bhi nahi, todenge bhi nahi. sudhrenge, sudhaarenge " (we will not flit, we will not split; we will improve ourselves, we will improve others) Yogendra Yadav has declared in an eloquent Shakespearean vein, immediately prompting the question: Is this really the voice of a 'conspirator' or a high-minded hero? A potential quitter or a man above the fray? And is Kejriwal, in his turn, justified in exclaiming 'Et tu, Brutus?' at Yadav's possibly well-meant but possibly hurtful censure? Is Kejriwal the one, far from the madding crowd on his naturopathic farm, the one who is really 'above the fray'? We may not have the answers to these dilemmas but Shakespeare's play helps bring them into sharp focus.
We know already from Vishal Bharadwaj's films, for instance, that Shakespeare translates well into Indian settings. In the present case, too, ancient Rome may have been where Shakespeare's 400-year old play was set but it could as well have been modern India. What he does for us in 'Julius Caesar' is to imagine a classic 'democratic society' and then hold the mirror up to it so that we can examine its flaws.
In this 'ideal democracy', individual loyalties and political ideals are in conflict. In such cases of divided loyalties, Shakespeare shows, ethical boundaries are just as blurred in realpolitik as in life. No choices between factions can be made with confidence. That is why the disarray we see among the mainly raw aam aadmi volunteers today seems to have a familiar feel. They are discovering, as in Shakespeare's play, the painful human cost of entering politics. Ashutosh's recent remarks about the 'unhappiness' of 'growing up' are not entirely off the mark in this context.
In 'Julius Caesar' the loyalists are, of course, represented by Mark Antony whose citizens' address beginning "Friends, Romans, countrymen" remains the epitome of the moving, yet polarizing, political speech. Current academic studies of political loyalty in the west focus on 'polarization' as well but they usually foreground 'voter loyalties' and how these are polarized across religious, regional and class lines. In India, however, 'Julius Caesar' is particularly resonant because it also references personal loyalties, less associated with political discourse in the west.
Under what circumstances can loyalty, a generally good quality, turn pernicious? This is a central question in Shakespeare's play. Mark Antony is ready to go to any lengths to avenge the death of his friend, Julius Caesar. His personal loyalty, in short, completely blinds him and, again, we are forced to ask: Is blind loyalty to someone, no matter how dear, ever justified? Especially in the political sphere, can total loyalty actually indicate moral failing because it could lead to 'betrayal' of the very people whom the political classes come into power to serve?
In India, we have to recognize that across the political spectrum, unquestioning political loyalty has become almost a pathology. It has led to shameless sycophancy, even a 'feudal courtier culture', lack of fearless and rational judgement and unwarranted punishment or 'banishment' for those who do not toe the party line. In its extreme form, absolute political loyalty can be seen as the opposite of free speech or, at any rate, of honest speech. It is, in fact, secret cousin to another word, namely 'opportunism'. Opportunism is sometimes presented in our political discourse as the antithesis of 'loyalty' but what Mark Antony's character in Shakespeare's play brings out is the kinship between these two concepts when each is pushed to its limits. Even a superficial reading of 'Julius Caesar' makes us aware of the poignancy of the moral dilemmas that attach to the 'simple' politics of loyalty in the present-day Indian context.
Exit the people, left, right and centre
Finally, there's the great Roman public, which we get to see in action as Mark Antony's words take effect. These ordinary Roman citizens are so incensed that they just go about destroying everything in their path. Their anger does not spare even the totally innocent like the poet Cinna who yells 'I am Cinna the poet!... I am not Cinna the conspirator!" This does not help him overmuch, though. He is torn to pieces anyway by an enraged mob aroused to fever pitch.
The Latin dictum 'vox populi, vox dei' (the voice of the people is the voice of god) was in circulation in Shakespeare's time, as in ours. But Shakespeare makes us question even the wisdom of the masses. In India, where we so often see lynch mobs go berserk; where we have, over decades, witnessed crowd fury provoked by political action (and sometimes, inaction) cause mass deaths among the innocent, we recognize only too well the disturbing truths Shakespeare reveals in 'Julius Caesar'. We also note that politicians seldom come to grief during these bouts of fury; they survive, even triumph. It is the helpless, like Cinna, who suffer. That is the bitter message of the ides of March.
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