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Why kings don't leer
All power comes from the preservation and sublimation of the vitality that is responsible for the creation of life" - Mahatma Gandhi, as quoted in Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph's book, Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays.
Long before Anna Hazare boasted about the power of his brahmacharya in response to Lalu Prasad's dig to reveal the secret behind his 12-day fast, Gandhi had extolled celibacy as a means to self-realisation and self-discipline, without which he wouldn't have been half the leader he was, or developed the mental and physical energy to steer the freedom movement. In their essay on "Self Control and Political Potency", the Rudolphs, both distinguished political scientists formerly with the University of Chicago, refer to a telling piece of self-analysis by the Mahatma in which he acknowledges that it was from "experiments in the spiritual field that I derived such power as I possess for working in the political field". From time immemorial, Hindu political thought and Indian mythology have revered the celibate public figure. It was not just abstinence from sex that bestowed the special aura. The spirit of renunciation and the ascetic lifestyle that are essential to the practice of brahmacharya were seen as power-enhancing functions for ideal political conduct. The Manusmriti details it rather graphically while Chanakya, the wily brain behind the surge of the Mauryan empire, too develops the theme in his political teachings.
Not much has changed over the centuries. Celibacy in its broadest sense, or what the Rudolphs call ethical or inner restraints, is still considered a prized asset in a politician. Gandhi set the bar very high but what has come to be known as the Gandhian way of life remains the yardstick by which Indian political figures are measured. Anna Hazare's simplicity and his open contempt for power-hungry politics had as much resonance as his anti-corruption slogan. Surprisingly, he was a hit even with the youth who are generally believed to be yearning for smart, savvy, hip politicians like US President Barack Obama or UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA (University of California in Los Angeles), explains it succinctly. "One of the ways in which you get power in India is to renounce it. Anna Hazare holds no office at all. He simply harnessed the power of his brahmacharya to become a major figure who wields amazing influence today, " he points out. In a similar vein, note the halo Sonia Gandhi acquired when she refused the post of prime minister after the 2004 elections. At that time, her decision to step away from institutional power was seen as renunciation in the true spirit of brahmacharya.
It is interesting how many Indian politicians have played on their unmarried status to create a celibate persona that would appeal to voters. His self-proclaimed commitment to brahmacharya was a recurrent theme in Narendra Modi's re-election campaign during the 2007 state polls. In fact, he has cleverly weighed it against the Congress party's dynastic obsession to paint a picture of honesty and selfless dedication.
Mamata Banerjee made an emotional declaration in front of a rousing crowd in Kolkata on the eve of the West Bengal assembly election results, "I don't have any other family.... you are my only family, " she said. Mayawati's rallying cry through her 2007 poll campaign was, "Chamari hoon, kunwari hoon, tumhari hoon (I am a cobbler's daughter, I am single, I am yours). " And down South, in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa described her massive victory in the recent assembly elections as a "mandate against the dynasty of corruption". She was probably right. Reports of the voters' mood during the campaign suggested that people were thoroughly disillusioned with Karunanidhi's brazen promotion of his family. They saw it as the root cause of the corruption scandals engulfing the DMK.
Social scientist Madhu Kishwar, who edits the women's activist magazine Manushi, feels that celibacy is a particular advantage for women in public life. "Many in this country believe that those who think with the lower half of their bodies are dangerous. They believe that women who are not in control of their lower half will be exploited and misled. So they won't trust them as leaders. That's why it's so important for a woman politician to be celibate, " she insists.
The premium placed on celibacy here is in stark contrast to the family-oriented political style of Western politicians, particularly the Americans. US political leaders make it a point to take their spouses with them on their campaign trail. They also make it a point to be touchy-feely by holding hands and celebrating victories with a kiss on stage. In India, the family is sign of a leader's vulnerability. It's seen as a weakness that interferes with the dedication and resolve required for public service.
The RSS, for instance, imposes strict conditions of celibacy on its pracharaks. "The idea is that a pracharak should be free from all wordly distractions so that he can dedicate himself to the service of society, " says Seshadari Chari, former editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser. It's not that all Sangh workers are celibate. The married ones hold administrative posts, but the pracharaks are the backbone of the organisation and wield enormous power without ever coming upfront.
Lal believes there is an underlying sense in India, unlike in Western democracies, that politics is dirty business, that it corrupts and corrodes. Celibacy, or brahmacharya, is held up as the ideal route to acquire the special powers needed to remain aloof from its evil influences. The Manusmriti exhorts, "But when one among all the organs slips away from control, thereby a man's wisdom slips away from him, even as the water flows through the one open foot of a water-carrier's skin. "
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