A Marathi TV channel is running a serial on Bajirao I, the Peshwa (equivalent to Prime Minister) who can be said to have laid the foundation of the Maratha empire. He was only 19 years old when he took over as Peshwa and died at the age of 40. But in those short twenty years, he had conquered millions of square miles of territory from Gujarat to Malwa and strengthened the moorings to the empire founded by Chhatrapati Shivaji.
Bajirao created a number of sardars or commandants, including Gaekwads of Baroda, Scindias of Gwalior and Holkars of Indore. They ruled in his name and helped him in his northern campaigns. But whatever he achieved was not without opposition from within the Maratha court.
While the Peshwa ruled from Pune, the descendants of Shivaji lived in Satara, a few hundred miles away, and ruled from there. When Bajirao’s father died, the Satara rulers had to decide whom to appoint in his place. Bajirao was too young and inexperienced in the affairs of state. But the Satara kings picked him as their Prime Minister, even though he was not yet twenty.
So far, so good. What intrigued me, as I viewed the serial, was how within a few weeks, maybe a few days, of Bajirao’s appointment, backbiting began among the Maratha courtiers, with hints about Bajirao trying to usurp the king’s throne and take over the kingdom. There were broad hints about Bajirao getting too big for his boots or stirrups, and since he commanded a huge army-created by him-he would take over power without firing a shot. There were also innuendos about Bajirao’s caste-the Peshwas were Chitpavan brahmins while the Satara rulers were Kshatriyas. Ultimately, of course, the Satara rulers dealt firmly with Bajirao’s opponents and nipped the ugly affair in the bud.
This was three hundred years ago. After Aurangzeb’s death, the Moghul empire, or what remained of it, was floundering, and although the British were yet to show their teeth, it was clear that the empire would not last very long. The rise of warriors like Bajirao was a God-given opportunity to strike at the Moghuls and make a bid for the throne in Delhi. But it was precisely at this delicate juncture that Bajirao’s enemies were spreading rumours about him, forcing him to fight on two fronts, Moghul as well as domestic. The Moghuls and the Nizam tried to take advantage of this, but apparently did not succeed.
Things have not changed all that much in the last three hundred years, for bad habits die hard. There are no Peshwas now, no Marathas, no Moghuls and, of course, no Britishers. History has swallowed them all. There are only Indians but they still pull each other’s legs and make crab-like movements against each other. We seem to be our own worst enemies, even when there are no enemies in sight. We seem to be incapable of uniting against our foes, of whom there is no dearth. And when there are no outsiders to fight, we fight against one another and make things ever more difficult all around.
I think we should study this phenomenon of a divisive mind-set that seems to be peculiar to India. Even big business houses-or, for that matter, small ones-are not immune to it. In fact, the bigger the business, the more bitter the fight, with the whole family engaged on either side. Who would have expected the Ambani brothers to fight each other so bitterly and so soon after their father’s death? There is not a single Indian business family that has been able to escape it. Almost all Indian business houses have split right down the middle, including the biggest, the Birlas.
But not Tatas, who are Indians but not with the same mind-set. Tatas are older than Birlas and are still in one piece despite the business going through four or five generations. You don’t read about Tata siblings sitting together to think up ways of splitting their business, although the business is 150 years old. I wonder how they manage to stay together, while most of us cannot. Some Indian business families have virtually disappeared from the map and may vanish altogether in the next few decades.
This curse of divisiveness affects not only families and dynasties but also institutions including political ones. There was only one Indian National Congress fifty years ago. Now there are several. Everyone who breaks away from the Congress sets up his own Congress, as Indira Gandhi did in 1969, followed by Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra a few years later. There are so many Janata Dals, with suffixes after their names that one has lost count. There are three or four DMKs and even three or four Communist parties. This doesn’t happen in other countries.
Even the great Bal Gangadhar Tilak was not above all this. Within months of setting up his Deccan Education Society, he walked away from it, leaving Gokhale and others in limbo. The differences were purely personal, as they generally are. In fact, nobody knows what the real differences were and why Tilak broke away. Even when Gandhiji was alive Subhas Chandra Bose had left the Congress and set up his own show, though the differences in his case were more ideological than personal.
As I said, this doesn’t happen in other countries. There is only one Democratic Party in the United States and a single Republican Party though they are almost 200-year old. In England, the Conservative Party still goes strong and the Labour Party has not split. They seem to respect institutions more than individuals, which may be one reason why their democracies are more firmly established and can carry on without going under.
It is true that we have survived as a democracy, but survival is not enough. The strength of a nation depends on the strength of its institutions, not just the Parliament, but all institutions, including the all-important institutions of government. And this is where we have failed miserably because the political class has become so self-centred that it has no time for anything but its own narrow dynastic interests.
When an atom splits, it generates energy and can light up the entire universe. When a political atom splits, it absorbs rather than generate energy, so much energy that it leaves behind nothing but darkness.
(The writer can be contacted at 301, Manikanchan Apts, Kanchan Galli, Law College Road, Pune-411 004)