The Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata carries a curious episode. Just as the actual war is about to start, Yudhishthira, to the bewilderment of both sides, walks unarmed into the Kaurava formation. It turns out that he was seeking the blessings of Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, and Shalya before offering battle to his elders and his teachers.
Each of them blesses him, and adds that he will pray for Yudhishthira’s victory. But Vyasa also places the same words of explanation into the mouths of each of the four — “Arthasya purusho daaso daasas tava artho na kasya chit; Iti satyam mahaaraaja baddho’smy arthena kauravaih.” (Man serve ‘artha’ but ‘artha’ is the servant of no man; this is the truth, o king, that I am bound to the Kauravas by ‘artha’.)
The sentence has been a perennial problem for translators, many of whom render ‘artha’ as ‘wealth’. That does no justice to the many shades of meaning in the Sanskrit word; nor does it make much sense. (Wealth in itself held little attraction to a fabulously wealthy monarch like Shalya, and even less to Bhishma.) The closest you can come to conveying the actual meaning is ‘worldly success’ — not just money, or power, or even high office, but those intangible emotions such as friendship, loyalty, or pride in keeping one’s word.
Those last are excellent virtues in themselves but it is not for nothing that Indian thought has always drawn a distinction between ‘artha’ and ‘dharma’.
Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa might have thought that they were fulfilling their duty by fighting on behalf of Duryodhana. Shalya, who was tricked into supporting Duryodhana, might have thought he was upholding the Kshatriya tradition in keeping his word. But it could be argued that in doing their duty by Duryodhana they were betraying the higher dharma, to their people.
The Mahabharata is a disconcerting work. The plea of being bound by ‘artha’ has already been answered, by Krishna himself, when he went to Hastinapura to make one last attempt at peace. There, he sets out the issue with chilling precision:
“Tyajeth kulaarthe purusham, graamasyaarthe kulam tyajeth; graamam janapadasyaarthe, atmaarthe prthiveem tyajeth.” (‘Abandon a man for the sake of the clan. Abandon a clan for the sake of the village. Abandon a village for the sake of the nation. Abandon the whole earth for the sake of the soul.’)
Krishna knows that Duryodhana and Shakuni are beyond redemption. He is challenging not the headstrong Kaurava prince but the elders — Bhishma, Drona, Kripa — asking them if they have the courage to do the right thing.
The question implicitly posed by Krishna in ancient Hastinapura still resounds in modern Indraprastha.
Dr. Manmohan Singh and A. K. Antony are the Bhishma and the Drona of today. Nobody doubts their personal integrity but the real question is whether they are betraying their higher duty.
In shielding Robert Vadra one may be dooming the Nehru-Gandhis. In shielding the Nehru-Gandhis one may be dooming the Congress. In shielding the Congress one may be dooming the entire political system. Is the price worth the sacrifice?
Arvind Kejriwal’s case against Robert Vadra may be summed up in a single sentence — Robert Vadra, in conjunction with DLF, transmuted a sum of Rs. 50 lakh in 2007 to a fortune of Rs. 300 crore in 2010.
Without going into the mechanics of who paid what to whom, or when, this marks a six hundred fold increase in three years, not bad going in the middle of the worst economic turmoil since the Great Depression.
Nobody in the Congress — not one person — denies the facts of the case. They can scarcely do so, since Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan were reading from company balance sheets, annual statements, and a judgment by the Punjab & Haryana High Court.
Yet the Union Finance Minister says he sees no reason for an investigation. The Union Corporate Affairs Minister goes a step further, saying that he has examined Robert Vadra’s papers — and sees no need for a probe. And the Union Law Minister dramatically declares that he is even willing to die for Sonia Gandhi.
Each wretched statement digs a deeper hole for the Congress, which, like it or not, is still India’s only truly national party. I sincerely believe we need such a political formation. The Congress should not be thrown away for the sake of shielding Robert Vadra.
But why should we stop at poor Dr. Manmohan Singh and A. K. Antony? Arvind Kejriwal was not just questioning an individual named Robert Vadra; whether or not that was his active intention, he was blowing the lid off a conspiracy of silence that involved the political establishment and even, let us face it, the media.
Various people have admitted—off the record, of course—that the B.J.P. had the same ‘Vadra File’ that Arvind Kejriwal used to such devastating effect. The same papers were held by at least one other media house. And, if the rumours are correct, one or more business houses also had the same information.
You can understand why business houses would not publicise such information; as long as secrets remain secret they can be used to extract favours. But why did no media group carry the story after ‘The Economic Times’ wrote about it? (And even that was not followed up.) Above all, why did the B.J.P. not speak out?
It is possible that the B.J.P. strategy was to wait until the next General Election was on the horizon. But most people will be left with the perception that it was because of a quid pro quo between the B.J.P. and the Congress — if you don’t examine disproportionate assets held by our sons-in-law we won’t bring up disproportionate assets held by your sons-in-law.
Yes, Dr. Manmohan Singh and AK Antony need to do a bit of soul-searching. But so does the rest of the establishment—politicians and media alike. We were trying to play by “the rules of the game”—where the only real rule was ‘Don’t ask embarrassing questions in public’.
Could Bhishma and Drona have averted the horrors of Kurukshetra had they made it clear to Duryodhana that they would not stand by silently while he hatched his mad plots? We will never know because they chose to prop up a dishonourable regime.
Bhishma and Drona lost everything—Duryodhana, all of Dhritarashtra’s line, Hastinapura, and the entire Kuru kingdom. In sticking by Robert Vadra—refusing to condemn him outright, anyhow—what are we risking?
(A veteran columnist, TVR Shenoy is a former editor of The Week and Sunday Mail).