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Indian Politics as Abol Tabol

We cannot predict who will lose or gain politically in the long run, but in the short run, nobody cares. As serious issues are condensed to just votes, people get a jumla a day.
narendra modi

File Photo.

When Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray’s father, published his best-selling riotously hilarious collection of nonsense verse under the title Abol Tabol (1923), he could scarcely have imagined that a hundred years later, someone would steal the title to explain the essence of contemporary Indian politics. Abol tabol is a Bengali expression that means ‘meaningless’ or ‘gibberish’ (bakwaas, in Hindi-Urdu). It unwittingly captures the fate of contemporary India’s political narratives: constructed today, deconstructed tomorrow, and perpetually in a state of reinterpretation. Total abol tabol!

First, it was Maharashtra, then it was Bihar. Look closely, and the trick is much the same, and yet each side claimed righteousness solely for itself. A section of the ruling coalition switched sides, and the government collapsed. In Maharashtra, it was a revolt by a section of the Shiv Sena that resulted in the collapse of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government and the return to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), albeit under the putative leadership of the Shiv Sena rebel, Eknath Shinde.

Bihar was the mirror image of Maharashtra. Political machinations within the ruling BJP-JDU (Janata Dal United) coalition masterminded by JDU leader Nitish Kumar resulted in the ousting of the BJP from power and the recreation of the old ruling coalition between the JDU and Tejaswi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). It is difficult to predict who will lose or gain politically in the longer run, but in the short run, nobody cares! The victors are basking in the glory of their immediate spoils and have already started calculating probable seats in the 2024 parliamentary election. After all, both states matter a lot in national politics: Maharashtra sends 48 members to Parliament, Bihar 40.

Hardly had the dust from Mumbai and Patna settled when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came out with his latest gimmick. His Har Ghar Tiranga forced the opposition parties on to the back foot. Although they knew that it was out-and-out a gimmick, they dared not say so lest they be dubbed anti-national, a term that in Modi’s India has come to connote what blasphemer connotes in an Islamic state.

A word on gimmicks is imperative here. In Indian parlance, a gimmick is jumla. The word was popularised by no less than Modi’s right-hand man and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. The episode should have embarrassed Modi, but surprisingly it did not. As the Gujarat chief minister, Modi had enthused his audience by promising them that once he became prime minister, he would see to it that every penny of India’s black money hidden away in foreign banks would be retrieved and redistributed among all Indians. Each family would stand to receive at least 15 lakh (1.5 million) rupees as a result. Some years later, when Shah was asked what happened to that grand promise, he was triumphantly dismissive: Oh, that was just a jumla (gimmick)! Had I not known Indian politics as abol tabol, I too would have been surprised. Indian voters, like me, doubtless have an enormous appetite for (dark) humour.

Patrick Jake O’Rourke, the American political satirist who died recently (15 February), had said, “Politics is a necessary evil, or a necessary annoyance, a necessary conundrum.” While most of us would broadly agree with his remark, in India, it would probably be more appropriate to say that politics is also the biggest entertainer. As a result, every serious matter is reduced to just votes, which in turn depends upon using a new gimmick to distract voters during the election season.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this gimmick culture is that leaders are seldom asked to show their report cards. As Prime Minister, Modi now leads the herd with aplomb unprecedented in India’s democratic history. It is a myth that he and his BJP bask in the glory of India’s past, they actually flog India’s future greatness. If I start listing these promises by quoting his exact words, this column and several succeeding ones will prove insufficient.

My sense is that most Indians are sensible enough to realise that Indian politics is largely abol tabol. But since they have not been sufficiently sensitised about such believe-it-or-not challenges, they do not ask themselves these questions. The result is that even after 75 years of independence, India’s politics is largely community-centric or caste-centric, leaving little room for demanding from the parties a report card of their outlandish promises and their extremely limited fulfilment.

There is a yawning gap between what we are made to believe and what the reality is. Here is a checklist. My guess is that most respondents will say “don’t agree” to most of these statements. If so, are they not simply acknowledging that despite so much abol tabol routinely being dished out to the Indian masses, they don’t see the need to question any of it? Judge for yourself, which one isn’t abol tabol?

  1. RSS is a cultural organisation with no involvement in politics.

  2. Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is a saint for whom politics is an extension of his spirituality.

  3. Rahul Gandhi wants to remain de-facto Congress party chief forever without asking for an inner party election but claims his party is democratic.

  4. Hindutva will put an end to the Hindu caste system. The BJP’s manipulation of caste-centric vote banks does not fall in the category of caste politics.

  5. Those who support a beef ban in India and consider the cow as their mother would never settle in beef-eating America or Europe and would also prevent their family members from ever doing so.

  6. The ‘Hindu right’ says Ayurveda can cure every disease, which is probably why their leaders rush to the nearest super-speciality allopathic hospital, if not the West, the moment a critical ailment strikes.

  7. Jawaharlal Nehru was a total idiot who ruined the future of India thanks to his commitment to Hindu-Muslim coexistence and his emphasis on India’s industrial development. His memory should be completely wiped out from the pages of history.

  8. There is textbook-style internal democracy in BJP.

  9. Samajwadi Party believes in socialism.

  10. Bengali Hindus do not believe in the caste system. If almost everything is controlled by the KABAB (Kayastha, Bamun, Boddi upper castes), it is just because of divine providence.

  11. Nobody in the Trinamool Congress (TMC) can even dream of being corrupt.

  12. JNU is a white elephant meant only for the rich and ‘anti-national sickulars’. When the Modi government’s Finance Minister, External Affairs Minister, and others studied there, it was a one hundred per cent ‘nationalist’ university that ridiculed the Nehruvian ethos of secularism.

  13. India is Vishwaguru, a world leader. God only knows why thousands of Indians are leaving India to settle for good in the West. Their disease should be treated at state expense.

  14. The demand for Dravidistan is a fantasy never to be politically articulated because the economically impoverished yet politically powerful north Indian states will continue to wield a perpetual monopoly over central power.

  15. RSS believes India will be re-unified with Pakistan and Bangladesh, the leitmotif of which will be Hindutva.

  16. A war with Pakistan or China will be a walkover for India. Even in a two-front war, India will prevail.

  17. Total privatisation will solve India’s educational and public health problems for all times to come.

  18. Money and crime have no place in the politics of India.

  19. The dictum that it is better to let ten criminals go unpunished than for a single innocent to be punished is the USP of India.

  20. BJP is a party with a difference.

  21. Most Indians are vegetarians.

  22. All abandoned cows in the Hindi belt have found respectful shelter in gaushalas.

  23. Our bureaucratic and police bosses owe their power and position to the Constitution of India and not to those in power.

  24. India’s 15 per cent impoverished and politically marginalised Muslims are the real threat to the country’s 80 per cent Hindus.

  25. Political leaders who preach Hindi as India’s national language do not ever send their wards to English medium schools, leave alone to the West.

  26. BJP is the only party that does not encourage hereditary politics at any level.

  27. Congress never believed in anti-democratic draconian laws.

  28. Narendra Modi’s promises are etched in stone. What he commits he faithfully delivers.

Postscript: There is a poem in Abol Tabol that captures the logic of Modi’s unfulfilled promises with uncanny precision. Titled Khuror Koll (খুড়োর কল, The Uncle’s Contraption), it describes a contraption attached to uncle’s shoulder that ensures he is never late to anything: a rod that extends horizontally forward from the shoulder, on the tip of which dangles some food of his taste. The closer uncle wants to get to the food, the further along he walks. The hungrier he gets, the faster he runs. In the process he reaches his destination sooner than otherwise expected.

One may juxtapose this to Modinomics. First, Modi did not set any deadline for his promised achchey din (good days). Further, he changes his goal post so often that one loses track of his promises. New heights were reached this past Independence Day, when he offered his latest goalpost—the year 2047, twenty-five years from now. Of all the promises Modi has so far made, this is probably the most foolproof, for who in their right mind can take it seriously. About 70 years ago, AL Basham wrote his famous book, The Wonder That Was India. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi ever decides to write a book on India he will surely title it as The Wonder That Will Be India.

I wish Sukumar Ray was with us today. An Abol Tabol dedicated to twenty-first century Indian politics is a delicious prospect!

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was an ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.

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