Historical Siddhartha Gotama (Pali for Gautama), shorn of the burden of Karmic previous lives of Bodhisattvas and liberated from the moral code of the Jataka narrative, represents truly the first mass-leadership experiment of India. In actual philosophical/metaphysical/spiritual terms, Buddha did not propose anything that was not already propagated by the Vedanta. What He did was simply an act of liberation. He liberated the path to nibbana (Pali for Nirvana) from the ritualistic (also read as Brahminical) over dependence on Vedic strictures and re-presented it to the masses on a simplified platform. Therefore His sermons and teachings were mostly in Pali, while the gentry of His time looked down on languages other than Sanskrit with utter contempt.

Although the realm of His mass leadership was of the spiritual kind, He did have a far greater impact on the socio-political and economic lives of people, than what He is historically given credit for. In fact, most of the opposition to Buddha during His time and even afterwards by the existing societal leadership and the intellectual brigade was not because He changed the Vedic spiritual paradigm, but actually emanated from the huge mass following that He accrued.

Societal systems are always sceptical of the masses and mass leaderships, especially when they are liberated from the dogmatic parlances and propose creation of a new world order. Intellectual antagonism to mass leaderships is far more venomous, for unwashed masses are the bane of intellectualism, and mass leaderships hit at the very core of intellectual pretence. Intellectual engagements can at best be practised within the four walls among the elitist peers, but cannot be accomplished on a mass scale.

Post-colonial India has seen three different varieties of political mass leaderships:

  1. The Populist
  2. The Ideological (for a cause)
  3. The Identity Based

Leaders like Indira Gandhi or M.G. Ramchandran belonged to the first category and evoked huge mass following based on their populist pronouncements. Although there was some initial scepticism from the thought-leadership to this kind of blatant populism, it was eventually replaced by benign indifference. Sonia/Rahul Gandhi and the present Congress leadership represent the most evolved form of populism, wherein it has not only managed to get mass support but also has incorporated almost the entire intellectual brigade into the eco-system of left-liberalism.

Ideological mass leadership is a bit more complex and is usually revolutionary in nature and therefore relatively more transient. In India, the JP movement or the Ram Janam Bhoomi andolan or cultural nationalism represented that kind of ideological mass leadership which was aimed at challenging the existing body politic. Intellectuals are far less accommodative to ideological changes, for they have built-in argumentative structures running parallel to the existing systems that cannot be altered easily.

India being a mad house of caste, religion, region and language has always presented an opportunity to the Identity based mass leadership. The Mandalization of Indian politics created a platform that was more conducive to identity politics of the most opportunistic kind, but it is a fallacy to argue that there was no identity politics before the Mandal era (and apportion all the blame on to V.P. Singh and his poli-tricks), for Dravidian brand of identity politics had existed since much earlier. Intellectuals – represented in the form of newspaper op-eds and other published works of political commentary – did oppose this form of identity politics in the 80’s and 90’s, but the Mayawatis, the Thakreys, the Yadavs have all been immensely successful despite intellectual ridicule and elitist contempt. What is far more sinister is the 21st century intellectual bankruptcy in India represented by ridiculous attempts by the scholarly brigade to make peace with blatant caste-politics in the name of secularism and socialism.

Jataka commentary illustrates various Paramitas (perfections) that were practised by the future Gotama in his past lives. In one of His previous lives of Bodhisattva, He was born as a Brahmin who renounces the world and becomes a hermit. One day while taking a walk, he comes across a tigress that is so starved that she is contemplating eating her own cubs, whom she has just given birth to. The hermit jumps off the cliff and dies near the tigress so as to offer his own flesh to satisfy her hunger. This is an illustration of the perfection (paramita) of giving, and is shown as the future Gotama’s eagerness to achieve Buddahood by practising various paramitas. In reality this is nothing but moral populism! Gautama Buddha never practised any of these perfections, He had evolved from such populism and strictures, He did not pander to any particular groups of people or to ideology… He was a true mass leader in the purest form.

Imagine if mass political leadership in India can be liberated from its inherent dilemma of pandering, if mass leadership can be internalized for the greater long-term good of all the people, if mass political leadership evolves out of its self-imposed boundaries and offers a new tangent to India. A truly liberal society can be achieved when mass political leadership goes beyond populism, beyond identity politics and beyond ideology. It is not as if that the post-colonial India, burdened with Nehruvian secular-socialism, did not ever have such a mass leadership at the helm of affairs, but it was too short-lived and too constrained to achieve anything of significance. Truth be told, apart from Lal Bahadur Shastri, even Rajiv Gandhi did represent this truly liberated form of mass leadership for a brief period of time. Sadly, Rajiv Gandhi was bogged down by the establishment and was never able to rise above his coterie of sycophants and family hangers-on.

There is one mass leader in India today who does not pander to any caste or religious identity, who does not believe in populist dole schemes, who is not bogged down by ideological constraints and still remains popular with the masses. It is remarkable indeed that he is a ‘mass leader’ in the first place, for he has broken every rule mentioned in the manual for mass leaderships in India. He has razed tens of hundreds of Hindu places of worship to build roads and usher progress, yet Hindus love him (he had the temerity to condemn the Patel community for their skewed sex ratio and craving for the boy child and yet the Patels have solidly stood behind him). He is a backward leader himself but has never made a big issue of it or played the victimhood card. He has been berated by the mainstream news media and the intellectual brigade time and again for his alleged role in the riots (despite having been exonerated by every available legal discourse), yet the Muslims of his state are backing him and seeing through the double-standards of the intellectual brigade. He is the only leader in the country today who talks of reforms and market economy unabashedly, by organizing vibrant Gujarat summits with much fanfare, yet he gets the entire popular vote in election after election. Going against every school of conventional wisdom, which advises freebies for the hapless farmer, he gives them 24/7 power but also charges for it, and yet the farmers stand by him.

Today the gentry looks down upon him with utter contempt, for more than two millenniums after Buddha, he has again de-Sanskritized the path of nibbana in paving the way for the alternate destiny of India. Let the intellectuals and liberals remain in their ivory towers, for the unwashed masses understand the new age Pali language of the political idiom. Welcome to the idea known as Narendra Modi.

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Praveen Patil

Praveen Patil

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.