Byline by M J Akbar: Imagine a day of life in the Politician's life
Isn’t it extraordinary that the country with the largest Hindu population is unaware of the most remarkable holiday in Hinduism? The largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, declares a national holiday each year — this year, on March 26 — to mark Hindu-majority Bali’s day of silence, Hari Raya Nyepi Tahun Baru. This beautiful concept has been absorbed into the syncretic Muslim-Hindu culture of that unique nation.
We Indians are not averse to holidays, so we must be averse to silence. Since Hinduism went from India to Indonesia, the concept of Nyepi travelled the same route. Silence has been mislaid in the land of its origin.
The father of modern India, who could never resist the temptation of turning a virtue into a discipline, gave his voice a day off every week. Mahatma Gandhi would keep maun every Monday. If he had a meeting he could not avoid, say with a toff like a Viceroy, on a Monday, he would write down his answers on chits of paper and pass them on. It must have been a satisfying experience for the Lords of the Raj, because the British upper classes value eccentricity as a high art form.
One suspects that Gandhi had more than one reason for his wordless Mondays. One of the most strenuous demands on anyone in Indian public life is the pressure on vocal chords. In the case of Gandhi, it was an instance of unremitting pressure on divine vocal chords. People expected words of pure wisdom to flow each time he opened his mouth. What a relief, then, to take a day off from wisdom and words.
Gandhi surely had a supplementary use for maun. His closest moral relationship was to his conscience, and he used to be in continuous dialogue with his ‘‘inner voice’’. Every Monday he enjoyed the luxury of this conversation without interruption from the stream of supplicants looking for solutions to problems that should never have arisen. Gandhi’s ‘‘inner voice’’, which he called a ‘‘dictator’’, played a significant part in our history. Whenever he ran out of persuasive arguments to rationalize a decision, he turned to his conscience as the ultimate arbiter. Having made him their Mahatma, the others were duly stumped. If you begin to question the conscience of a great soul, then what is left of its mystique?
Such questions, even when leavened with mild levels of cynicism, are irrelevant today. Conscience is no longer a participant in politics. The only modern politician who attempted a weekly holiday for his voice, albeit intermittently, was the charming, urbane Ramakrishna Hegde: what a prime minister he would have made!
Since no government of India would dare risk its tenuous hold on popularity by celebrating silence, perhaps the Election Commission could impose the spirit of Nyepi on our democratic process. It should order a day of silence every week during polling season. Could you imagine the bliss of 24 hours without the prattle of commentators, the flinging dung of accusation and response, the flabby and often tired arguments of spokesmen irritated by the pesky demands of television but fated by their karma to become familiar to millions who can vaguely recall what they look like but have no idea what they said?
There is one potential danger, though: the voter might get confused. So far silence has been the voter’s prerogative, and he has become a master at the art, honing its many nuances to brilliant effect. This is why no one really knows what the outcome of an election will be. A candidate might sense the feel on the ground, but no candidate can afford to believe that he does not have support, or the psychology of defeat will ruin him long before the voter does.
Voters enjoy their right to silence, and protect it with great care from the intrusive opinion-pollwallahs who arrive with question board and notepad to photograph his mind. His expertise in posing for a false photograph, creating an image three frames away from reality, is becoming legendary. The honour of the last word goes to that splendid Malayali warhorse, Karnunakaran, who has been in politics for six decades. When asked who would win, he answered, ‘‘In every constituency whoever gets the most votes will win.’’ Touche, maestro!
On Nyepi in Bali a priest (sengguhu) exorcises an evil force (bhuta) from the island. Come to think of it, that is what the electorate does as well.