When a politician mobilises the image of being an ascetic, or increasingly now, when a yogi becomes a politician, a fairly complex and seemingly contrary set of beliefs are put into play. I have always found it mysterious how Indian politicians and ascetics have swung both ways, with an unusually high success rate. Why does it work so well?
There is a deep seated obsession with the ascetic in the collective Indian psyche. If there is one psychological attraction that unites Indians across caste, creed, gender, it is a veneration for asceticism. In a largely conservative society that India is, the ascetic is allowed all manners of deviance. He is allowed to shed clothes without being charged for obscenity, be sexually indiscriminate without being considered immoral, amass limitless wealth without being identified with the wealthy, and permitted to perform acts and consume substances that others will be incarcerated for. The ascetic occupies categories of being without belonging to them, never shackled to them. In this sense, the ascetic is the truest actor; he does not believe in the ways of the world, yet continues to exist in dimensions of perception through which he must necessarily be experienced. Shiva is worshipped for being the greatest ascetic. Shiva is also the lord of performance - “Among the greatest of the names of shiva is Nataraja, Lord of Dancers, or King of Actors. The cosmos is his theatre, there are many different steps in his repertory. He himself is actor and audience.” (from Coomaraswamy’s The Dance of Shiva). Aptly, the new academic session at National School of Drama begins with an ode to Shiva every year.
The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis, which means "training" or "exercise". The original usage did not refer to self-denial, but to the physical training required for athletic events. Athletics of identity? Athletics of personhood? Athletics of ethics, of politics? In his essay ("What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?") Nietzsche discusses what he terms the "ascetic ideal" and its role in the formulation of morality along with the history of the will. ‘A paradoxical action as asceticism might serve the interests of life: one can express both ressentiment and the will to power’ he wrote. Are these the opposing forces that hold the figure together, the impossible figure of the ascetic-politician? To be an ascetic-politician is to inhabit a paradoxical state, to harbour both a hostility towards power and a craving for it. The more intensely taut these opposing forces become, the more powerful the figure conjured by the ascetic-politician becomes. The actor, the ascetic must perceive the world for its lies, yet continue to perform in the ways of the world, to cease attention from people, to move them, to win them. This is the paradox and surprisingly the currency of the actor-ascetic-politician. To evoke a psychic attraction of the people in him, the politician must be seen to renounce power, to attach to it no meaning, little value. This he must do to be able to finally cease power. This is the allure of Gandhi in his politics of exemplarity. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, ‘In times of crisis the question to ask is not what ideology, what party, what collective action? The question to ask is: What makes political action an exemplar that is credible in the eyes of others?’. Gandhi increasingly adopted the artifice of the Mahatma as he grew more popular among Indian people. He routinely declined offers to hold political office; the more he appeared to renounce obvious power, the more his aura acquired actual power. To preserve and expand on ascetic power, he must be seen to lead a life of abstinence, he must be seen to ‘un-belong’ - belong not to the government, not to his family, never to himself. To keep him poor was an expensive affair, a congress person had muttered casually once. For Indians, this is what sets Gandhi's legacy apart from his contemporaries like Nehru, one whose intellect and vision is increasingly discredited by citing his penchant for power and pleasures: relishing in coterie, indulging himself with parties, amorous friendships, and occasional dancing.
Our current politicians understand the alluring power of an ascetic all too well. They know that there is a culturally admiring, spiritually obeyant Indian psyche out there, which has been nurtured to revere the ascetic over centuries. And this is what the current political regime deploys as their most powerful weapon. The exemplary aspect needs to be on steroids to marry this symbol to communicative capitalism of 21st century. Welcome the three A’s of contemporary Varanasi- Adhyatma, Aastha, Aadhunikta (Spirituality, Faith, Modernisation). The ascetic-politician must hold these seemingly contradictory identities in the image of the people to gain absolute power. He must be seen to wield the modern state's power during the day (strong speeches, war mongering, paired with taking ostensibly bold actions), and be seen as a peaceful sage at night (meditating monk in a cave, on a pilgrimage barefoot, giving interviews that invoke a narrative of abjection, privation of material and appetite). He must be seen to be celibate (disown his wife), abandon regard for his family; he must be seen to work selflessly for the people, but never desire their admiration, always welcome their vitriol. By casting himself such, the ascetic-politician makes himself immune to all criticism that call his bluff. Infact, the rallying call of opponents pointing towards the inherent falsehood of playing both an ascetic and a politician - circulating memes disdainfully comparing him to self-serving film actors - only emboldens the image of the ascetic-politician as a true actor. An actor who everybody knows is only playing a part, never whole himself.
The central character in Shrilal Shukla’s novel Raag Darbari is Vaidyaji, the pivot of power in the village, one who exercises unrivalled control over panchayat, local elections, cooperative society. How? By being seen to detest it. By being seen to relinquish all desire for holding office or rank. Yet, he is able to amass unprecedented power in his hands, routinely spinning a web of rhetoric through spiritual platitudes, quotes from Sanskrit texts, and his penchant for whipping spontaneous aphorism. He is your ascetic-politician embodied, who will never insult his audience by speaking the truth, but will always appear to be acting truthfully. He never utters a single unethical word, not even in private, and yet he rules through the immorality of his soul. Vaidyaji is faced with the ultimate question of power in the end - how to build an enduring legacy. After all, legacy is ultimate power. More than wealth, wide-spread respect, or place in history books, more than anything you can imagine amassing in a span of a lifetime, to die a promised death, the promise to inhabit the collective conscience of all Indian people, and of all coming generations, to be immortal. A politician can live forever in the robes of an ascetic. This is how you get to live in India forever. This is how you fool all the people all the time.
Pic - Lohan the ascetic (sculpture or mask?)