During the Roman era, citizens would throng the roads of the city to cheer for victorious generals. The heroes would be taken through the streets in a horse drawn chariot and be accompanied by a trusted Gladiator known as an Auriga who took part in a peculiar ritual. While the general would be celebrated by the crowds the slave would whisper in his ear ‘Momento Mori’ or ‘Remember, you must die’. This served as a reminder to the military leaders that power like life is fragile and fleeting.
Power in all forms is either inherited, stolen, achieved or granted but maintaining a hold on power reveals the character and philosophy of the wielder.
Modern politics is a compelling study on power, with the debates today centring on the shrinking Opposition up against a powerful and efficient BJP under the guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. In less than 10 years, the political organisation has expanded its reach into uncharted territory, namely in the east while maintaining a powerful hold on the Hindi heartland. Traditional citadels and territories of the Congress and regional parties have fallen to the saffron juggernaut and in each election cycle, the party is charged and hungry. The BJP has gone from a formidable Opposition in the UPA years, to a political power with no challengers and only potential allies on the national stage.
Beyond ideology, policy and vision, the simple truth is that the BJP today is ready to work 10 times harder than its opponents to push its message and mobilise its base to the polling booths, mounting and evolving new strategies in new regions. The top leadership is of grass root workers who have attained power after years of toil and perseverance. That same thinking has breathed life into their multiple social schemes from Swachh India to Jal Shakti, making them well-known political brands beyond benign letters in a campaign manifesto. The spirit of the robust organisation gives the sense that to them power is fragile, a long journey to attain and even harder to hold on to.
For generations the Gandhis have inherited power. With no Opposition in sight, the dynasty mindset has left them unprepared for the challenges from a well-oiled, unrelenting electoral machine like the BJP. From the late 80s, through the UPA era till today, the Congress under the Gandhis has primarily brokered for power in the Centre and the states, scraping ahead of the saffron bloc and even joining unstable alliances to hold on to the reins of power. It has failed to outwork the BJP which has put in all of its resources in to 24×7 politicking.
Take the examples of Goa and Amethi. In 2017, Congress emerged as the largest party in the state with no unanimous majority. As they rested on their laurels hoping for an easy transition into power, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari spent one sleepless night rallying support from smaller parties, making the BJP-led bloc cross the majority mark. Even in defeat, they did not give up and the rag tag alliance continues to hold power in the state.
Even before the BJP’s rise in 2014, Smriti Irani was pegged as the next MP from the Congress bastion of Amethi. The challenge was made to Rahul Gandhi who inherited the seat from his family, but instead of doubling down to hold that prestige post, he allowed it to slowly slip away.
In one of his celebrated works titled The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli advises a young Medici pupil on power where he says, “Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”
With Rahul taking refuge in Wayanad, Smriti Irani’s victory in the 2019 polls shows she wanted to claim Amethi much more than Rahul wanted to keep it.
This is not to say that dynasts do not understand the nature of power, and the struggle needed to attain and keep it. In the wake of the 2014 elections with the TDP in the NDA camp, YSR Reddy’s son Jagan Reddy slowly evolved and built his party into a state level powerhouse, moulding his own political destiny after being cut out from the Congress. From a political novice, he stormed into power in the state and the Lok Sabha becoming an electoral force to reckon with.
Similar to the elements, power is neither inherently evil or good, it is never static and flows and evolves in everyday life. The power of men is ephemeral, with time the only constant for all those eyeing the throne. In that limited field, to constantly toil, re-invent, evolve and persevere is the currency to hold and maintain power in a democratic setup. Machiavelli also wrote in The Prince that constant success requires evolution with the times, or a fall to ruin when the world is not in harmony with the status quo. From small villages to national narratives, it is a constant drive to harness the aspirations and imaginations of millions.
The BJP’s rise shows a hunger, discipline and an understanding of the impermanent nature of power which is missing from the Congress, facilitating the demise of a national political challenge. The Congress seems to be waiting for the cycle of electoral politics to someday swing in their favour, while the BJP is powering ahead with long term plans to etch their legacy into India’s DNA. The BJP understands that power only resides where citizens believe it resides, where small men can cast large shadows. They are digging wells while the Congress is waiting for rain.