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India: politics of renunciation, traditional and modern - Analysis




Following the victory of the Congress Party at the 2004 Parliamentary elections in India, Sonia Gandhi surprised everybody by renouncing the position of Prime Minister. The following analysis by an Indian political scientist, Pralay Kanungo, shows how her decision, and the controversy that preceded it, were intimately related to the background of Indian religious worldviews.

Source: www.soniagandhionline.com
Sometimes history springs stunning surprises. The 2004 Parliamentary elections in India is a perfect example. First, it caught all political pundits, psephologists and media on the wrong foot; in the Vajpayee vs. Sonia contest, everybody's forecast was clearly in favour of the former. Nobody really gave Sonia Gandhi even a remote chance of victory. Yet she became the winner defying all predictions. Secondly, Sonia Gandhi, when invited to take oath as the Prime Minister, stunned and silenced everybody by renouncing this most powerful position while obeying the dictates of her 'inner voice'. Manmohan Singh, Sonia's choice for the Prime Minister's office, humbly confessed that there were “very few instances in the world history of such sacrifice and renunciation.” Priyanka, Sonia's charismatic daughter, boasted that her mother's action epitomized “age-old tradition of renunciation.” Thus, Sonia's 'supreme sacrifice' all of a sudden transformed the political discourse in India to a Dharmic discourse resonating with a core element of Hindu philosophy and practice- renunciation.

Renunciation in Hindu traditions

What is renunciation? In common parlance, it is an act that transcends society. Vedic asrama system unfolds four distinct stages of human life: brahmacharya (studentship), grahstha (householdership), vanaprastha (retreat) and sanyasa (renunciation). Though every stage is unique in its own way, in the popular imagination, the last stage has always been found to be more attractive and fascinating. Scholars, however, differ in their perceptions of the place of renunciation in Hindu society. To Louis Dumont, renunciation is perhaps the best-known cultural ideal of Hindu society- 'a sort of universal language of India.' T.N. Madan on the contrary argues that it is not the renouncer (sanyasi), but the householder (grhastha), who occupies the centre stage of Hindu society.

The evidence of renunciation in India could be traced to the Upanisads, Vedas and Buddhist literary sources. Asokan insciptions(third century BCE) also mention this tradition. Patrick Olivelle, an authority on the subject, rightly suggests that social, economic, political, and geographical factors along the Gangetic valley during the middle of the fist millennium BCE contributed to the growth of ascetic institutions and ideologies. Agricultural surplus, population growth, state formation, urbanization, and emergence of merchant class became the new features of the period, which cultivated individualistic spirit, ambition, strategy, drive, and risk-taking and became conducive to the practice of renunciation. Manu's Dharmasastra (first to third centuries CE) interpreted renunciation as an act of purification from sin and defilement, thus making a connection between penance and renunciation. However, while normal acts of penance are undertaken for a brief period, renunciation is undertaken for life. During medieval period, Bhakti sects redefined its meaning as a withdrawal from worldly concerns in order to focus solely on God.

Renunciation, during Vedic period, was an elite affair; it was restricted to twice-born males; neither women nor lower caste men were permitted to practice it. Since post-Vedic period, prohibition on women and non-Brahmins studying the sacred Vedic texts or participating in Vedic rites has effectively denied them embrace sanyas except as members of unorthodox sects. Some Bhakti sects, which promoted egalitarianism and radicalized religion and society, though opened up possibilities for lower castes to become renouncers, still women were denied entry into the major religious Orders. As renouncer's wandering life implied a strong expression of unrestricted freedom, it was not 'appropriate' for women. During modern period, however, Arya Samaj provided greater scope for the women ascetics; Vivekananda also planned for a monastic order for women.

The ideal of renunciation constitutes the core of Hindu religion and philosophy. From Rama to Buddha to Gandhi epitomized the ideal of renunciation. The renouncer was expected to be away from family, sex, permanent residence and property. In Vedic period, Brahmins derived moral authority primarily from their adherence to austerity and non-attachment to worldly possessions. Gradually their 'moral authority' extended its hegemonic arms over the kings as well as the commoners. For instance, every king needed a teacher (Guru) not only for religious or spiritual guidance, but also for political consultations on issues ranging from governance to warfare. Moreover, vis-a-vis a commoner, a renouncer always projected a larger than life image, commanding awe and respect. Hence, as J.C. Heesterman rightly suggests, renunciation or the wish for transcendence never really wholly repudiates the human world but rather encompasses it.

Sonia's renunciation: modern context

In this backdrop, Sonia's renunciation needs a deeper examination in the contemporary context of Indian politics. Sonia Gandhi proved herself an exceptional leader, who almost single-handedly led her comatose party to electoral victory in the 2004 Elections against all adverse and hostile conditions, particularly in the midst of a fierce campaign launched by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the question of her foreign origins. Her electoral victory established beyond any doubt that to the Indians, her foreign origins did not matter. However, some critics underplay the political maturity displayed by the Indian electorate when they interpret the mandate as “fascination for white skin.”

Hindu nationalist strategy against Sonia

Stung by their shocking defeat, the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), devised a strategy to deny Sonia Gandhi her legitimate constitutional right to become the Prime Minister. The weapon was the same old one-Sonia's foreign origins.

Three lieutenants-one man and two women-were assigned the anti-Sonia mission: Govindacharya, Ms. Uma Bharti and Ms. Sushma Swaraj. Incidentally, though the former two claim to be renouncers, they are intensely attached to the political world. While Govindacharya is a RSS pracharak (preacher), who has remained a bachelor and leads an austere lifestyle, he has also earned the reputation of a master political strategist. Soon after the announcement of the results, he abruptly came out of political hibernation to steer a 'Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan' (National Self-Respect Movement) to mobilise public opinion against Sonia. Projecting Sonia as a symbol of colonialism, he argued that her elevation to the position of Prime Ministership would have “grave implications for our identity as a nation and civilization.” Evoking memories of national freedom struggle against colonialism, he called upon political leaders to renounce their positions of power and join the fight against Sonia to regain India's freedom. He proposed to launch a series of programmes to create a mass awakening and to work for the restoration of India's Atma Gaurav (Self Respect).

Uma Bharti, a Sanyasini with a mercurial temperament, who has emerged a powerful Hindutva icon since the days of Ayodhya Movement, became the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 2003. She argued that India's security would be threatened because a person of foreign origins “will have access to all the confidential files.” Sending in her resignation to her party, she proceeded to the holy shrine of Kedarnath in the Himalayas to seek blessings for anti-Sonia mission.

Sushma Swaraj, in contrast, is not a renouncer. She has rather carefully cultivated the image of an ideal Hindu wife, with Sindoor (vermillion) and Mangal Sutra (auspicious necklace) as her trademarks. Interestingly, she also took pledge by the rhetorics of renunciation: “If Sonia Gandhi becomes the Prime Minister of this country I will definitely resign from the upper house. I will fight as I have vowed not to wear coloured clothes, tonsure my head, sleep on the ground and eat chickpeas. This will continue till she is the Prime Minister.” Sushma's vow to perform such penance was an attempt to elevate her status from a householder to a renouncer. While invoking the symbols of renunciation Sushma perhaps did not realize that she was glorifying the practice expected from Hindu upper caste widows, who, after the death of their husbands, are forced to shun material pleasure and lead a sub-human life under the pretext of renunciation.

Thus, both Uma and Sushma attempted to generate sympathy and hype under the facade of renunciation to fight a hard political battle. Their invocation of renunciation had nothing to do with love, compassion, detachment or pursuit of higher spiritual values; its objective was simply to deprive another woman her political right, as Indian constitution grants all citizens equal rights and does not make any discrimination on the ground of place of birth.

Supreme act of renunciation or political masterstroke?

Before the campaign took off, Sonia Gandhi turned down the offer of Prime Ministership following her 'inner voice'. She announced: “Today it tells me that I must humbly decline this post.” Firmly rejecting the prayers of her party colleagues to revert her decision, she repeated again: “It is my inner voice, it is my conscience.”

Though it was the most astonishing act of renunciations of political power, ironically her political stature soared leaps and bounds. Renunciation elevated her to a much higher pedestal-political as well as moral-than any Prime Minister could have reached in normal circumstances. She instantly became the darling of the nation commanding admiration and reverence. 'Supreme Sacrifice' made her 'Saint Sonia' overnight and Indians compared her with Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Why did Sonia take such a step? What were her objectives? Was it an act of supreme sacrifice or a political masterstroke? An objective analysis would perhaps explain.

First and immediate, Sonia's decision disarmed Hindu Nationalists of an emotional and explosive agenda. The claims made by her Hindu Nationalist opponents that she was forced to retreat under their pressure, might be an exaggeration; but Sonia certainly understood their potential of precipitating a pernicious campaign in case she assumes office. By renunciation, she successfully took the steam out of their proposed xenophobic campaign.

Secondly, by reinforcing her faith in one of the strong pillars of Hinduism, Sonia acquired an aura of higher spiritual virtue thereby banishing slurs about her Italian origins. Her extraordinary action demonstrated her genuine commitment to Hindu traditions; while she actually practiced renunciation despite her foreign/non-Hindu origins, her critics belonging to Indian/Hindu origins like Uma Bharti and Sushma Swaraj were only indulging in rhetorics and gimmicks. Sonia certainly outmaneuvered her opponents in the game of competing renunciations, and thus effectively demoralized Hindu nationalists.

Thirdly, by nominating Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, as the prime minister, she not only sent a secular message across, but also won back the confidence of Sikh community which the Congress Party has lost since 1980s. Moreover, the selection of Manmohan, known for his integrity and competence, enhanced Sonia's credibility as an independent and intelligent leader.

Fourthly, Sonia's sacrifice may be seen as a long-term strategy of creating space for her son/daughter as natural inheritors of Gandhi-Nehru legacy and making his/her succession smooth in future. Sonia's new avatar as a renouncer is likely to click when she asks mandate for her children.

Fifthly, though Sonia sacrificed the Prime Minister's office, she remained numero uno in the Congress, the leader of the party in Parliament, got a cabinet rank, and became the Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance. Moreover, she handpicked the Prime Minister. All these demonstrate an extraordinary concentration of power which is least desirable in a democracy. Hence, critics point out to the emergence of Sonia as the 'Super Prime Minister' and crystallization of 'dual power centres', etc. However, there seems to be an understanding between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi; while the former will act as the Prime Minister and the run the government, the latter would play the role of the politician and leader of the party. Any temptation on Sonia's part to transgress the boundary, for which she does not have legitimate authority, would not only be an unhealthy democratic practice, but also it would ruin the very spirit of renunciation.

Thus, political pragmatism certainly compelled her to adopt the path of renunciation. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to suggest that Sonia's action does not reflect a spirit of renunciation. Politics has been too cruel to her by snatching away her husband and mother-in-law. She strongly declined political power when her husband was assassinated in 1991. She was extremely reluctant to enter the political arena; had little choice though. As a 'novice', though her political journey was tough and painstaking, she learnt the art of survival quite fast. However, during the course of her journey she did not dispense with ideals and values. It is remarkable that Sonia decided to turn down the lure of the highest political office under the influence of her 'conscience' and 'inner voice'-a rare act indeed in the domain of power politics. Hence, Sonia's renunciation should not be misconstrued as mere political pragmatism; it reflects spiritual idealism as well.

Pralay Kanungo



Pralay Kanungo is Associate Professor in Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He taught at Delhi University and was a Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. His publications include RSS's Tryst with Politics: From Hedgewar to Sudarshan (New Delhi: Manohar, 2002).

© 2004 Pralay Kanungo


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