Published five decades ago, Shrilal Shukla’s satirical novel captures the culture of politics that has persisted in the country.
Published in 1968, Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari is a popular political satire for which he received the Sahitya Academy Award in 1969. As it enters the 50th year of its publication, it is worth visiting the world of Shipalganj, the village Shukla writes about in his novel.
Such a visit would be a journey into the culture of politics that has persisted in the country. This is what makes Raag Darbari relevant to our times. It answers questions that have constantly troubled students and scholars of Indian politics. The most important being – ‘Why do people trust and vote for persons who they know to be unworthy?’ Raag Darbari tells us why people defer to local authority structures, in response to the patronage and protection they offer, and get their work done in return for money but also loyalty.
Seen from the vantage point of Ranganatha, a city-bred university graduate, Raag Darbari is a story of the village via the ‘darbar’ of his uncle, Vaidyaji. Vaidyaji is not just the village medicine man. He is the fulcrum around whom the power structures of the village are built. It is at his behest that social and economic deals are struck. The village bureaucracy at the kutchehry, the thana, the panchayat, cooperatives and in the college are manipulated.
The Brahmins and the Thakurs are the two dominant castes that compete to control social and political power. Vaidyaji and Ramadheen constitute the two power blocs in the village. Both wish to dominate the village panchayat by stacking it with their own men.
Vaidyaji is also the manager of the local school, which gives him the handle to procure and manage funds. His two sons – Ruppan and Badri – manifest the duality of social and political power wielded by the vaidya. Ruppan is called Ruppan Babu – the suffix is an expression of obeisance and reflects the power he exercises on behalf of his father and often at his behest. He is the younger son, who is still in the school/college which his father manages, having failed in his school board exams for several years, and is considered a leader among the villagers.
Badri, the older son, is a pehelwan or body builder who does not himself participate in the meetings called by Vaidyaji, but is represented by his protégé Chote Pehelwan. Badri the pehelwan represents symbolic power, ponderous in bearing but content to remain reticent. Ruppan operates within society, tapping actively into it as an agent of surveillance for Vaidyaji, and also as an active mobiliser and troubleshooter.
Ramadheen is Vaidyaji’s adversary who wishes to take over the college and the village panchayat. His money is made through trade in narcotics. The moneylender, a ubiquitous feature in the lives of villagers to this day, figures in the form of Gayadeen.
Sanichar and Langad, whose names are reflective of their subordinate status, represent two strands in local politics. Sanichar is Vaidyaji’s servant who is made the village pradhan. He serves as a surrogate through and around whom Vaidyaji could spawn power. Langad, called so because of his ‘deformity,’ is a victim of the corrupt village bureaucracy. His rightful claims are perpetually deferred by the patwari’s office. But Langad himself insists on claiming his entitlement in the appropriate way.
Adult franchise was made universal in India after independence. It was expected that the expansion of franchise would make government accountable. An important component of this process was the belief that those in authority can be trusted.
Raag Darbari tells us that trust in political authority can never be absolute. Studies and surveys have shown us that trust in political authority has indeed, diminished. It is publicly acknowledged that money and muscle manipulate the composition and functioning of political power. Indeed, ‘crime pays’ in politics. In addition, political office has itself become a source for amassing wealth. Innumerable reports have shown how incomes of politicians or their family members have grown, in some cases exponentially, after they assumed office.
Surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies with Azim Premji University in 2017 have shown that people’s trust in political authority varies. Generic offices of political authority like the executive (the office of the prime minister, if not the man/woman) are considered trustworthy.
Yet, it is the army that is rated the highest in terms of ‘effective trust’ or being trusted absolutely by the people. The higher rating of a non-political body is because it is seen as selfless, distinct from the selfishness and corruption which marks the political class. This trust is also reflective of how in the recent past the army has become part of the political discourse of nationalism.
Significantly, institutions of political participation and representation at the local level – the gram panchayats and the nagarpalikas – enjoy higher levels of trust than parliament and state assemblies. The lowest levels of trust are seen for the police, government officials and political parties. Yet, the district commissioner and the tehsildar enjoy greater trust. Trust in the entire court system from the Supreme Court to the district courts persists.
The effectiveness and responsiveness of local institutional regimes matter to people, and those at the national scale may have only symbolic relevance. There appears, however, to be an increasing acceptance of corruption at the grassroots and simultaneously lack of trust in authority bred by familiarity with it.
Paradoxically, however, it is to the local structures of authority – political and bureaucratic – that people turn to, because of their capacity of ‘facilitate’ things. In such a context, trust seems to become ‘effective’, even in the absence of the components that make authority ‘trustworthy’. If you were still wondering, Shukla would probably tell you, reading from his book authored 50 years back – ask a ‘ganjahaa’ (a common person who resided in Shivpalganj).
Anupama Roy teaches political science in JNU and Ujjwal Kumar Singh teaches political science in Delhi University.